- Adam Rittenberg, ESPN Staff Writer
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Melvin Gordon passed up the NFL draft, where he likely would have been the first running back selected, in order to lead Wisconsin to the first College Football Playoff.
It's an admirable pursuit and one that endears Gordon to Badgers fans even more than his electrifying runs. But is Wisconsin really a playoff candidate? Not now. Honestly, the Badgers aren't that close at this point.
The playoff candidate lists are coming out seemingly every day, and most of them include Wisconsin. Fox's list of 20 playoff contenders includes Wisconsin at No. 8. The Badgers also appear in ESPN.com's list of 16 playoff contenders. Wisconsin makes the preseason top 15 for all five of these publications.
Am I missing something? Wisconsin returns just nine starters from the 2013 team, which went 9-4. Only Utah State -- ironically, Badgers coach Gary Andersen's former squad -- returns fewer starters than the Badgers. Wisconsin has quarterback issues, wide receiver issues and defensive star-power issues. It spent the spring practicing with four or five healthy wideouts and shifting around almost every player on defense. Its only experienced quarterback, Joel Stave, is battling a throwing shoulder injury and coming off a shaky season. Its potential starting signal-caller, Tanner McEvoy, played safety and wide receiver for the team last season. Its potential defensive leader, linebacker Derek Landisch, has three career starts.
What exactly about this team screams playoff contender or preseason top 15? It's easy to buy into Gordon, a bona fide national star after rushing for 1,609 yards on only 206 carries in 2013. His backup, Corey Clement, is pretty darn good, too. And the offensive line could resemble the dominant units Wisconsin is known for, although the group also dealt with injuries this spring.
History also helps Wisconsin and shouldn't be dismissed. This has been one of the more consistent programs in the country, averaging 9.6 wins per season during the past decade. It's a pretty good bet that in most seasons Wisconsin will be, well, pretty good.
And then there's the schedule, the single biggest reason fueling the Wisconsin playoff hype (either that, or folks simply aren't doing their homework on the roster). After the big-event opener against LSU in Houston, the Badgers face the following teams: Western Illinois, Bowling Green, South Florida, Northwestern, Illinois, Maryland, Rutgers and Purdue. All should be wins (Northwestern might be tricky, as Wisconsin hasn't won at Ryan Field since 1999). Wisconsin finishes with Nebraska (home), Iowa (road) and Minnesota (home), but doesn't play any of the big four in the East Division -- Michigan State, Ohio State, Michigan and Penn State.
Everyone agrees it's an extremely favorable slate. Here's the thing: Wisconsin has had good running backs before. It has received some breaks in the schedule. And it never finished in the top four of the final BCS standings, despite teams that entered the season with far more answers than this one.
Could the Badgers make the field of four? If they upset LSU in the opener, it's certainly possible. But people shouldn't discount who this team has lost: five NFL draft picks -- linebacker Chris Borland, wide receiver Jared Abbrederis, running back James White, safety Dezmen Southward and defensive tackle Beau Allen -- along with key complementary pieces such as tight end Jacob Pedersen, offensive lineman Ryan Groy and defensive end Brendan Kelly.
I really like Andersen. I like his staff, too, especially defensive coordinator Dave Aranda. But they have a ton of work to do and questions to answer before the opener Aug. 30 in Houston.
As I've written before, this feels more like their first season in Madison than their second. Wisconsin could evolve into a playoff contender. It is not one at this point.
1dDan Murphy and Mitch Sherman
1dSharon Katz, ESPN Stats & Information
2dMitch Sherman and Dan Murphy