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Why under-the-radar Wisconsin is sitting pretty in year one of the College Football Playoff

Dan Wetzel
Yahoo Sports
Wisconsin v Illinois

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CHAMPAIGN, IL - OCTOBER 19: Head coach Gary Anderson of the Wisconsin Badgers congratulates Melvin Gordon #25 of the Wisconsin Badgers after a touchdown against the Illinois Fighting Illini at Memorial Stadium on October 19, 2013 in Champaign, Illinois. Wisconsin defeated Illinois 56-32. (Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images)

This is the first weekend of a new era for college football – the playoff era.

The dynamics of how a championship is chased have changed and no one, not even the 13-person selection committee that will pick and seed the field in early December, can accurately predict exactly how the process will play out.

There are various messages about the process, an abundance of politically minded people on the committee (opposed to stat- or math-based) and the promise of a troublesome weekly pool. While there is a vague promise to honor "strength of schedule," what that means in practicality remains to be seen.

It's a major upgrade for the sport, but trying to figure out how this season might unravel is a crapshoot.

Except one truism will likely remain: the importance of schedule is huge.

So, it seems obvious that no matter the lack of preseason hype, No. 14 Wisconsin is a real contender to reach the playoff and not just because coach Gary Andersen has a potentially excellent team on his hands.

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Expectations are high for Heisman-candidate RB Melvin Gordon this season. (NFP)

Expectations are high for Heisman-candidate RB Melvin Gordon this season. (NFP)

He's also staring at a near ideal slate of games for qualification, starting with a monster this Saturday against No. 13 LSU in Houston.

Andersen noted this week that playing the Tigers is a chance for his school to gain national television exposure, for his players to compete against a SEC opponent and for his coaches to gain recruiting traction in talent-rich Texas.

"All that stuff is great for the football program," Andersen said.

It also might springboard a race to one of the four playoff spots.

Beat LSU and Wisconsin will likely be favored in every game the rest of the regular season.

Thanks to the Big Ten expansion that appeared to be based on adding cable subscribers and uninspiring games, Wisconsin now anchors the weaker West Division (no Ohio State, Michigan State or Michigan). Due to the randomness of crossover opponents, the two it faces are newcomers Maryland and Rutgers.

The result is a post-LSU run that features: Western Illinois, Bowling Green, South Florida, Northwestern, Illinois, Maryland, Rutgers and Purdue. Only Northwestern, Rutgers and Purdue are on the road. If they win Saturday, the Badgers would be strong favorites to be 9-0 by mid-November.

They then host Nebraska (the only other currently ranked opponent on the schedule) before traveling to Iowa, which might be the most challenging date after the opener. The season concludes with Minnesota at home.

With the playoff now featuring four teams rather than two, an unbeaten Big Ten champ would almost assuredly be placed in the field. Under the BCS, with just two teams, that might not have been enough.

Winning every game isn't easy, but there may not be a better path to a perfect regular season among the legitimate contenders. Obviously the champ of the East would await in the Big Ten title game, but to get there with the highest stakes on the line is doable.

Of course, it isn't easy beating LSU – even this LSU club that not even folks in Baton Rouge are going to claim appears to be one of Les Miles' stronger groups.

The Tigers are on a 45-game regular season non-conference winning streak, a run that predates Miles' nine seasons. Overall, counting bowl games, he's 41-2 against non-SEC opponents, a record that includes 12 victories over top-25 opponents.

It's one reason Andersen's club is way under the national radar in terms of media hype. Vegas has them as about a five-point underdog and most figure LSU will triumph again – Wisconsin is 0-3 against SEC teams of late and the Big Ten has a recent history of bombing out in these neutral-site showdown games.

The Badgers are good though. Melvin Gordon and Corey Clement are about as fine of a backfield as you'll find and will continue the Badger tradition of churning up rushing yards. The defense is stout and will be a challenge to score on. Andersen, who arrived last year from Utah State, brings some new wrinkles.

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The Badgers face a difficult test in Les Miles and the LSU Tigers. (AP)

The Badgers face a difficult test in Les Miles and the LSU Tigers. (AP)

A victory would deliver a heaping of respect and a quality win over the SEC. It could boost the credibility of the entire Big Ten.

It's why, in a crowded opening weekend of intriguing games, this may be the one with the biggest national impact.

For a Badger program that has long been considered good, but rarely truly great, here's the big, big step toward a season that could change that narrative. That's the power reaching the playoff will command, even if Andersen, understandably, is trying to stay in the moment.

"I think we get a real good idea of how we stack up against one of the best programs in the country year-in and year-out," Andersen said Monday. "That's exactly where LSU sits, and the respect we have for them is very, very high.

"It shouldn't matter who we're playing," he continued. "But we know, if you're able to get a victory against LSU, you're clearly getting a victory against one of the best teams in college football year-in and year-out."

Beat them and just like that, Wisconsin is very much in the playoff mix, the new system off to a quick start.

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