MADISON, Wis. — So much about Wisconsin shouts national title contender. The Badgers are ranked fifth in the nation, and at 7-0 they are one of six remaining undefeated teams in the Power Five football conferences. They boast a freshman who is off to one of the most prolific starts for a running back in major-college history and have dominated their opponents by a total margin of 256-93.
It's those opponents, though, that turn down the volume of the hype — and, despite Wisconsin playing in the heralded Big Ten, it might stay that way until the regular season is finished.
The combined record of Wisconsin's first seven opponents — Utah State, Florida Atlantic, BYU, Northwestern, Nebraska, Purdue and Maryland — is a paltry 22-29. The Badgers' final five regular season opponents — Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan and Minnesota — have a combined winning record of 18-17, and none are ranked.
"I've always thought this: The schedule is guaranteed for the team. The helmets will play," said Wisconsin Coach Paul Chryst, whose team has started 7-0 for the first time since 2004. "Just enjoy the journey, and the moment that is this week, and at the end of the season you earn the right to do something. We've earned the right to be in a bowl game? What bowl game is it? Doesn't matter."
It does matter where Wisconsin ends up, even if Chryst won't admit it at this point in the season. His players "100 percent" understand that they're in a national championship hunt, said junior offensive lineman Michael Deiter, even though they might not be able to fully prove it against a questionable schedule.
"At the end of the year, if that's where we're at — and that's where we want to be — then we will attack it," Deiter said.
The Badgers' path to the Big Ten title game could not be more clear.
The only team that could be ranked in November is the Wolverines (5-2), who visit Madison on Nov. 18, and even in that game Wisconsin should be favored. According to ESPN's Football Power Index, which measures a team's true strength on a net points scale, Wisconsin has an 80 percent chance or better to win in each of its next five games.
After that, a win on Dec. 2 in Indianapolis — where the opponent could be No. 2 Penn State (7-0, 4-0 Big Ten), No. 6 Ohio State (6-1, 4-0) or No. 16 Michigan State (6-1, 4-0) — could be enough for the program's first berth in the College Football Playoff.
"We definitely hear that. But we know that anything can happen on any given day," said running back Jonathan Taylor, who ran for 126 yards and a touchdown in Saturday's 38-13 win over Maryland to become just the sixth player to surpass 1,000 rushing yards in his first seven career games. "We know every team is going to come in here and give us our best shot."
At this time last year, Taylor was committed to Rutgers, his home-state program, and was ranked as the 371st-best player in the country according to recruiting services. Now he looks like the next great Badgers running back, ranking third in the nation with 158.9 rushing yards per game, to go with 11 touchdowns. Even as he makes rookie mistakes, like last week when he fumbled deep inside his team's own territory in the first half, he has a defense that excels in sudden-change situations and is allowing only 265.4 yards per game, which ranks sixth nationally.
But any talk of statistics, or of Taylor as a Heisman Trophy contender, like Wisconsin's playoff résumé, goes back to the schedule.
Wisconsin didn't face a Power Five opponent in nonconference play this season; the 40-6 win at BYU, which was supposed to count as the marquee nonleague game, has lost juice with the Cougars crumbling to 1-7.
The quality of the Big Ten West is another issue. Wisconsin has a two-game lead in the division, a bulge padded by the fact that it has already beaten Northwestern and Nebraska, the closest contenders with 2-2 conference marks. None of the other six teams in the West has a better overall record than 4-3. And the Badgers' strength of schedule isn't helped much by crossover games against the Big Ten East, because Michigan is the only such opponent with a winning record. That's why judgment is largely being withheld until, and in case, the Badgers make it to Indianapolis.
"Big picture, we know obviously that we have to be playing our best ball at the end of the year," senior tight end Troy Fumagalli said.
Chryst and his players didn't have any anxiety over that at the team's facility Monday morning. Players wore sweats and laughed as they sauntered off the field after a walk-through. Taylor was alone and in a rush to get to class. Darius Rucker's "Wagon Wheel" played in the hallways outside the locker room. Nobody stopped to watch as ESPN analysts on a flat screen in the foyer barked about the day's headlines; certainly none were about the Badgers and the clear path to the College Football Playoff.
"Coach Chryst doesn't really talk to us about the College Football Playoff," Taylor said. "You can't look too far ahead, because then you lose sight of what's right in front of you."
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