As hard as the University of Wisconsin football team has been to watch at times this season, it does have at least one admirer.
Not a human admirer, but an admirer nonetheless.
The Badgers are No. 7 in this week’s ESPN’s SP+ rankings. That’s No. 7 in the nation, not No. 7 in the Big Ten, and I’ll pause here to let you collect yourself.
Done laughing? OK, let’s keep going.
Since it’s hard to have a good dialogue with a computer, I instead reached out to the man who plugs the numbers into a system that has a higher opinion of the Badgers than even they do.
ESPN writer Bill Connelly is a smart (and friendly) man. Connelly describes himself as a “professional nerd” on his Twitter profile, and he’s highly respected in the college football and analytics worlds.
The point here isn’t to make fun of Connelly and his SP+ rankings. I wanted to talk to Connelly to find out if there was something I was missing — how can a team that doesn’t pass the eye test be this high in his rankings? — and maybe even see if he could provide hope for the second half of the Badgers’ season.
Let’s begin with what the SP+ rankings are and what they aren’t. The system, in Connelly’s own words, is “a tempo- and opponent-adjusted measure of college football efficiency” and “is intended to be predictive and forward-facing.” It’s not, in any way, a ranking of resumes.
To boot: UW is one spot ahead of Michigan, which defeated the Badgers 38-17 on Oct. 2. Unbeaten Oklahoma and Cincinnati also are trailing UW in the SP+ rankings.
That UW remained at No. 7 this week despite its unimpressive 20-14 home win over Army surprised even the creator of the system.
Connelly said he thought “this is the week surely they’re going to drop enough for me to get yelled at less, and (yet) they’re right there at seventh and they don’t move. That’s a little frustrating, but I at least know why. I understand my system well enough to know what it sees in Wisconsin even if I don’t necessarily agree with it.”
So what exactly does the SP+ see in the Badgers?
To some degree, it still sees previous UW teams. Connelly said preseason projections account for half of a team’s ranking at this point of the season and that figure will drop to 15 to 20% by the end of the season. The limited number of games in college football tests the accuracy of a predictive system such as SP+, so Connelly said “leaning on those prior numbers gives us a fuller picture of each team” while also admitting past success has kept UW and Clemson (No. 4 despite being 4-2) in the top 10 of his system.
SP+ also sees a really strong UW defense that is No. 2 in the nation, trailing only Georgia.
UW is No. 55 in offense in the SP+, which seemed high until Connelly reminded me that efficiency matters the most in his system. UW is 105th nationally in explosive-play rate, 110th in points per drive and 87th in yards per drive, but it’s 50th in success rate, which measures how efficient it is on a play-by-play basis.
Here’s how Connelly measures if a play is successful: if an offense gains at least 50% of the required yardage necessary to move the chains on first down; 70% on second down; and 100% on third and fourth downs. UW’s offense, for the most part, has done an OK job staying on schedule but has shot itself in the foot with turnovers and is forced to grind out long drives because of a lack of big-play ability.
Breaking it down even further, UW is 29th nationally in rushing success rate, 95th in passing success rate, 37th on what Connelly calls “standard downs” — first down, second-and-7 or less and third-and-4 or less — and 80th on “passing downs.”
“They’re not terrible in that one (efficiency category) and pretty terrible in everything else,” Connelly said. “Without preseason numbers, they would be lower than 55th, but they do at least get that one thing right.”
All of this begs the question: If Connelly’s system is designed to be predictive, does it predict good things for the Badgers the rest of the way?
The answer is yes, with an asterisk attached to it. SP+ has UW (3-3, 1-2 Big Ten) favored to win each of its remaining games, starting Saturday when it takes on Purdue (4-2, 2-1) at Ross-Ade Stadium in West Lafayette, Indiana.
Of course, the Badgers have been favored in every game to this point by both SP+ and Las Vegas and sits at .500 at the midway point of the season.
One thing Connelly monitors is projected turnover margin, and he said UW should be at minus-2 in that category right now. Its actual turnover margin: minus-10, which ranks dead last of 130 teams nationally.
As good as the Badgers’ defense has been, it has only two interceptions compared to 25 pass breakups. That’s a huge disparity that’s an indicator that UW hasn’t done a good enough job cashing in on turnover opportunities.
On the flip side, UW’s opponents have nine interceptions and 14 pass breakups.
Connelly calls UW both “glitchy and unlucky” and while it probably is who it is in the former category, perhaps the latter category will even out for the Badgers.
“So there is hope,” he said. “It’s just until you see them not turn the ball over as much and stop throwing interceptions, it’s hard to completely believe that.”
Angry fans fill up Connelly’s Twitter timeline each week and UW’s spot in the SP+ rankings has been one of the biggest talking points.
“It’s less now that Iowa lost because that was a big one of Iowa being behind Wisconsin. ‘How dare you?’ That kind of stuff,” Connelly said. “That at least looks better. It’ll look even better if Wisconsin actually beats Purdue this week. I’d appreciate that.”
SP+ says the Badgers have a 51% chance of going 8-4 or better. UW likely needs to run the table to win the West Division and there’s a 16% chance of that happening, according to Connelly’s system.
In other words, not very likely. But you didn’t need a computer to tell you that.
Badgers fans on Twitter see some signs of life after Wisconsin takes down Army — but not everyone's sold
High hopes crushed again
Every time I watch Mertz I think it’s going to be the game he turns it around and shows something and every game it’s more underwhelming play. I really don’t know how anything we see from this passing game puts us in position to beat Purdue and Iowa coming up— Andrew Zimdars (@andrew_zimdars) October 17, 2021
Room for debate
Won’t matter with this QB— Fred Ehle (@FredEhle) October 17, 2021
Holding out hope
Wisconsin’s defense got the job done. Their offense did just enough to win. Graham Mertz is still a work in progress, and I’m not optimistic that he can lead the team to a win at Purdue or Iowa at home in the next two weeks.— Jeff Ostach (@jeff_ostach) October 17, 2021
Nothing new to see here
Other than Braelon Allen's emergence, this is the same team we have seen all season. Offense cannot impose its will on teams and they eventually hang the defense out to dry.— Craig Smith (@smithcp1) October 17, 2021
Dinner and a (boring) show
Just got back to hotel after being at that game. I was as bored as my wife was watching that one. The best part was the brats and Mac n cheese from the concessions.— Eric M. Tostrud (@EricTostrud) October 17, 2021
Working with what they've got
Russ, you are right but, unfortunately, the playbook is limited with the talent they have.— Jon Ahlgrim (@JonAhlgrim) October 17, 2021
Stuck on cruise control
It reminded me of watching Packers games in the 70s.— Howie (@WhoIsRoark) October 17, 2021
I’m starting to think the whole Athletic Department is living off the heydays of when Barry had it humming along.
Any week now!
Every week I hope they show some progress and get better but it hasn’t happened. Outgained 218-80 in the second half. Tough to win with that formula when Mertz averages 2.5 TO’s per game.— Chad Steinmetz (@CSteiny24) October 17, 2021
Running at full power
Let's go!! I'm pumped about beating a pretty tough Army team. Love our new RB combo! Mertz umm— BigCat5969 (@TylerBouressa) October 17, 2021
Bowl a bit out of reach?
God bless your optimism. I am struggling to see what three teams this Badger team can beat to become bowl eligible? The die is cast. A down o line, unimaginative offense with a struggling QB, a defensive backfield that can’t cover and shambolic special teams. #ouch— Patrick Brzezinski (@glenlivit_guy) October 17, 2021
Take what you get
Enjoy it. Won’t be surprised if this team does not win another game this season sadly.— Michael Burger (@Burgscom) October 17, 2021
Prepping for a Boilermaker beatdown
Purdue will roll this team next week— Will Clausen (@willclausen2) October 17, 2021
Not getting any easier
Probably their last win of the season.— Mr. Joshua (@quinntile76) October 17, 2021
Good enough ... for now
Mertz and the offense weak again but the Badger D was good enough. This won't work with the better teams they play.— John Husmoe (@JohnHusmoe) October 17, 2021
We've seen worse
Making a point
This is THE question that needs to be asked. Is Chryst just not thinking at all in that situation???— Dan (@drkoz23) October 17, 2021
Their offense had the ball the bulk of it— Mark Benson (@MarkBen23939436) October 17, 2021
Buck stops here
He is the guy recruiting them.— rich carlson (@richwcarlson) October 17, 2021
In the driver's seat
Control our destiny in the West! Tons to play for.— Douglas Greenberg (@DougGreenB) October 17, 2021
Well, it really did
I thought the volleyball team played great today— Pat Richards (@pgrichards0407) October 17, 2021
Standing their ground
We went toe to toe with the best military in the country! On Wisconsin!— Dan Paulson (@kuatolives11) October 17, 2021
At least the defense is strong
Offense is terrible. Mertz looks lost. Defense is pretty good. Boring all around. That's all.— Troy (@troy_angus) October 17, 2021
It couldn't hurt
Will need to play much better to have a chance next week. Passing game will be needed.— Erik Grinde (@egrinde) October 17, 2021
Never count out a gladiator
Not great, but I will tell you this: His name is Braelon Allen, football player for the Wisconsim, alumnus of Fon du Lac, loyal Badger. 17-year-old Freshman, converted defensive player. And he will have his starring role as lead RB, in this season or the next.— Rob Vitense (@BadgerCubinMN) October 17, 2021
On to the next
Relieved and glad this game is out of the way.— Kurt Sagendorph (@ksagendo) October 17, 2021
Contact Jim Polzin at firstname.lastname@example.org.