Wisconsin Football Played Up To Competition?

In today’s “fun stat nerd tidbit” at Football Study Hall, Bill Connelly talks about how Florida State utterly destroyed bad teams but generally failed to show up against bad teams. Using a statistical measure called covariance, Connelly showed that the Seminoles were one of the top teams as far as beating up on patsies last season, ranking 19th out of the 120 NCAA FBS teams.

On the other end of the spectrum were the Wisconsin Badgers, ranking 106th of 120, effectively meaning they were 15th out of 120 in terms of playing up to the competition. This probably shouldn’t surprise us, as the Badgers were at their best in the second half of the season — best illustrated here — against Big Ten competition, and they played well in the Rose Bowl despite the loss.

Let’s take a look at the schedule in general and see just how the Badgers did against various types of competition.

Bad teams (91-120 in Sports-Reference/College Football’s Simple Rating System)

@ UNLV: W, 41-21
San Jose State: W, 27-14
Austin Peay*: W, 70-3

*FCS team

Below-Average Teams (61-90)

Minnesota: W, 41-23
@Purdue: W, 34-13
Indiana: W, 83-20
Northwestern: W, 70-23

Above-Average Teams (31-60)

@Michigan: W, 48-28

Good Teams (1-30)

Arizona State: W, 20-19
@Michigan State: L, 24-34
Ohio State: W, 31-18
@Iowa: W, 31-30
Texas Christian: L, 19-21

The Badgers victories over UNLV and San Jose State in particular, as well as the victory against Minnesota, both look pretty meager given the large talent separation. As Connelly notes, one game can greatly tilt these results, and I’m willing to bet only scoring 27 points at home against a poor San Jose State team tilted the Badgers’ results heavily here.

That isn’t to say the Badgers weren’t excellent against good teams, particularly in their defeat of Ohio State. The road victory against Iowa is very impressive, and although Arizona State didn’t have the best results, they were a formidable foe for many teams besides Wisconsin in 2010. The loss to Michigan State is a bit disappointing and doesn’t really support the findings, but the loss to TCU is understandable, if disappointing, given the talent the Horned Frogs put on the field.

Whether or not this is an actual characteristic of last year’s Wisconsin team or merely a byproduct of something else, such as their improvement in the second half, is hard to say. As Connelly notes, at this point this is merely a point of interest and not a statistical trend or indicator.

However, it’s always a boon to play your best games against good competition, as long as that doesn’t come at the sacrifice of an unfortunate loss against a poor team. Last year’s Wisconsin Badgers certainly showed that, and they brought their A-game against some of the countries best, particularly Ohio State and Iowa, and they were rewarded with a conference championship and a Rose Bowl berth as a result.

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