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Wisconsin football: Breaking down Big Ten tiebreakers after Week 10

Consider this post a cart that has been loaded into a semi-truck and shipped from Madison to Pasadena, while the horse still sits tied up in a stable in Antigo.

Don’t forget, dear Badger fan friends, that Wisconsin isn’t mathematically eliminated from a Big Ten title. Sure, Wisconsin “won” a “game” against a “Big Ten” team this weekend, but Iowa did Wisconsin no favors by losing to Purdue.

Big Ten divisional tiebreak rules are complex, so I will take you through the rules and what they mean for Wisconsin’s chances to get another crack at Michigan. There are hundreds of ways the season can end, so I won’t be able to cover every situation.

Before continuing, here is the current divisional race with remaining schedules:

2018 Remaining Schedules

Team Conference Record (as of 11/4/18) Divisional Record Week 11 Week 12 Week 13
Team Conference Record (as of 11/4/18) Divisional Record Week 11 Week 12 Week 13
Northwestern 5-1 3-0 @ Iowa @ Minnesota vs Illinois
Wisconsin 4-2 3-1 @ Penn State @ Purdue vs Minnesota
Purdue 4-2 3-1 @ Minnesota vs Wisconsin @ Indiana
Iowa 3-3 1-2 vs Northwestern @ Illinois vs Nebraska

For those in need of a tl;dr…

  • Best-case scenario is Wisconsin finishing one game above Northwestern. Tiebreakers would be much more favorable with Northwestern out of the picture.
  • Wisconsin’s path is almost impossible if it loses to either Purdue or Minnesota.
  • Iowa must beat Northwestern.
  • Wisconsin doesn’t want to be tied with Northwestern without also being tied with Iowa.
  • Also, being tied with Purdue and Northwestern is not favorable thanks to Purdue’s loss to Northwestern.
  • Wisconsin wants Purdue tied in fourth place with a team that beat Northwestern.
  • Finally, when looking at the tiebreakers, Wisconsin will need to stay tied with Northwestern and Iowa in as many tiebreakers as possible until it can get to a tiebreaker it wins outright.
  • Additionally, one of the tiebreakers could benefit Wisconsin only if Michigan State loses its last three games.

The Tiebreakers

Here they are from bigten.org. The rules are block-quoted and my comments on how they will impact Wisconsin are below.

(A) If two teams are tied, the winner of the game between the two tied teams shall be the representative.

Pretty simple here. If Wisconsin is in a two-way tie with Iowa, it gets in. A two-way tie with Northwestern ends it.

(B) If three or more teams are tied, steps 1 through 8 will be followed until a determination is made. If only two teams remain tied after any step (or sub-step), the winner of the game between the two tied teams shall be the representative. If three or more teams remain tied after any step, move to next step in tiebreaker with remaining tied teams.

The key thing to remember here is if Wisconsin is ever in a two-way tie with Northwestern when going through the secondary criteria, it’s over. Therefore, Wisconsin needs to share first with Iowa through all of the secondary criteria until Northwestern is eliminated. However, note that if four teams are whittled down to three, they do not start over!

(B.1) The records of the three tied teams will be compared against each other.

This is essentially a round-robin tournament.

In a three-way tie, if one team beats the other two, it’s over. That means if Northwestern is in a three-way tie with Wisconsin and Purdue, NU will advance because it holds a 2–0 record over them.

I suppose it’s possible for UW to be in a three-way tie with Purdue and Iowa, and that would benefit UW as long as Bucky beats Purdue.

A four-way tie with UW/NU/Purdue/Iowa is never OK because it is not possible for three of these four teams to hold 2–1 records in the round-robin. Since NU cannot do worse than 2–1 in this four-team round-robin, they would revert to head-to-head, ending Wisconsin’s chances.

However, a three-way tie between UW/NU/Iowa would be beneficial for Wisconsin as long as Iowa beats Northwestern. That would result in the teams moving to the next tiebreaker.

(B.2) The records of the three tied teams will be compared within their division.

This one is worded awkwardly, but it’s essentially asking, “Who has the best record in the division?” As it stands today, Iowa holds two divisional losses, Wisconsin and Purdue have one, and Northwestern has yet to lose in division.

If Wisconsin has survived this far in the tiebreaks, we know that Iowa beat Northwestern, and Purdue is out of the picture. This is why Iowa’s loss to Purdue is so important, as Wisconsin needs to string Iowa along in the tiebreakers process.

We also know that, since Iowa is tied with Northwestern, NU has lost two divisional games. Therefore, if Wisconsin makes it to this point in the tiebreakers and has beaten both Purdue and Minnesota, UW wins the division because it has only one divisional loss.

(B.3) The records of the three teams will be compared against the next highest placed teams in their division in order of finish (4, 5, 6, and 7).
(B.3.a) When arriving at a group of tied teams while comparing records, use each team’s record against the collective tied teams as a group, rather than record against the individual teams.

In other words, compare the three teams’ records against the fourth-best team in the West or the teams that are tied for fourth. Then move down the list repeating.

As far as I can tell, the only way Wisconsin makes it this far in the tiebreakers is if it beats Purdue and Penn State but loses to Minnesota, and is still tied with Iowa and NU.

In that case, if Purdue is alone in fourth place in the conference, Northwestern represents the West in Indy.

However, it is possible that there is a tie for fourth place between several teams, in which case Wisconsin needs Northwestern to have lost to one of those teams tied with Purdue to advance to the next tiebreaker.

(B.4) The records of the three teams will be compared against all common conference opponents.

If by some miracle UW/NU/Iowa make it this far in the tiebreakers, they automatically move to the next tiebreaker. By definition, they have the same divisional records and they do not share any common non-divisional opponents.

(B.5) The best cumulative conference winning percentage of non-divisional opponents.
(B.5.a) Example: East 1 non-divisional opponents are 20-7, East 2 non-divisional opponents are 19-8, East 3 non-divisional opponents are 14-13 – East 1 would be the representative.

Basically add up the non-divisional opponent records to find who played the most successful non-divisional opponents.

It’s disastrous for Wisconsin if this tiebreaker decides the West.

Here is where things stand so far. This tiebreaker will only be used between UW/NU/Iowa, so let’s look at how their East opponents have done:

2018 East Opponent Comparison

Team East Opponents East Opponent Wins East Opponent Losses Cumulative East Opponent Winning Percentage
Team East Opponents East Opponent Wins East Opponent Losses Cumulative East Opponent Winning Percentage
Northwestern Michigan / Rutgers / Michigan State 10 8 55.56%
Wisconsin Michigan / Rutgers / Penn State 9 9 50.00%
Iowa Maryland / Indiana / Penn State 7 11 38.89%

Remember that by this point in the tiebreakers, Wisconsin has probably beaten Penn State (see B.2), which means that Penn State’s record is one game worse. Also, it is unlikely that Iowa’s East opponents will be able to keep up with Northwestern’s East opponents. Therefore, Wisconsin’s East opponents must have a better record than Northwestern’s East opponents.

This brings us to a bummer: Wisconsin only has one different East opponent from Northwestern. Therefore, in order for Wisconsin to win this tiebreaker, Penn State (who we assumed lost to Wisconsin) must win its last two games and Michigan State must lose out. That includes Michigan State losing to Rutgers. Otherwise, Northwestern will represent the West.

(B.6) The records of the three teams will be compared against the highest placed non-divisional teams in their division order of finish (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 and 7).
(B.6.a) When arriving at a group of tied teams while comparing records, use each team’s record against the collective tied teams as a group, rather than record against the individual teams.
(B.6.b) When comparing records against a single team or a group of teams, the record will prevail, even if the number of games played against the team or group are unequal (i.e. 1-0 is better than 0-0, 2-0 is better than 1-0, etc.)

Wisconsin won’t make it this far in the tiebreaker unless I’m missing something. This is similar to B.3 but much more interesting. Basically, you want your non-divisional wins to be against teams that finished high in the other division.

(B.7) The team with the best overall winning percentage [excluding exempted games] shall be the representative.

I don’t know what an exempted game is, and it’s not defined on the Big Ten website. I Googled it for 20 seconds and couldn’t figure it out. I think anyone who develops a seventh tiebreaker hopes it is never used.

(B.8) The representative will be chosen by random draw.

Oh, the horror! But I do want to see this happen someday because, as Michael Caine said in The Dark Knight, “Some men just want to watch the world burn.” Think about how mad people will be!

In conclusion, can Wisconsin make it to Indy?

Yes!

Will Wisconsin make it to Indy in 2018?

No.

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