Prior to the 2008 season, head coach Bret Bielema forcibly wedged a bye week between the Badgers' non-conference schedule and the start of Big Ten play. He did this by opting out of a home game against Virginia Tech and leaving the date open. It turned out to be the worst possible time to sit a Saturday out. The Badgers had gotten off to a 3-0 start amidst lofty expectations and were coming off an impressive victory at Fresno State. The team had momentum and a home game against an ACC team would have been just what the doctor ordered.
Wisconsin would have had a great chance at beating Virginia Tech at Camp Randall Stadium, where the Badgers were undefeated under Bielema to that point. A win would have made the team 4-0 with a relatively impressive strength of schedule and propelled Wisconsin into a tough early stretch in the Big Ten with justifiable confidence. A loss or even a close victory would have given the coaching staff an important indication of the team's strengths and weaknesses heading into conference play. I won't even attempt to go into the positive impact of playing such a game on recruiting. We all know how the Badgers followed their open date, dropping their first four and five of their first six Big Ten games, leaving plenty of room for 'what ifs' regarding the timing of the bye week.
This year, the situation is reversed. The injuries are mounting, the recent losses are stinging and the Badgers are reeling. Unlike last season, Wisconsin's bye week seems to be coming at exactly the right time. The Badgers are coming off consecutive losses to arguably the two toughest teams on their schedule. Injuries are beginning to creep up, as they often do at this time of year. John Clay and Garrett Graham, the two most important players on the Wisconsin offense, are banged up, and the Badgers recently lost their leading tackler on defense for the season. As starters heal and backups begin to assume key roles, an extra week of preparation for the final five games is certainly welcome.
From a morale standpoint, this is the perfect time for Wisconsin to right the proverbial ship. After a 5-0 start, the Badgers fell into bad habits that resulted in two very disappointing losses. The coaches will, no doubt, use the extra week to try and get back to doing what the team did so well during the first five games but got away from in the last two. The extra week is also a chance for the team to put things in perspective. It is an opportunity to calmly correct errors and break the losing streak without the pressure of preparing for an opponent this Saturday. It is a time to watch future opponents play their games.
Most importantly, it is a chance for the Badgers to remind themselves that there is still a lot to play for this season, something that often gets lost in the nationwide fixation on the national championship. The Big Ten season is less than half over and already there is only one remaining undefeated team (Iowa) and only three teams with one conference loss (Ohio State, Penn State and Michigan State). Because so many of these teams play each other, there are very likely scenarios in which multiple Big Ten champions will be crowned with two losses.
Despite their recent downturn, the Badgers should still be favored in every one of their remaining games. Arguably their two toughest remaining opponents, Purdue and Michigan, come to Camp Randall Stadium, where they have not been successful lately. A shared Big Ten title is not out of the question. And, with the college football landscape so unpredictable nationally, and Wisconsin ranked 21st in the first BCS standings despite two losses, a berth in a BCS bowl game is not inconceivable. The Badgers simply must go back to their proven formula for winning football games and take care of business one opponent at a time to finish a very respectable 10-2 and play on New Year's Day - even if it's without any hardware.