Wisconsin's 2015 season, starting as it did with the mighty Alabama Crimson Tide, seems tailor-made for the non-conference "respite" in which the Badgers presently find themselves. Rather, that they did, in fact, make for themselves. Perhaps when Miami (Ohio) and Troy were scheduled, they were on the upswing, but they are not now, and it's probably just what the doctor ordered for Paul Chryst's first Wisconsin team.
Not that last week's tilt was set back then, but there was a time when Miami was in the upper tier of the Mid-American Conference as the so-called Cradle of Coaches. During the last 10 seasons, however, the RedHawks have achieved just two seasons above .500, including the unlikely title run under Mike Haywood in 2010. Troy, once a mid-major darling that made five bowls in seven seasons (2004-2010), entered 2015 under a rookie head coach who took over a post held by the same man since 1991 (who has his name on Troy's home field). There's no reason Neal Brown, the youngest coach in FBS not named P.J. Fleck, won't succeed in the Sun Belt. But it's the Sun Belt and it's not likely to be this year.
Thus, as it was against Miami, it will be difficult against Troy to get an accurate gauge on the 2015 Badgers, especially after they opened against the clearly superior Tide. Alabama showed how far Wisconsin needs to go, but Miami did, and Troy will, show how different an upper-division Big Ten team is from a non-competitive Group of 5 team. Both games give the injured (Corey Clement, Michel Caputo, Troy Fumagalli, etc.) time to heal and allow the staff to develop depth and tinker with players and concepts in a relatively low-risk environment. The right side of the offensive line and the multiplicity of Tanner McEvoy are first and second of course, but the way Darius Hillary was used on occasion in the slot against Miami is intriguing (comments are expected on the comparison, but the concepts are similar and Aranda is clearly pushing Hillary higher).
Hawaii is something of an anomaly, especially with the game being played in Madison. The Rainbow Warriors, though, can play defense, even if they're offensively limited. Wisconsin's offense, the line in particular, will have one last tune-up before conference play begins, and should be well-served by a playing a defense that's likely to give it more of a challenge than those of several of its October and November opponents.
Beginning next year, however, the Big Ten schedule moves to nine games, which reduces non-conference chances to three. Wisconsin has, at least in 2016, responded to the pressure created by the College Football Playoff by scheduling a "real" team -- LSU again, this time at Lambeau Field -- before conference play begins. Their other two non-cons next season are Akron and Georgia State, both of course at home. Akron is likely to remain middle-of-the-pack MAC and Georgia State is still finding its way in FBS; both still fit the mold of Miami and Troy, but they are all there is before the newly expanded conference slate opens.
Moving into 2017, there's no perennial SEC power, but again there's just three non-conference games, one of which is the road portion of the BYU series in game three. Utah State to open should still be much more challenging than Miami, Troy, Akron or Georgia State and by that time, the same may be said for Florida Atlantic, the second of the three non-conference games. In 2018, BYU returns to Camp Randall in game three, preceded by New Mexico; the opener remains TBD, but it could very well be a Power 5 top dog (although probably not from the Pac 12).
The point is that the extended break the Badgers are cruising through this September is something of a last hurrah for this sort of thing, for better or worse. The 2016 schedule is a good transition, given that LSU is sure to be another slobberknocker and Akron and Georgia State should be "get well" games. The team will have a chance, even if it's a bit smaller one, to catch its breath before moving into a Big Ten schedule that (finally) includes Michigan, Michigan State, and Ohio State.
But after that, things will be different. The conference is probably right to adopt a uniform, and more challenging, scheduling model, and all of Wisconsin's peers will have to adapt similarly. Wisconsin fans, in particular, will be much less likely to bemoan the "cupcake" non-conferences schedules of the last 10 years, and should enjoy having marquee conference opponents back on the schedule.
Games like last Saturday's (i.e., 58-0 romps) and probably this Saturday's (Wisconsin is favored by five touchdowns again) will be less frequent, although this should apply equally across the FBS. Players and coaches will have less time to prepare, heal and tinker -- there will be a premium placed on the ability to adapt, produce and win on a tightened timeline. Efficiency and effective brevity will be the new coins of the realm.
No one knows for sure yet how the games against Troy and Hawaii will play out, but expecting a rout in each one is not unreasonable (perhaps less so versus Hawaii, even if they'll be returning to the mainland after being in Columbus, Ohio last weekend). These games, along with Miami, should adequately prepare the Badgers for Iowa and Nebraska, certainly two of the tougher games on the conference schedule. The operative word there being "should."
Starting next season, there will be one less game opportunity to ponder the question of "should," and the "should" will look forward to a much more difficult conference slate. But such is the uncertain nature of change, heightened in college football, where the roster of players is never that static, either.
Will Chryst and his Wisconsin program be better at adapting than their peers? Now there's a question to ponder in the future.