With the sporting world’s longest offseason finally over, what is your confidence level with the 2016 version of Wisconsin Badgers football? Do you look at that schedule and wince? Do you look at the rest of the Big Ten West and smile? Or do you entertain the notion that this Badger team might be the best team in the West and yet wind up being out of the division race by November?
The talent on the field makes this team interesting for sure. The offense will be led by someone other than Joel Stave for the first time in years (by this guy, no less) and the defense, although it lost last year’s best player and 75% of its starting secondary, still returns plenty of punch from the one that led the entire in country in points per game in 2015. With characters like Vince Biegel and Jack Cichy throwing opposing quarterbacks around, it’s not likely to be boring when the Badgers don’t have the ball.
In his second year, Paul Chryst can really start getting back to the basics of Wisconsin and Big Ten football: solid along the lines, physical team defense and running the ball. Does his team have looming unknowns in those areas? Sure: a first-year starter at quarterback (who’s a fifth-year senior), a still-unsettled and inexperienced offensive line, a new defensive coordinator and a monster running back coming off one of the most ill-starred seasons any player can have. Still, there are signs of improvement over 2015, when this team finished with a not-shabby-at-all 10-3 record.
A full return to “Wisconsin” football is interesting, too. If these players come to excel at these program hallmarks, few fans will fail to be riveted. Throw in some big plays in the passing game and a few game-changing turnovers (an emphasis in 2016), and you could have something downright exciting.
But that damn schedule is still there. The Badgers will find out just how much progress they’ve made after playing five top 20-ranked teams (three in the top seven) in their first seven games. Still, there’s no reason to fret, really. Every single one of those five games is a marquee opportunity worthy of national attention, and UW has a chance to spoil each of their opponents’ lofty dreams. Those teams have all the pressure each time out; the Badgers have virtually none. That’s not just interesting; it’s liberating.
The schedule after Iowa doesn’t really let up, though. There’s home against Nebraska and then a shot at vindication in Evanston, a place the Badgers haven’t left with a win since 1999. But what if UW finishes this stretch 6-3? The West won’t likely be out of reach with games left against Illinois, at Purdue and against Minnesota, with a 12-game winning streak, and maybe the West title, on the line.
It’s also entirely within reason the Axe game turns out to be a fight just for bowl eligibility. If that’s true, and the Axe does finally go back to Minneapolis, “interesting” probably wouldn’t be the best word for the 2016 season. It doesn’t seem that likely here in August, but with major unknowns on the field (including an injured middle linebacker who led the team in tackles last year) and the brutal front of the schedule, that’s the kind of risk this team is running this season.
Even if he was aided by the down periods of Miami and Virginia Tech at Pitt, Chryst was no stranger to schedules featuring multiple marquee opponents. Before the Big Ten was split into divisions, and especially in the 1990s and early 2000s, the Badgers would often play multiple highly-ranked teams in tightly packed stretches. The barrage at the beginning of this season may be novel, but getting through it having won more than you lost is what’s required to be elite—just look at what Mississippi and Baylor have done recently. Look at what any team in the SEC West (excluding Alabama and LSU) has to do every year.
Starting with LSU this Saturday, wherein Wisconsin is a 10-point underdog almost unanimously picked to lose, the Badgers’ march to respect begins. Will they be blown out by the No. 5 Tigers? It seems doubtful, but if anything, Bart Houston, Corey Clement, a couple linebackers and maybe a true freshman have should make sure it won’t be boring.
And what if they win at Lambeau Field? Entire vistas are suddenly wide open. The schedule doesn’t look nearly as daunting as once did. Maybe it’s Wisconsin that gets to Indianapolis and beyond. The possibilities are endless.
In 2016, Wisconsin could win the West or it might not make it to six wins. There’s many more picking the latter than the former, which is virtually basically none. Iowa is essentially a shoe-in to repeat as the West champ, and it’s generally only Nebraska, Minnesota, or Northwestern given a chance to dethrone Iowa.
But in the immortal words of one Lou Brown, it sure would be dang interesting if the Badgers “waste[d] sportswriters’ time ... hung around ... [gave] them a nice, big cheeseburger to eat.” (Italics added to protect the youth).