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Putting Wisconsin football’s 2016 season into historical context

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Comparing the Badgers’ special season to the program’s all-time greats.

81st Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic - Western Michigan v Wisconsin Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images

Ed. note: The Paul Chryst table below is updated to reflect a formatting error. Jon’s final rankings of the top 10 Wisconsin football seasons are now just listed in bulleted form to avoid any confusion that resulted from the previous formatting.

Well, that was fun.

The 2016 season defied all expectations. In a year where Wisconsin was projected to improve on the field but not in the standings, the Badgers finished 11-3, capping it all with a cathartic 24-16 Cotton Bowl win over the No. 15 Western Michigan Broncos.

After losing superstar coordinator Dave Aranda to a $1.3M contract paid out by a bankrupt state LSU, as well as three-quarters of its starting secondary, the defense was expected to take a big step back against the eighth-toughest schedule in the country. Instead, the unit finished as the No. 4 scoring defense, No. 3 rushing defense and second in the country with 22 interceptions.

The Badgers won games against three top-10 opponents (LSU, Michigan State and Nebraska), kept the Axe for the 13th consecutive year and won the Big Ten West. A young quarterback got some run and a senior signal-caller capped his career in storybook fashion. A young offensive line grew in fits and starts, a couple of senior backs finished their careers strong. My favorite stat of the year: the Badgers only managed 48 penalties in 14 games, fourth-best in the country.

It wasn’t all good, of course. There were agonizingly close losses to then-No. 4 Michigan and then-No. 2 Ohio State. There was the devastating aerial bombardment suffered at the hands of Penn State in the second half of the Big Ten title game.

On balance, though, this was a special team. Examining the year in context, it may actually be more special than we think. Let’s take a look at how 2016 fits historically.

The Barry Alvarez Era

Don Barry is the #GOAT. Three Rose Bowl wins capping three Big Ten titles gets you that belt. Assuming, arguendo, that 1993, 1998 and 1999 are the best seasons in Badgers history, where does that leave the rest?

(Spoiler alert—Alvarez owned UCLA.)

Barry Alvarez at Wisconsin

Year W L T AP Pre AP High AP Post Bowl Notes
Year W L T AP Pre AP High AP Post Bowl Notes
2005 10 3 0 14 15 Capital One Bowl-W Capital One Bowl win against Auburn
2004 9 3 0 21 4 17 Outback Bowl-L Outback Bowl loss against Georgia
2003 7 6 0 21 14 Music City Bowl-L Music City Bowl loss against Auburn
2002 8 6 0 25 19 Alamo Bowl-W Alamo Bowl win against Colorado
2001 5 7 0 22 22
2000 9 4 0 4 4 23 Sun Bowl-W Sun Bowl win against UCLA
1999 10 2 0 10 4 4 Rose Bowl-W Big Ten title; Rose Bowl win against Stanford; Ron Dayne wins the Heisman)
1998 11 1 0 20 6 6 Rose Bowl-W Big Ten title; Rose Bowl win against UCLA
1997 8 5 0 24 23 Outback Bowl-L Outback Bowl loss against Georgia
1996 8 5 0 Copper Bowl-W Copper Bowl win against Utah
1995 4 5 2 21 21
1994 7 4 1 10 10 Hall of Fame Bowl-W Record adjusted to 8-3-1 by NCAA; Hall of Fame Bowl win against Duke
1993 10 1 1 6 6 Rose Bowl-W (Big Ten title; Rose Bowl win against UCLA
1992 5 6 0
1991 5 6 0
1990 1 10 0
Barry Alvarez at Wisconsin sports-reference.com

The Bret Bielema Era

Arkansas fans are starting to despair of the Bret Bielema show down in Fayetteville. The complaints are familiar: front-running, second-half meltdowns, not winning big games despite talent, just plain not winning. Looking at Bielema’s tenure at Wisconsin, though, it’s easy to forget that he was quite successful with the Badgers (except in bowls, though. Bowls... well, bowls weren’t really Bret’s thing).

Bret Bielema at Wisconsin

Year W L AP Pre AP High AP Post Bowl Notes
Year W L AP Pre AP High AP Post Bowl Notes
2012 8 6 12 12 Rose Bowl-L Big Ten champion; Headed south to seek fortune and fame; Barry Alvarez coached in the Rose Bowl loss against Stanford
2011 11 3 11 4 10 Rose Bowl-L Big Ten champion; Rose Bowl loss against Oregon
2010 11 2 12 4 7 Rose Bowl-L Big Ten champion; Rose Bowl loss against TCU
2009 10 3 16 16 Champs Sports Bowl-W Champs Sports Bowl win against Miami
2008 7 6 13 8 Champs Sports Bowl-L Champs Sports Bowl loss against Florida State
2007 9 4 7 5 24 Outback Bowl-L Outback Bowl loss against Tennessee
2006 12 1 6 7 Capital One Bowl-W Capital One Bowl win against Arkansas
Bret Bielema at Wisconsin sports-reference.com

The Gary Andersen Era

Enough ink has been spilled bemoaning Andersen’s short tenure in Madison. His faults are known, even if his positive contributions to the program (the 3-4 defense, #teamspeed) are less publicized. Here is his slim Wisconsin CV:

Gary Andersen at Wisconsin

Year W L AP Pre AP High AP Post Bowl Notes
Year W L AP Pre AP High AP Post Bowl Notes
2014 11 3 14 11 13 Outback Bowl-W Big Ten West title; Blowout loss against OSU in Big Ten title game; Departed Madison under cover of night, stack of JuCo phone numbers in hand; Barry Alvarez coached in the Outback Bowl win against Auburn
2013 9 4 23 14 22 Capital One Bowl-L Capital One Bowl loss against South Carolina
Gary Andersen at Wisconsin sports-reference.com

The Paul Chryst Era

Paul Chryst at Wisconsin

Year W L AP Pre AP High AP Post Bowl Notes
Year W L AP Pre AP High AP Post Bowl Notes
2016 11 3 5 Cotton Bowl-W Big Ten West title; Loss to Penn State in Big Ten title game; Cotton Bowl win against Western Michigan
2015 10 3 20 19 21 Holiday Bowl-W Holiday Bowl win against USC
Paul Chryst at Wisconsin sports-reference.com

Comparable Years to 2016

Removing the Alvarez Rose Bowl years from consideration (in some order, they are the top three seasons in program history), here are the years that most closely compare to 2016:

Best Wisconsin Season Candidates

Year Coach W L AP Pre AP High AP Post Bowl Notes
Year Coach W L AP Pre AP High AP Post Bowl Notes
2014 Andersen 11 3 14 11 13 Outback Bowl-W Big Ten West title; Blowout loss against OSU in Big Ten title game; Departed Madison under cover of night, stack of JuCo phone numbers in hand; Barry Alvarez coached in the Outback Bowl win against Auburn
2012 Bielema 8 6 12 12 Rose Bowl-L Big Ten champion; Headed south to seek fortune and fame; Barry Alvarez coached in the Rose Bowl loss against Stanford
2011 Bielema 11 3 11 4 10 Rose Bowl-L Big Ten champion; Rose Bowl loss against Oregon
2010 Bielema 11 2 12 4 7 Rose Bowl-L Big Ten champion; Rose Bowl loss against TCU
2006 Bielema 12 1 6 7 Capital One Bowl-W Capital One Bowl win against Arkansas
2005 Alvarez 10 3 0 14 15 Capital One Bowl-W
Best Wisconsin Season Candidates sports-reference.com

Let’s look at those seasons:

2012: The 2012 Big Ten championship game may have been the most fun I have ever had watching a live sporting event. The reality, though, is that the 2012 team finished 8-6 and only played in the title game because of sanctions against Ohio State and Penn State. It also has the stink of Bielema’s sudden departure and the loss of Alvarez’s undefeated Rose Bowl record on it.

2014: There’s also a bit of an unpleasant haze around Andersen’s 11-3 season (actually, 10-3 for G.A.; win No. 11 was the bowl win that allowed Alvarez to go out a winner one last time, restoring order and harmony to the universe). The 2014 iteration was shaky all year long, starting with a high-profile loss against LSU (featuring the start of a quarterback controversy and Wisconsin squandering a 17-point, fourth-quarter lead). It ended (for Andersen, at least) with an embarrassing 59-point, blowout loss to Ohio State in the Big Ten title game.

2006: The 2006 season was fun, but the 12-1 record is a bit misleading. The Badgers did not beat a ranked team until the Capital One Bowl (the only ranked team they played in the regular season was then-No. 6 Michigan, to whom they lost 27-13 in Ann Arbor). That team finished Nos. 5 and 7 in the polls. Joe Thomas was drafted by the Cleveland Browns after the season.

2005: This season will always have a special place in my heart; it was my first year as a Badgers fan and season ticket holder. It was Alvarez’s last season; he went out on top with a shock bowl victory against an Auburn team that no one thought Wisconsin could beat. There were some great wins: the famous blocked-punt game against a then-No. 22 Minnesota to retain the Axe, an upset of then-No. 14 Michigan under the lights. Five Badgers got drafted to the NFL that spring. As non-New Year’s Six seasons go, this one’s tough to beat for excitement and catharsis.

2010: We’re starting to get into rarefied air here. Wisconsin won 11 games, including upsetting then-No. 1 Ohio State at Camp Randall Stadium and then-No. 13 Iowa at Kinnick Stadium in back-to-back weeks. The Badgers were co-Big Ten champions and came into the Rose Bowl ranked No. 4 before losing to TCU in a heartbreaker. At the time, the loss felt worse than it was, as the Horned Frogs (along with coach Gary Patterson and quarterback Andy “Red Rifle” Dalton) have gone on to sustained success. Wisconsin finished Nos. 7 and 8 that year and had five players drafted to the NFL, including first-round picks J.J. Watt and Gabe Carimi.

(Auth. Note: One day, I’m going to write the definitive alternate history in which Watt stayed for his senior season, anchoring the defense on the same team as Russell Wilson).™

2011: This is the best of the non-Rose-Bowl-win bunch. In Russell Wilson’s only year at Wisconsin, the Badgers finished 11-3 and knocked off then-No. 8 Nebraska by 31 points at Camp Randall, then-No. 20 Penn State by 38 and avenged an earlier loss to Michigan State, winning the Big Ten championship over Sparty in a thriller in Indy. The only losses came in gut-wrenching fashion as the Badgers dropped games to MSU and Ohio State on last second Hail Marys (Maries? Hails Mary?) and lost the Rose Bowl to a high-octane Oregon team in a shootout. The Badgers finished 2011 Nos. 10 and 11 in the polls. The team had six players drafted and another seven signed as undrafted free agents.

On paper, 2010 looks slightly better, but the stats do not capture just how talented that 2011 team was, how fun it was to watch and how close it came to being undefeated and playing for a national title. Wilson was a generational talent at quarterback and he was surrounded by some great offensive skill players—Montee Ball, James White, Nick Toon, Jared Abbredaris—all working behind a starting offensive line that included future NFLers Travis Frederick, Ryan Wagner, Kevin Zeitler and Peter Konz.

So how does 2016 fit into the context of all this? On the positive side, this year’s squad has a New Year’s Six victory, a Big Ten title game appearance, three top-10 wins (including a neutral-site win at Lambeau Field of all places against LSU), an Axe and a gaggle of Big Ten wins. On the negative side are the two close losses against the Wolverines and Buckeyes, and the debacle against Penn State.

Taking all this into account, here are my final rankings for the top 10 greatest seasons in (modern*) Wisconsin history:

  1. 1993 (Alvarez): 10-1-1 (Big Ten title; Rose Bowl win against UCLA; The First One)
  2. 1999 (Alvarez): 10-2 (Big Ten title; Rose Bowl win against Stanford; Ron Dayne wins Heisman)
  3. 1998 (Alvarez): 11-1 (Big Ten title; Rose Bowl win against UCLA)
  4. 2011 (Bielema): 11-3 (Big Ten champion; Rose Bowl loss to Oregon; Russell Wilson’s Wisconsin season)
  5. 2010 (Bielema): 11-2 (Big Ten champion; Rose Bowl loss to TCU)
  6. 2016 (Chryst): 11-3 (Big Ten West title; Cotton Bowl win against Western Michigan)
  7. 2012 (Bielema): 8-6 (Big Ten champion; Wisconsin 70, Nebraska 31; Rose Bowl loss against Stanford coached by Barry Alvarez)
  8. 2005 (Alvarez): 10-3 (Capital One Bowl win against Auburn; Alvarez’s last season).
  9. 2014 (Andersen): 10-4 (Big Ten West title; Melvin Gordon breaks single game rushing record; Outback Bowl coached by Barry Alvarez)
  10. 2006 (Bielema): 12-1 (Capital One Bowl win against Arkansas)

2016 was pretty great. By my count, it is the sixth-best season in program history. In the moment, I’m not sure we realized just how great it was. I look forward to what 2017 has in store. Except for Lane Kiffin. Not looking forward to that guy one bit.

*Note: IMHO, there aren’t any seasons pre-Alvarez that make the top 10. I look forward to being educated otherwise by the wizened elder Badgers out there.