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The Best Seasons in Wisconsin Football History, Part 1: Objective Measures

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The season that saved Wisconsin football is not the one you think.

Iowa v Wisconsin Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images

What does it mean to be the best? I like to take concrete approaches to rather subjective ideas. What does the word “best” mean, and who makes that definition? What is an appropriate tool to gauge the quality of a season? It might be total wins, it might be the quality of the team, or it might be how much fun we had watching.

Leading up to the 2018 season, we are going to take a historical look at Wisconsin’s best seasons as defined by nine different criteria. We will begin with the most objective criteria while getting progressively more subjective as we continue.

Today, we are going to look at the most objective ways to view a season: winning percentage and total wins.

Best Teams by Winning Percentage

As you might expect, if winning percentage is the only criteria used to measure the greatness of a football season, we have to go all the way back to the turn of the 20th century to find Wisconsin’s three undefeated seasons. Since all were undefeated, total wins will be the tiebreaker.

Third-best season: 1906. It was a simpler time. The mascot was an unwilling toddler. Football was viewed by some faculty and administrators as a corrupt disaster that would only harm the school’s image. Others saw it as a cash cow. Athletes were paid to play. Minnesota, Michigan, and Chicago were exposed for academic dishonesty with their athletes. Students almost burned down Wisconsin’s campus protesting the potential elimination of football while armed with shotguns and pistols. Okay, maybe it was not a simpler time after all.

Wisconsin’s third-best winning percentage of all time came in the middle of significant contention, brilliantly documented by Tim Brady’s article, “Football Fight” for OnWisconsin. In 1906, UW-Madison history professor Frederick Turner was leading a national effort to purge football from college sports. Long story short (read the article, it’s fascinating), the proposal to suspend Wisconsin football for two seasons was met with riots and arson.

A compromise was struck by university president Charles Van Hise to keep football on campus, but he shortened the season from nine games to five while purging Wisconsin’s main rivals from the schedule: Minnesota, Michigan, and Chicago. These were the same teams facing heat from the media for corruption. The result was head coach Dr. Charles P. Hutchins leading Wisconsin to a 5–0 record in the easiest schedule in program history. That is how the 1906 team backed into a spot in my rankings despite having 19 players and no All-Americans.

Second-best season: 1912. The 1912 team earned the second-best winning percentage in program history with a 7–0 record overall and a 5–0 record in conference. This is the most recent undefeated Wisconsin football team, a mere 106 years ago. Wisconsin earned an outright Western Conference title, but did not attend a bowl game as the Rose Bowl was not played between 1902 and 1916. Wisconsin was led by three All-Americans: tackle and College Football Hall of Famer Bob “Butts” Butler, end End Joseph Hoeffel, and quarterback Eddie Gillette. Who said Wisconsin can’t have All-American QB play?

Best season: 1901. The 1901 team went 9–0 overall, but only played two conference games. The team had two All-Americans (tackle Art Curtis and halfback Al “Norsky” Larson) and was led by coach Philip King. Wisconsin allowed 10 points all season while scoring 339 points. The Badgers were co-champions with Michigan, who received the bid over Wisconsin to the first bowl game of all time. Michigan went on to beat Stanford 49–0 in the 1902 “Tournament East-West Football Game.”

If that bowl game doesn’t ring a bell, it was later re-named to the “Rose Bowl” when it resumed in 1916. Yes, Wisconsin was snubbed out of a chance to win the first Rose Bowl ever, and you all should be mad about it.

Best Teams by Winning Percentage

Rank Year Record (Conference) Conference Standing (Conference) Coach Key Players
Rank Year Record (Conference) Conference Standing (Conference) Coach Key Players
1 1901 9–0 (2–0) T-1st (Western) Philip King Art Curtis (tackle) and Al "Norsky" Larson (halfback), both second-team All-Americans
2 1912 7–0 (5–0) 1st (Western) William J. Juneau Bob "Butts" Butler (tackle, HOF), Joseph Hoeffel (end), and Eddie Gillette (quarterback)
3 1906 5–0 (3–0) T-1st (Western) Dr. Charles P. Hutchins Gelbach (team captain)

Can the 2018 Badgers rank in the Winning Percentage category?

This 2018 team is definitely better than the teams at the turn of the 20th century. Those teams had rosters of well under 30 players, and many of those players’ names and stories are lost to time. However, for this team to rank up there, it is going to take a 15-game winning streak and a national title to get that sweet 100 percent winning percentage. In order to do that, the team is going to have to be completely healthy, the defense will have to repeat its 2017 success, and the offense will have to eclipse the 2011 team.

If that happens, we might see a more joyful reprise of those 1906 riots.

Best Teams by Total Wins

Just as winning percentage favors teams with shorter schedules from 100+ years ago, total wins favors teams in the last decade as schedules have lengthened.

Third-best season: 2010. The third-most wins were achieved by Bret Bielema’s 2010 team with an 11–2 (7–1) record. This season included a memorable win against top-ranked Ohio State and a tough loss in the Rose Bowl to TCU. Key players were J.J. Watt (DE), Gabe Carimi (T), Kevin Zeitler (G), and Brad Nortman (P).

Second-best season: 2006. The second-winningest team was Bielema’s first year at UW in 2006. After falling to No. 6 Michigan in the first Big Ten game of the year, Wisconsin went 9–0, including a 17–14 win over Arkansas in the Capital One Bowl. Some important players included Joe Thomas (T), Kraig Urbik (G), Travis Beckum (TE), and Jack Ikeguonu (CB).

Best season: 2017. You don’t need that great of a memory to remember the winningest team in Wisconsin football history. Capped off with an Orange Bowl win against Miami, Paul Chryst and the Badgers earned a program-best 13 wins. Take a look at this huge win against Iowa that best summarizes how this season went.

Best Seasons by Total Wins

Year Record (Conference) Conference Finish (Conference/Division) Number of Draft Picks (Next 4 Drafts, #1-250) Bowl Game Final Ranking Coach Key Players
Year Record (Conference) Conference Finish (Conference/Division) Number of Draft Picks (Next 4 Drafts, #1-250) Bowl Game Final Ranking Coach Key Players
2017 13–1 (9–0) 1st (B1G West); Runner-up B1G 5* (for one draft) Orange Bowl Win 6 (Playoff Ranking) Paul Chryst Jonathan Taylor (RB), Michael Deiter (OL), Troy Fumagalli (TE), Nick Nelson (CB)
2006 12–1 (7–1) T-2nd (B1G) 13 Capital One Win 5 (Coaches Poll) Bret Bielema Joe Thomas (T), Kraig Urbik (G), Travis Beckum (TE), Jack Ikeguonu (CB)
2010 11–2 (7–1) T-1st (B1G) 16 Rose Bowl Loss 7 (AP) Bret Bielema JJ Watt (DE), Gabe Carimi (T), Kevin Zeitler (G), Brad Nortman (P)

Can the 2018 Badgers rank in the Total Wins category?

Well, this is going to be a little bit easier than going undefeated, but not by too much. Certainly, Wisconsin could reach 11 or 12 wins in the regular season, but that seems to be a taller task in 2018 than it was in 2017.

In my opinion, it is pretty reasonable to assume that Wisconsin could bump the 2010 team off this list, but that will require some key road wins against teams like Penn State, Michigan, and Iowa. Also, don’t forget that Northwestern is a road game in 2018, where good Badger seasons go to die.

What’s Next?

The criteria considered in this article focus on the most clear-cut and objective ways to measure a season. Next time, we are going to get slightly more subjective, looking at Final Rankings and Bowl Win Quality.

Can Wisconsin get 13 wins again this season? Is it possible for an undefeated season and a 15–0 record? Which bowl wins do you view as the best in Wisconsin history?

Sources for historical information: https://uwdc.library.wisc.edu/collections/uw/, http://fs.ncaa.org/Docs/stats/football_records/2016/awards.pdf, https://www.wisconsinhistory.org/Records?terms=football&sort=5