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The Best Seasons in Wisconsin Football History, Part 2: End of Season

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It’s not about how you start, it’s about how you end.

Barry Alvarez

As our journey exploring the best football teams in Wisconsin Badgers history continues, we continue by looking at teams’ final grades and final exam scores final rankings and bowl wins. We are moving past the completely concrete measures of winning percentage and total wins in favor of a more subjective measure.

Best Teams by Final Ranking

For this ranking, we are considering the best ranking achieved by each team. It could be the Associated Press poll, coaches poll, BCS ranking, or College Football Playoff ranking. This is the last truly objective measure we will consider when ranking football seasons; however, there is some irony that these rankings are an aggregation of diverse and subjective opinions.

Third-best season: 1999. The 1999 Wisconsin football team suffered a stunning early-season loss at Cincinnati, then followed that up with a five-point home loss to fourth-ranked Michigan. Unranked heading into October, Wisconsin went to the Horseshoe and steamrolled Ohio State 42–17 and never looked back. Behind Heisman Trophy-winning back Ron Dayne, the Badgers won their last eight games, the outright Big Ten title, and their most recent Rose Bowl championship. Head coach Barry Alvarez and the Badgers climbed from the depths of the unranked to finish fourth in the AP rankings, a mark that has yet to be surpassed.

Second-best season: 1942. While Wisconsin defeated eventual national champion Ohio State, the next week the Badgers fell 6–0 to Iowa, costing them the opportunity to play for a national title in the Rose Bowl. We don’t know what would have happened if Wisconsin got that opportunity, but what we do know is that Wisconsin’s team was heroic. Dave Schreiner was co-captain and Big Ten MVP for Wisconsin. Three years later, in service to his country, Schreiner died in the Battle of Okinawa. There was no postseason for the ‘42 Badgers, and they finished their season ranked third in the AP poll.

Best season: 1962. Wisconsin won the Big Ten outright in 1962 and played in one of the best Rose Bowls ever. Down 42–14, the Badgers attempted a furious comeback. However, 23 unanswered fourth-quarter points were insufficient to complete the comeback, as they fell 42–37. The 1963 Rose Bowl saw Wisconsin set seven Rose Bowl records, and UW’s 32 first downs still holds as the record 55 years later. This is why they said before 1993, “The best game in Wisconsin history is a loss.” If football games were 65 minutes, we would be calling the 1962 Badgers a national championship team. Skip ahead to 4:10 in this video to see the comeback:

Best Seasons by Final Ranking

Year Record (Conference) Conference Standing (Conference) Bowl Game Final Ranking Coach Key Players
Year Record (Conference) Conference Standing (Conference) Bowl Game Final Ranking Coach Key Players
1962 8–2 (6–1) 1st (B1G) Rose Bowl Loss 2nd (AP) Milton Bruh Pat Richter (WR, HOF), Ron Vander Kelen (QB), Gary Kroner (Back)
1942 8–1–1 (4–1) 2nd (Western) N/A 3 (AP) Harry Stuhldreher Dave Schreiner (End, HOF), Elroy Hirsch (HB, HOF), Pat Harder (FB, HOF)
1999 10–2 (7–1) 1st (B1G) Rose Bowl Win 4 (AP) Barry Alvarez Ron Dayne (RB, Heisman), Brooks Bollinger (QB), Chris McIntosh (OT), Chris Chambers (WR), Mark Tauscher (OT)

Can the 2018 Badgers rank in the Final Ranking category?

The landscape of college football is quite different than it was in 1942; no team can finish second in its conference, not participate in the post-season, and call itself a top-four team. Therefore, like the two categories prior, Wisconsin will have to earn a spot in the playoff and likely win the semifinal match.

However, unlike total wins and winning percentage, Wisconsin could flounder early and make its case to be a top-four team. Similar to the 1999 team, Wisconsin could drop an early road game if it finishes with a strong winning streak including a win in Indianapolis against a top-five team. That could be enough to earn a spot in the playoff, which gives the 2018 Badgers a great chance to rank on this category.

Best Teams by Bowl Win Quality

Finally, a category that can introduce some controversy! College football bowl games are the most unique postseason setup of ... anything. Bowl games are everything to a team and a coach. They allow for several weeks of preparation to the capstone of the entire season. On the other hand, today, most bowl games are viewed as meaningless. Even some New Year’s Six bowls are belittled, like Wisconsin’s 2016 Cotton Bowl win over the fighting P.J. Flecks undefeated Western Michigan Broncos.

While there is such a thing as a bad bowl win, a great bowl win can set a team apart and forgive a lot of prior transgressions. So, which Wisconsin bowl wins were the best? For this, we will take into account the caliber of the opponent and the weight of the bowl game.

Also, note that each of these three bowl wins came over teams who were playing in their home stadium! I cannot get over how weird that is.

Third-best season: 2017. Wisconsin went 12–1 during the 2017 season to earn an Orange Bowl bid to face a Miami team. After starting out slow against Miami, the Badgers dominated the rest of the game against a top-10 team. If the Orange Bowl’s clout had not been diminished by the College Football Playoff, this would certainly have ranked second or third on the list. However, the truth is that the non-playoff New Year’s Six bowls (that’s a mouthful) do not command the respect they once did.

Second-best season: 1993. At the beginning of the 1993 season, offensive tackle Joe Panos was asked if Ohio State or Michigan would win the conference. Panos’s response, “Why not Wisconsin?” became a rallying cry for the season and one of the best one-liners in Badgers history (ranking up there with “You’d better get season tickets right now” and “take some toughen-up pills”). After a magical season and earning the Big Ten championship in Tokyo, the Badgers were tasked with a top-15 UCLA in the 1994 Rose Bowl. Late in the game, a huge 21-yard touchdown run by the sluggish Darrell Bevell helped seal the most important single victory in Wisconsin history. However, UCLA was a talented team but slipped up during the regular season, which caused their ranking to slip. That is the only factor keeping this bowl win out of the top slot.

If you have 45 minutes to feel all the happy feelings, watch this video on the 1994 Rose Bowl:

Best season: 1998. This might be the simplest justification and summary so far. UCLA was a top-five team heading in to the 1999 Rose Bowl. It’s the best team Wisconsin has ever beaten in a bowl game, and it was in The Granddaddy of Them All.

Snubs: Yes, the 2000 Rose Bowl win over Stanford capped off one of the best seasons in Wisconsin history, which ranked in the prior category. However, Stanford was not a strong enough team to earn my respect. The bowl win itself was rather underwhelming.

Best Seasons by Bowl Win Quality

Category Rank Year Record (Conference) Conference Standing (Conference) Bowl Game Final Ranking Coach Key Players
Category Rank Year Record (Conference) Conference Standing (Conference) Bowl Game Final Ranking Coach Key Players
1 1998 11–1 (7–1) T-1st (B1G) Rose Bowl Win 5 (Coaches) Barry Alvarez Ron Dayne (RB, All-American), Aaron Gibson (T, All-American), Tom Burke (DE, All-American)
2 1993 10–1–1 (6–1–1) T-1st (B1G) Rose Bowl Win 5 (Coaches) Barry Alvarez Joe Panos (OT), Brent Moss (RB), Darrell Bevell (QB), Lee DeRamus (WR)
3 2017 13–1 (9–0) 1st (B1G West); Runner-up B1G Orange Bowl Win 6 (Playoff Ranking) Paul Chryst Jonathan Taylor (RB), Michael Deiter (OL), Troy Fumagalli (TE), Nick Nelson (CB)

Can the 2018 Badgers rank in the Bowl Win Quality category?

The steps required to rank in bowl win quality are essentially the same as the previous category. Making it to the playoff and winning the semifinals will put the 2018 Wisconsin team squarely at the top of this list.

What’s Next?

As we have transitioned from the cold facts of winning percentage and total wins to more holistic measures, we are starting to bring back the memories and feelings of what makes college sports great. Honestly, an undefeated season on its own sake isn’t that great. If it was, we would still be wearing “Wisconsin Badgers Undefeated 1906” t-shirts (let’s make this a thing).

No, while we all want Wisconsin to go undefeated as fans, I think what we really want is a great journey to share with our friends and a story to share with our children and grandchildren someday. We see that in the seasons above; we are starting to hit on those once-in-a-generation moments that make us love Wisconsin football. I think what we have coming up next will continue exploring the more subjective ways to appreciate a football team. In Part 3, we will look at seasons with the best players and the highest degree of difficulty.

Oh, and this will be excellent comment fodder: who was a better coach? Milton Bruh or Harry Stuhldreher?