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The Best Seasons in Wisconsin Football History, Part 3: Best Players

There’s a lot of talent to cover here.

Aaron Gibson

We are now three posts deep into finding the best teams in Wisconsin Badgers football history. First, we discussed a variety of objective measures for approaching this topic. Then, we discussed how end-of-season performances factor into this conversation.

Today, we’ll cover...

Best Teams by Best Players

It is really hard to make an accurate judgement about the teams with the best players in Wisconsin football. Recency bias can certainly take effect, as players like JJ Watt, Russell Wilson, and Kevin Zeitler are either the best at their position or near the top. Think of all the linebackers Wisconsin has had since Dave Aranda arrived. They were crushers, and there seemed to be a never-ending supply.

Then again, Alan Ameche was a Heisman Trophy winner for Wisconsin. Does that automatically place that team near the top?

I went high and low to try and find a consistent measurement of best players that was devoid of bias. I was sure I could find something.

I couldn’t.

However, I did create one criteria that does an OK job, but excludes teams before roughly 1940 and after 2015. My criteria is the number of overall NFL draft picks in the following four drafts. This way, if a player was NFL-quality, he would have been in one of the four following drafts. We might over-count by a little for players drafted early or transferring in, but we are also under-counting players with serious injuries late in their time at Wisconsin. I am going to call it a wash. Brilliant, right?


The number of draft rounds and total picks has varied wildly. So instead, I am only counting the top 250 overall picks. This controls for the changing number of teams (which messes up criteria like “number of first through seventh-round picks”) as well as the changing number of rounds. It does not account well for recent teams whose players have not all had the chance to be drafted. The same logic applies for teams before the NFL draft was a thing. Sorry, Pat “Kangaroo Kicker” O’Dea, you may be the best punter of all time, but you played in 1899.

In any case, it is extremely hard to gauge the talent level on pre-1940s teams. How good was Pat O’Dea really? All-American voting was notoriously biased toward Ivy League and coastal squads, and it is hard to find consistent data surrounding those players. I am content with lopping those teams off from consideration.

Below is a graph of the data collected. It is one tool in deciding which teams were the most talented, so it helped me narrow down to about five or six seasons by looking at the peaks.

Graph of Wisconsin seasons and their number of top-250 NFL draft picks in the next four drafts.

I’m going to take a short aside here about this chart. While the data is helpful in deciding which teams had the best talent, it also is a really interesting visual on the capabilities and talent of Wisconsin teams throughout history. We see the forgotten era of the ‘40s, which saw excellent talent taking the Camp Randall turf. We see infamous eras of John Coatta (1967–1969 with a 3–26–1 record) and Jon Jardine (1970–1977 with a 37–47–3 record). We also see the renaissance ushered in by Dave McClain, and perhaps get a glimpse of where this program could have been had it not seen his tragic and unexpected passing. Then the program crashed again at the helm of Don Morton, until Barry Alvarez finished what McClain never had the opportunity to.

Wait, I was allowed to type the name Don Morton? I thought that was against B5Q policies.

Back to the graph. This should make fans feel a little uneasy about the long-term stability of Wisconsin football. Since Alvarez landed in Madison, it has been pretty consistent sailing. However, from roughly 1940 to 1963, Wisconsin was on a ride similar to what it has been on from 1990–2018. Wisconsin is due for a correction (as is the Madison real estate market) and there is no magic law saying it can’t happen again.

OK, back to the rankings ... unless you want to have a discussion about the housing market. No? OK then...

Third-best season: 1982. The Badgers were (almost) back. They were loaded with talented players on a program learning to win after a long and painful drought. McClain was in his fifth season and helped turn around Wisconsin recruiting in a big way. He coached like Bo Schembechler and recruited like Woody Hayes. And this 1982 team saw his best players in action.

The team was talented and had 24 players go on to be top-250 draft picks, but it had not yet quite learned how to win, finishing the regular season 6–5 heading into the Independence Bowl. Al Toon, Randy Wright, and Tim Krumrie all were impactful NFL players. OK, maybe not Randy Wright, but he did start an entire season in the NFL with the Packers in 1986! Seriously, though, Krumrie was a beast, is a College Football Hall of Famer, and had a great NFL career.

This season also saw one of the best trick plays ever in Wisconsin, orchestrated by studs Wright and Toon.

Oh, and 1982 was when Wisconsin went on to win the Independence Bowl, the first bowl win in program history! If you want to watch it, I think this YouTube video is past the statute of limitations with respect to copyright laws. Watch it for educational purposes.

Second-best season: 2011. That team was stacked. At least until this coming season, that was the most explosive and potent offense ever to play in Madison. While these Badgers only had 19 players go on to be drafted in the top 250, the players that were drafted were excellent. Also, the players who weren’t drafted were very good, too.

Russell Wilson, Montee Ball, Nick Toon (son of Al from the 1982 season), Jared Abbrederis, the entire offensive line, Shelton Johnson, Aaron Henry, Mike Taylor, and Chris Borland are all names that probably give good memories to the Badger faithful.

Hey, even punter Brad Nortman could kick it with the best of them and was drafted 207th overall by Carolina.

One of the best-produced videos from Wisconsin was about the Badgers’ win over Nebraska in the 2011 season:

Best season: 1998. These Badgers are at the top of this chart with 25 qualifying draft picks, and for good reason. They won a Rose Bowl, and it was not much of a surprise to anybody.

Want all-conference honors? You got eight of ‘em.

Want All-Americans? You got three: Tom Burke (DE), Aaron Gibson (RT), and ... hmmm ... ROOOOOOONNNNN DAAAAAAYNNNNNE.

Going into this project I was expecting a need to justify the best team, but most of the time it does it for me. That 1998 team was downright scary. Too bad it had a road loss to Michigan.

Best Seasons by Best Players

Year Record (Conference) Conference Standing (Conference) Number of Draft Picks (Next 4 Drafts, #1–250) Final Ranking Coach Key Players
Year Record (Conference) Conference Standing (Conference) Number of Draft Picks (Next 4 Drafts, #1–250) Final Ranking Coach Key Players
1998 11–1 (7–1) T-1st (B1G) 25 5 (Coaches) Barry Alvarez Ron Dayne (RB), Aaron Gibson (T), Tom Burke (DE)
2011 11–3 (6–2) 1st (B1G) 19 10 (AP) Bret Bielema Russell Wilson (QB), Montee Ball (RB), Kevin Zeitler (G), Peter Konz (G)
1982 7–5 (5–4) 4th (B1G) 24 NR Dave McClain Randy Wright (QB), Al Toon (WR), Tim Krumrie (DT)

Can the 2018 Badgers rank in the Best Players category?

Wisconsin probably will need 20+ players off its roster to eventually be drafted in the first 6.5 rounds to make that cut. Recruiting has been very solid for a number of years under Paul Chryst and he now has his players, as the cliché goes. Regardless of draft picks, this is a team that ranks up with almost every other Badger team in terms of player ability.

What’s Next?

It’s not always about your record or how good you are on paper, but it’s about the mountain you climb. It’s easy (sort of) to run a 5k with a solid 30 MPH wind at your back. But when it’s blizzard conditions in a marathon, things get a little trickier. Next time, we will dive into which seasons had the highest achievement in the face of great difficulty.

Which were the most talented teams in Wisconsin history in your mind? Who do you think will make the top three under the “degree of difficulty” category?