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The Best Seasons in Wisconsin Football History, Part 4: Contextual Rankings

Bob calls the shots on this one.

NCAA Football - Illinois vs Wisconsin - October 28, 2006 Photo by S. Levin/Getty Images

So far, we have looked at quite a few incredible seasons at Wisconsin. We’ve talked about the undefeated seasons of the early 1900s, when UW was its closest to a national title in 1962–63, and Wisconsin’s new golden era since 1992. There are still a few more ways to measure a season’s greatness, and we will wrap that up here before crowning the single best season in Wisconsin history in part 5.

In this article, we will focus on contextual measures such as degree of difficulty, historical importance, my personal favorite seasons, and the best of the rest.

Best Teams by Degree of Difficulty

It’s not just about winning; it’s about winning in the face of adversity. The three teams here won in big ways against very challenging competition and circumstances.

Third-best season: 1993. On paper, Wisconsin had no business winning the 1994 Rose Bowl. It was a team of nobodies. The Badgers had suffered eight straight losing seasons for an overall record of 24–64 during that stretch. They also would face four ranked teams, including UCLA, in the Rose Bowl. Strictly considering their opponents, you can find more difficult schedules other Badger teams have faced. However, they went from pitiful losers to first-time Rose Bowl champions in a single season, all with a cast of misfits.

Second-best season: 2011. Bret Bielema’s best Wisconsin team had an equally challenging schedule. The Badgers faced five ranked teams that year and won the inaugural Big Ten Championship Game against No. 11 Michigan State.

Best season: 1999. Wisconsin’s most recent Rose Bowl championship team faced six top-25 teams and went 5–1 against those squads. As we have seen this decade, winning the Rose Bowl is quite a tall task, and the Badgers won it quite handily. With the number of ranked teams on their schedule and victory in a major bowl game, they land at the top of this ranking.

Honorable mention: 2016. Colin Cowherd’s famous freezing-cold take said Wisconsin didn’t stand a chance in many games back in Chryst’s second season.

However, Wisconsin went on to have a very good season and a New Year’s Six bowl game win. Wisconsin’s 11–3 record was very impressive, but falls just short of the top three ever. This is because the bowl game was a little too easy and LSU and MSU were not quite as good as originally projected.

After further review, though, Cowherd’s “I think they’re gonna start trending down” turned out to be the exact opposite of what happened. (Yes, I’m aware he says dumb things to make me reference him. I’m part of the system.)

Best Seasons by Degree of Difficulty

Year Record (Conference) Conference Standing Bowl Game Final Ranking Coach Key Players
Year Record (Conference) Conference Standing Bowl Game Final Ranking Coach Key Players
1999 10–2 (7–1) 1st (B1G) Rose Bowl Win 4 (AP) Barry Alvarez Ron Dayne (RB), Brooks Bollinger (QB), Chris McIntosh (OT), Chris Chambers (WR), Mark Tauscher (OT)
2011 11–3 (6–2) 1st (B1G) Rose Bowl Loss 10 (AP) Bret Bielema Russell Wilson (QB), Montee Ball (RB), Kevin Zeitler (G), Peter Konz (G)
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)

Can the 2018 Badgers rank in the Degree of Difficulty category?

This could be the single most difficult season in Wisconsin’s history. The Badgers will play five conference road games, three of which will likely be against ranked teams, not to mention a road game in Evanston. Add onto that the possibility of playing a top-four team in the Big Ten Championship Game and perhaps more in the College Football Playoff, a strong season should land Wisconsin near the top of this ranking.

Best Teams by Historical Importance

Which Wisconsin football seasons were historically important? Which seasons had important “firsts” and/or had an impact for years to come? Take a look at these three seasons.

Third-best season: 1954. This was a solid year for Wisconsin football, with a 7–2 record and a second-place finish in the Big Ten. However, Wisconsin’s Alan Ameche won the first Heisman Trophy in program history and was a precursor to the success of Wisconsin running backs in recent history.

Second-best season: 1962. We have touched on this season once before, as Wisconsin set a number of Rose Bowl records in the 1963 game, a few of which are still standing today. This Rose Bowl is still known as one of the most exciting in history, and Wisconsin was a few minutes away from a national title. Wisconsin’s 1962 iteration was the closest ever to a national title, landing it second on this list of historical importance.

Best season: 1993. Starting to notice a pattern? A few years prior to 1993, head coach Barry Alvarez said fans better get season tickets now, because before long, you probably won’t be able to.

That next season, his Badgers won one game.

Not so good.

However, after a few years, Alvarez delivered on that promise, turning Wisconsin’s program around in a big way. It’s hard to say where Wisconsin might be without the 1993 season, but I believe it is fair to say that the Badgers would not have had anywhere near the 25-year run that they have had since Wisconsin’s first Rose Bowl win.

Honorable mention: 1906. This year was historically important for Wisconsin football, as the program was nearly eliminated. However, there was nothing specifically about that season on the field that was historically important, which leaves it on the cutting block.

Best Seasons by Historical Importance

Year Record (Conference) Conference Standing Bowl Game Final Ranking Coach Key Players
Year Record (Conference) Conference Standing Bowl Game Final Ranking Coach Key Players
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)
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)
1954 7–2 (5–2) 2nd (B1G) N/A 9 (AP) Ivan Williamson Alan Ameche (Back), Jim Temp (End), Norm Amundsen (G)

Can the 2018 Badgers rank in the Historical Importance category?

Nothing short of a berth in the playoff would even allow for consideration of ranking in the top three by historical importance. Wisconsin has already had its first Heisman winner, has already been ranked No. 1 in the AP poll (1952), and has been ultra-close to winning a national title. The 2018 Badgers also are not necessarily a program fighting for relevance like the 1993 team.

Nothing short of winning it all will get them here in my books.

Best Teams by Personal Enjoyment

Good news is I can’t be wrong about this category! These are the seasons I have enjoyed the most, for literally any reason I want. I do note the limitation that I am not considering seasons before 2000.

Third-best season: 2016. Beating LSU at Lambeau was awesome. That’s enough for me.

Second-best season: 2010. Wisconsin was in a slump, I was a student at UW, and the Badgers beat the top team in the country. This was a “we’re back” season in the current era of college football and a huge stepping stone to the success we have today.

Best season: 2005. I don’t know why this season was so fond for me. Perhaps it was the fact that I had an irrational fandom for John Stocco. Or perhaps it was Brandon Williams and Brian Calhoun slashing through Auburn in the Capital One Bowl. It might have been that crazy win in the Metrodome over Minnesota, and the fact that I was watching that game at a Minnesota fan’s house. It might also be that I didn’t watch any of Wisconsin’s loss to Northwestern.

Perhaps the single greatest memory of that season is Calhoun getting the ball to the outside and turning a two-yard gain into an eight-yard gain because he was so slippery quick.

Best Seasons by Personal Enjoyment

Year Record (Conference) Conference Standing Strength of Schedule (FPI Rank, Bowl Game Final Ranking Coach Key Players
Year Record (Conference) Conference Standing Strength of Schedule (FPI Rank, Bowl Game Final Ranking Coach Key Players
2005 10–3 (5–3) T-3rd (B1G) 24 Capital One Win 15 (AP) Barry Alvarez Joe Thomas (T), Brian Calhoun (RB), Owen Daniels (TE), Brandon Williams (WR)
2010 11–2 (7–1) T-1st (B1G) 11 Rose Bowl Loss 7 (AP) Bret Bielema JJ Watt (DE), Gabe Carimi (T), Kevin Zeitler (G), Brad Nortman (P)
2016 11–3 (7–2) Runner-Up (B1G), 1st (B1G West) 12 Cotton Bowl Win 9 (AP) Paul Chryst Corey Clement (RB), Ryan Ramczyk (OT), TJ Watt (OLB), Vince Biegal (OLB)

Can the 2018 Badgers rank in the Personal Enjoyment category?

This is really personal, of course. I think if Wisconsin crushes Urban Meyer in the Big Ten Championship Game, this will be my favorite season ever. If Meyer is fired, then Wisconsin will probably have to have a comeback victory over Alabama. Anything beyond that is icing on the cake.

Best Snubs

I’ve covered 16 unique seasons so far in this, and I want to round it out to 20. So, which are the best four seasons that didn’t make the cut in any categories so far?

Fourth-best season: 1896. When you have been around for over 100 years, you’re bound to win a conference championship by mistake. Therefore, I don’t really place historical importance on Wisconsin’s first conference title, but it did happen for the first time in 1896. So ... yeah. Here it is.

Third-best season: 2004. Wisconsin’s defense was stellar in 2004, and as I said before, I love John Stocco. He had my favorite nose in all of sports. As a big-nosed person, it’s nice to see that.

I was pumped throughout the 2004 season, and the Badgers had a legitimate chance to finish in the top two of the BCS rankings. They stumbled down the stretch, though, all the way down into the snubs.

Oh yeah, and this happened:

Second-best season: 1952. The Badgers made it to a Rose Bowl, and they were pretty good! But ... then they lost 7–0 against USC in the worst Rose Bowl ever (contrasted with 1963, which was one of the best). That’s enough to knock them into the snubs.

Also, this season saw a rare tie against Minnesota. Nobody won the Axe.

Best season: 1959. This is it: the best of the rest. The 1959 Badgers beat a couple of great teams, including a win over No. 2 Northwestern.

They also lost 44–8 in the Rose Bowl.

So, yeah, that’s a theme for the snubs: a disappointing end. Or, for 1896, a forgotten championship.

Best Seasons: Best of the Rest

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
1959 7–3 (5–2) 1st (B1G) Rose Bowl Loss 6 (AP) Milton Bruh Dan Lanphear (Tackle), Dale Hackbart (Back), Jerry Stalcup (Guard)
1952 6–3–1 (4–1–1) 1st (B1G) Rose Bowl Loss 10 (Coaches) Ivan Williamson Alan Ameche (Back), Dave Suminski (Tackle)
2004 9–3 (6–2) 3rd (B1G) Outback Bowl Lost 17 (AP) Barry Alvarez Joe Thomas (OT), Erasmus James (DE), Jim Leonhard (FS), Anttaj Hawthorne (DT)
1896 9–1 (2–0–1) 1st (Western) N/A N/A Philip King Unknown

Can the 2018 Badgers rank in the Best Snubs category?

Unfortunately, Wisconsin could very easily have a “best of the rest” type season. The Badgers could go out strong and start 10–0, and the defense could falter down the stretch. They could get another New Year’s Six bowl game and lose a tough game to a team like UCF. That would be a sad way to make the snubs list.

What’s Next?

We have taken a look at 20 great seasons in Wisconsin’s history. Next, we will wrap it up with some input from fellow B5Q writers, as well as my ultimate ranking of Wisconsin’s best seasons.

You’ve been with me so far, and I appreciate that. I have to know: in your opinion, which season was the best ever, all things considered?