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The Best Seasons in Wisconsin Football History, Part 5: Final Decisions

Our trip down memory lane concludes. What was your favorite Badger football season?


Here we are. We’ve examined 20 seasons of Wisconsin Badgers football. It’s time now to rank them all together.

Before that, I want to share a few of my B5Q colleagues’ opinions on the best teams in program history.

Owen Riese:

  1. 2011 (Russell Wilson)
  2. 2017
  3. 2010

Tyler Hunt:

  1. 2017: Maybe it’s recency bias, but 2017 was such a special season for Wisconsin football. It seemed as though last year took the Badgers over some hump they’ve been battling for a long time. The Badgers aren’t just Wisconsin good anymore and a large part of that was from the success of 2017. It’s a season I’ll never forget and I hope it spurs an even better 2018.
  2. 2011: There were some heartbreaking and painful losses (the last play against Michigan State wakes me up in my nightmares) but there was still some special moments. It was the first time in awhile where we saw what Wisconsin could be in a more balanced offense with Wilson at the helm. I mean that team destroyed people. It was incredible to see, and I think it set up the Badgers for years to come in terms of program relevancy.
  3. 1993: This was a big season for Wisconsin, as it got the Badgers back into the conversation they wanted to be in. The win against Michigan State in Tokyo was something that still gets shown in the highlights of Wisconsin football for a reason. Capped off with the program’s first Rose Bowl win, it really started a change in the program that I think we are still benefiting from today. I mean, why not Wisconsin?

Jake Kocorowski:

I definitely feel there’s some recency bias with those choices, as I frequently give Owen crap when we’re together about his admission that he did not know what the 1980s/1990s hit TV sitcom Coach was.

This is extremely difficult, as there has been much success since Barry Alvarez took over the program back in 1990. Y’all are forgetting one particular year in 1962 where the team went 8–2 (6–1 in conference play) under Milt Bruhn and played in one of the best Rose Bowl games, a 42–37 loss to USC.

However, I think 1990s teams take two of the three honors here.

  1. 1993: Hard to argue with this. 10–1–1, with a huge upset win over Michigan and a stoinked field goal away from beating Ohio State. If the Badgers don’t have six turnovers, they defeat the Gophers and are technically undefeated. That was the team that put Wisconsin back on the map, and defeating the Bruins as they did (and rewatching that game several times for Walk-On This Way), I feel that is my No. 1 overall pick.
  2. 2017: A team goes undefeated in the regular season, and in the new era of the College Football Playoff, is one drive and blown non-call away from potentially going to it. The defense was one of the best we’ve seen ever from a Wisconsin team, and the offense found some balance with a true freshman Doak Walker Award finalist and a passing game with three capable wide receiver targets (not to mention Troy Fumagalli).
  3. 1999: The debacle at Cincinnati aside—and I may have some #feelings about that outcome—that team featured so many future NFL players. It was either this or the 1998 squad, even though it was labeled as the worst team to play in the “Granddaddy of Them All” at the time by Craig James. The 1999 edition of Wisconsin football fought through two consecutive losses, then pushed through the rest of the season. Ron Dayne broke the all-time rushing record, and the Badgers defeated a stingy Stanford squad.

Great choices, folks. Tyler pointed to recency bias, but I want to note that the last 25 years have been absolutely incredible for the Badgers, and that takes into account the increasingly difficult landscape in which Wisconsin has competed.

Now it’s my turn to share my opinion.

Without further waiting, here are my final rankings of the best teams in Badger history. Teams were given a huge bonus if they showed up in multiple categories and ranked highly in those categories. Then, the importance of the category was taken into account.

Best Seasons

Overall Rank Year Record Conference Standing Bowl Game Final Ranking Coach Key Players
Overall Rank Year Record Conference Standing Bowl Game Final Ranking Coach Key Players
1 1993 (3 categories) 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)
2 1998 (2 categories) 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)
3 1962 (2 categories) 8–2 (6–1) 1st (B1G) Rose Bowl Loss 2nd (AP) Milt Bruhn Pat Richter (WR, HOF), Ron Vander Kelen (QB), Gary Kroner (Back)
4 1999 (2 categories) 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)
5 2017 (2 categories) 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)
6 2011 (2 categories) 11–3 (6–2) 1st (B1G) Rose Bowl Loss 10 (AP) Bret Bielema Russell Wilson (QB), Montee Ball (RB, Consensus All-American), Kevin Zeitler (G, Consensus All-American), Peter Konz (All-American)
7 2010 (2 categories) 11–2 (7–1) T-1st (B1G) Rose Bowl Loss 7 (AP) Bret Bielema JJ Watt (DE), Gabe Carimi (T), Kevin Zeitler (G), Brad Nortman (P)
8 1901 9–0 (2–0) T-1st (Western) N/A N/A Philip King Art Curtis (Tackle) and Al "Norsky" Larson (HB), both 2nd team all-americans
9 1959 7–3 (5–2) 1st (B1G) Rose Bowl Loss 6 (AP) Milt Bruhn Dan Lanphear (Tackle), Dale Hackbart (Back), Jerry Stalcup (Guard)
10 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)
11 1912 7–0 (5–0) 1st (Western) N/A N/A William J. Juneau Bob "Butts" Butler (Tackle, HOF), Joseph Hoeffel (End), and Eddie Gillette (QB)
12 2006 12–1 (7–1) T-2nd (B1G) Capital One Win 5 (Coaches Poll) Bret Bielema Joe Thomas (T), Kraig Urbik (G), Travis Beckum (TE), Jack Ikeguonu (CB)
13 1952 6–3–1 (4–1–1) 1st (B1G) Rose Bowl Loss 10 (Coaches) Ivan Williamson Alan Ameche (Back), Dave Suminski (Tackle)
14 1954 7–2 (5–2) 2nd (B1G) N/A 9 (AP) Ivan Williamson Alan Ameche (Back), Jim Temp (End), Norm Amundsen (G)
15 1982 7–5 (5–4) 4th (B1G) Independence Bowl Win NR Dave McClain Randy Wright (QB), Al Toon (WR), Tim Krumrie (G, All-American)
16 2016 11–3 (7–2) Runner-up (B1G); 1st (B1G West) Cotton Bowl Win 9 (AP) Paul Chryst Corey Clement (RB), Ryan Ramczyk (OT), TJ Watt (OLB), Vince Biegal (OLB)
17 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)
18 2005 10–3 (5–3) T-3rd (B1G) Capital One Win 15 (AP) Barry Alvarez Joe Thomas (T), Brian Calhoun (RB), Owen Daniels (TE), Brandon Williams (WR)
19 1906 5–0 (3–0) T-1st (Western) N/A N/A Dr. Charles P. Hutchins Warren Gelbach (team captain)
20 1896 9–1 (2–0–1) 1st (Western) N/A N/A Philip King No All-Americans

After going through this process of reviewing over 100 Wisconsin football teams, the top three got it right. That 1993 is such a special and important season in Wisconsin football. The team way overachieved, crossed a critical threshold, and set the tone for a 25-year run and counting. 1998 was the year that cemented UW as a power, showing that ‘93 was no fluke. 1999 was the afterparty.

I think most fans realize how important those three Rose Bowl championship teams were. I do not think that most fans appreciate, however, the 1962 team. That tough team was way closer to a national title than any other Badger team (except for maybe the 1901 team that got snubbed from the first Rose Bowl). Its near comeback in the 1963 Rose Bowl was initially a sign of great things to come, but turned into a meme when Wisconsin struggled. Wisconsin was mired in a slump for decades, and the pride from a near title turned into the shame of “best game was a loss.”

However, Pat Richter, who helped Wisconsin complete the comeback against USC in the ‘63 Rose Bowl, also stepped up and made the huge hire of Barry Alvarez in 1990. In both cases the Badgers seemed down and out, but a hero stepped up in a big way, taking the team just short of the promised land. Now, can Paul Chryst take the Badgers all the way there? Yes, only Chryst can do that.

Apart from the Moses metaphor, if you take anything away from reading this series, don’t forget 1962, and don’t forget about the 1942 Badgers and the sacrifice Dave Schriener made while serving our country in World War II. Don’t forget about how Charles Van Hise isn’t just the name of the world languages tower opposite Van Vleck, he is the man who saved Wisconsin football in 1906. And don’t forget about Dave McClain, a coach whose potential was sadly never realized.

Closing It Out

Throughout the years, there were a lot of disappointments, a lot of close calls, and a lot of false summits.

But there were also great moments, stories, people, coaches, and players.

When we talk about appreciating a season, there are indeed a lot of ways to say a season was great. We have talked about many of them. In the end, though, do you really need to win a championship to enjoy your fandom?

Oh, you do need them to win a title? I suppose fans have had a lot of good consolation prizes throughout the years.

Well, then, it seems like 2018 will have to be the time to find the true summit. It’s time to go straight to the top of this list and win a national title. Are you all ready for Chryst and the 2018 Badgers to take you to the promised land?

I suppose you just gotta believe.