Happy New Year!
Alright, now that the pleasantries are over, it is time for me to complain.
Granted, I don’t often like to complain about the football team for Wisconsin. I may have only become a fan in 2016, when I enrolled in the school and immediately shifted gears to become a die-hard fan since I went to my first game, but I have learned a lot about the Badgers in my time writing and following the team.
A lot has happened since I was on campus, including three Big Ten title game appearances (and losses), a Rose Bowl appearance and a whole God damn pandemic (which is why although I graduated in May 2020, I only walked September 2021).
Maybe it’s the insanity and slight crisis that comes from graduating college and going into the “real world,” but it wasn’t until then that I actually spent money on recruiting websites and message boards. You know the ones — populated by a bunch of middle-class to rich white men who have nothing better to do than to parse and complain about the most minor things happening to every single sports program. I often pay no mind to various posts when I find them ridiculous, but being in tune with recruiting is crucial because guess what: having better players makes your teams better.
Ok, first off I want to preface this by acknowledging a couple of things.
One: Wisconsin’s history as a program has been a focus on development, and it has frequently used underlooked walk-ons or recruits, given them time in a robust strength and development system and turned them into All-Americans. This is undeniably true and a staple of the program that I don’t think should be changed any time soon.
Two: I come from Atlanta. That changes my view on recruiting because guess what? The SEC schools dominate recruiting. Much of that does have to do with geography. One reason why the SEC schools have recently dominated recruiting is the highest ranking recruits come from their backyard. Georgia — my “home” state — is one of the fastest growing states in the nation. That gives UGA and other Southern schools a big advantage in the recruiting rat race. When talent is closer, it’s easier to get. We have seen that in UW’s case often.
Many fans bemoan the fact we can’t always sign the top tier running back talent despite our success at developing running backs. A lot of that is because there are many more talented backs south of Kentucky. When I told my high school friends I was going to Wisconsin, they asked “why?” And that was in a very wealthy, white part of Atlanta — aka, our school was not a football powerhouse with a bunch of D-1 recruits.
That is not to say Wisconsin couldn’t convince many players based on its recent resumes, but it is an acknowledgement that it is often hard to go far from home, even if you have every privilege in the world. The 13-hour drive including seven hours through, flat, corn-filled central Illinois proved that.
The arguments of UW’s history as developmental and the inherent geography giving them a disadvantage are understood. Yet, the Badgers reeled off their highest ranked recruiting classes in 2020 and then again in 2021. Previously unheard of, Wisconsin had two-straight top-30 classes and you could even see that already pay dividends in the Las Vegas Bowl win against ASU.
Freshmen Markus Allen and Skyler Bell seemed to add more athleticism to the wide receiving core and had clutch catches, Darryl Peterson impressed in his snaps on defense and Hunter Wohler also made his presence known not just in this past game, but throughout the season. And those are all true freshmen.
So with all this preamble, what is my main point?
If Wisconsin wants to compete for Big Ten titles and more, the program must step up its recruiting efforts.
Now, the department is already under much scrutiny this year, but I do believe some of it is undeserved. Although according to 247 rankings, the Badgers sit at No. 11 in the Big Ten — a huge step down from the previous hauls — that is partially because of a smaller class, which the staff had previously said they expected. If you look at the average rankings by player, UW sits closer to sixth place, which is about what they averaged before the increase in 2020 and 2021 classes.
A lot of that scrutiny comes from the loss of recruiting director Saeed Khalif. In a much discussed Athletic article ($) from Jesse Temple, Khalif said part of the reason he left to take a similar role at Michigan State was the fact Wisconsin limited his staff and did not offer him the same support as other schools for the recruiting department.
That is probably the most worrying sign for Wisconsin fans, because not recruiting well will spell doom for any program.
The two teams that just advanced to the college football playoff final — Alabama and Georgia — have dominated recruiting in recent seasons. Alabama had the top ranked class in 2019, second best in 2020 and best class in 2021. Georgia finished second in 2019, first in 2020 and a “measly” fourth in 2021.
As much as UW fans have talked about Jack Sanborn and Leo Chenal as two great middle linebackers — and they deserve as much praise as they got this year — UGA signed Nolan Smith and Nakobe Dean as their top two players in 2019, both of them 5-star players, and they completely shut down Michigan’s offense in their Orange Bowl win.
Nakobe Dean running the whole field for a TFL pic.twitter.com/y8MYD0dL7Q— SyedSchemes (@syedschemes) January 1, 2022
It is clear and obvious, but signing better players equals better teams.
Does this mean I think that the Badgers should suddenly sign top-15 classes regularly? No. I understand how things work. I understand that the University of Wisconsin also has more strict academic requirements that could put them out of the running for some players.
But pretending that recruiting isn’t something to prioritize is not just stupid, but it costs people, like now former Florida head coach Dan Mullen, their jobs.
So what advice would I give Paul Chryst? Hire the right damn people to recruit. Make it so there aren’t just a couple full-time staffers, but have them be able to really extend Wisconsin’s reach.
We as Wisconsin alumni know the draw of the school. We also know the success the football team has had over the past three decades in terms of its consistency. We also know based on the Big Ten’s divisions, we can sell playing for a conference championship most years.
Make that actually happen. Ensure that you are going after those players that will be game-changers for the program. And the way you do that is beefing up a recruiting staff that apparently has been pretty bare bones.
The reason that Michigan, Ohio State and Penn State are often favorites against Wisconsin if the Badgers make it to the Big Ten title game mostly has to do with overall talent. We know that. The media knows that. The players won’t admit it, but they know that too.
The fact UW needs to be perfect to beat Ohio State is not something that will likely change — considering the Buckeyes have gone second best, 14th best, fifth best and fourth best in the nation in recruiting classes since 2019. But that is often reflected in what OSU gives to their recruiting staffs.
Let me put it this way: as someone who covers volleyball, Wisconsin didn’t suddenly become a perennial power just by grit and determination. That is clearly evident in Kelly Sheffield’s program, but it’s also because they signed top recruits and were aggressive in the transfer portal. Literally, two days after they won the National Championship, they signed a player from Kansas who was a two-time All-Conference player. That is not resting on your laurels, but realizing you have to always improve your team and always be recruiting.
I guess my main point is this: Wisconsin will always be able to find those 3-star players or walk-ons who can become stars for the team. Why not also try and get those 4 or 5-star players who can change a program. We’ve seen that already happen in the past couple seasons, and if the program wants to be serious about competing at the highest level, they need to actually beef up their recruiting staff.
Because I don’t just want to compete with the Iowas and Minnesotas of the world. Let’s try and challenge the ‘Bamas, Georgias and Ohio States more often.