Media and college football critics have scrutinized Wisconsin's non-conference schedule for years. This season, at least for the first two games against UMass and Tennessee Tech, they have a point (Arizona State and BYU, different story). The first two adversaries for the Badgers are the equivalent of the old
WWF WWE Attitude Era "J.O.B. Squad" and their mantra, "Pin Me, Pay Me," which for Tennessee Tech is $500,000 worth of a possible demoralizing loss on a September Saturday afternoon.
You cannot satisfy fans in these types of games: Win by a small margin, and fans worry about a more equal opponent coming up. Win big, and people will bicker and complain you're not pushing your program's players and should be scheduling tougher opponents for BCS purposes. Lose, and well, you're a laughing-stock (please see Michigan post-Applachian State).
It's not a foregone conclusion Wisconsin will win Saturday, even with being a 44.5-point favorite and facing a program in its second year in the Football Bowl Subdivision that scored under 13 points a game in 2012. The Wolverines' 2007 blunder still serves as a reminder not to underestimate would-be "inferior" opponents, and last year's unnervingly close win at home against Northern Iowa hits close to home for many Badgers fans. So what should be the benchmarks of an "acceptable" win the next two weeks? Simply, just win, score points and most importantly, stay healthy.
It's the dawn of a new era for the Wisconsin program. Head coach Gary Andersen winning his first game at the helm would be an "acceptable" start. A win's a win, and fans'll want some bonus points for how you score against teams like UMass and Tennessee Tech, but after 60 minutes, and in a John Madden-like fashion, "Wisconsin scored more points than its opponents, that's how you win a game." Too simple? Maybe, but upsets happen each year, and it's, as Chris Berman says, "why they play the game."
44.5 points is a big spread to cover. Wisconsin would have to score six touchdowns, along with kicking six extra points and one field goal. Will that happen? It is very, very possible, especially with two great running backs in senior James White and sophomore Melvin Gordon and receiving threats in seniors Jared Abbrederis and Jacob Pedersen. Of course, look at the Big Ten Championship game for a classic example of an offensive barrage (and examples of an impressive set of "barges," for that matter).
But here lies a tricky question: is 49-7 acceptable? What about 42-21? 35-17? Those numbers can be deceiving, especially who's on the field when points are tallied on the scoreboard.
Here are some more hyperbolic inquiries:
- Does Wisconsin have to score on every possession for these to be "solid" victories?
- Does Wisconsin's defense have to score more points than Tennessee Tech's offense?
- Will the scores of the games be comparable to the Harlem Globetrotters taking on the Washington Generals?
The answer to those, quite frankly, is no.
A new year, another new set of coaches, and there will be some rust and mistakes made. The Badgers' offensive line has been a fluid situation due to injuries to redshirt freshmen center Dan Voltz and junior guard Kyle Costigan, so those holes the size of eight-lane highways fans expect to open up might not be so large. The passing game will rely heavily on Abbrederis, play-action and its stable of starting-caliber tight ends.
If Wisconsin doesn't cover the spread, it's not the end of the world. Look to see how the first-team offense's chemistry flows when its on the field. If Andersen and offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig decide to pull the starters during some point of the game with a sizable margin between them and their opponents, it's a sign they're happy with what they saw and don't want to risk injury with key cogs of their offense. Please note, their full bag of tricks will not be on display as well, especially these next two weeks.
Defensively, fans would love to see a shutout pitched against a weak UMass offense. The Minutemen offensive line is is a work in progress, so that aggressive 3-4 defense people are drooling to see on the field could see many opportunities to pounce. Wisconsin's front seven is two-deep, but it will be interesting to see how the younger secondary responds to the more physical coverage defensive coordinator Dave Aranda will demand. If starters are pulled with a comfortable lead, you could see more yardage and points on the board for UMass.
Easily said, this is the most important factor in an "acceptable" set of victories for Wisconsin in its first two weeks. Sept. 14th's tilt against the Sun Devils and the match-up in Columbus on the 28th are very early tests to see how the new-look Badgers hold up against nationally prominent programs. Keeping starters healthy allows the team to be at its full potential to face those dangerous opponents, not that this really needs to be stated. Senior F-side outside linebacker Ethan Armstrong dealt with a lower leg injury for part of fall camp, so keeping him pain-free is key. Wisconsin does not want to experience injuries that sideline an already-thin offensive line, secondary or playmakers like senior linebacker Chris Borland, Abbrederis or senior safety Dezmen Southward.
If the team gets through these two games unscathed when they face Arizona State in a little over two weeks, consider that another benchmark for success.
These points seem very rudimentary and simple. Well, they are. Fans and national media will pick apart and over-generalize a box score very quickly, but look at these factors: Did the Badgers stay healthy? Did the first-team offense and defense dominate? Lastly, did Wisconsin become Michigan? Honestly, if you can answer, "Yes," "Yes," and "Heck No," consider the first couple regular season victories "acceptable."
I want to hear from you, though. What will make these next two games "acceptable" or "satisfactory" wins for Wisconsin? Comment below and chime in on our poll question. Of course, follow me on Twitter @B5Q_KKSE_Kuba and check out our Kielbasa Kings Sports Extravaganza show this week with special guests Adam Rittenberg and Matt Lepay.