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Roundtable: Is Luke Fickell the answer at HC for the Badgers?

We discuss the Badgers loss to Northwestern in the latest roundtable installment.

The Wisconsin Badgers hit the lowest point of their season with a 24-10 loss to the Northwestern Wildcats on Saturday, dropping to 5-5 on the season and leaving the team still vying for bowl eligibility with two weeks left.

There were several takeaways from the loss, including thoughts on the loss, the current state of the football program, and an honest assessment of the coaching staff.

For this roundtable, I combined with our football writer Scary Alvarez once again to answer some critical questions.

Q: Thoughts after the Badgers loss to Northwestern?

Rohan: Last week, I dubbed the Indiana loss as “easily the worst of the season”. This weekend’s loss tops that, as the Badgers have now compiled two consecutive embarrassing performances in a row. Right now, the Badgers are lacking identity and heart on both sides of the football, and the biggest issue is that the same problems have plagued them throughout the season.

Offensively, it’s been the lack of consistent downfield passing, while the recent lack of a run game has made that side one-dimensional. Defensively, the team just lacks a competitive edge to start fast, leading to holes the team can’t climb out of.

I do think the coaching staff deserves blame for the issues, as there is a good amount of talent on this roster and the reasons expectations were high this season were due to the easy schedule and the last big chance to make a Big Ten Championship Game before the influx of new contenders.

But, the players just have flat-out regressed, and it starts with their effort. After the game, we saw head coach Luke Fickell and safety Hunter Wohler question how players would respond to the adversity. There’s a divide in terms of being bought into the program at the moment, and Wisconsin needs to fix that at a true low for their program this season.

Scary: It was one of the most embarrassing performances in modern Wisconsin Football history (Alvarez era forward). A lack of talent in some key areas is something that we can live with, but not an absence of effort. It’s disturbing to see so many players apparently not buying in, and it seems like that inflection point might have been the fourth quarter of the Ohio State game. Things have gone south very quickly since then.

I expect a substantial number of current Badgers to leave via the portal and our own portal influx to be robust, with a focus on defensive playmakers and possibly a veteran quarterback.

Q: What needs to change for Wisconsin?

Rohan: Like I mentioned above, the Badgers just can’t keep making the same mistakes week after week. When that happens, there’s a divide between the coaching staff and the players, be it in the way they’re implementing the gameplan or the way the players are executing it. Hunter Wohler’s comments make it seem like more of the latter, which can be seen through the numerous busts in assignment and effort levels on the field. But, this lack of discipline has to trickle back to the top of the program, which is why the coaches deserve some accountability for the issues as well.

While I’m not sure any of the issues I’ve highlighted can truly be fixed in two weeks, the Badgers have to become bowl-eligible. The last two weeks have severely decreased my confidence in achieving that goal, but they must win at least one of the next two games to salvage the season.

Now, going into the future, this offseason will be a crucial point for Luke Fickell in establishing himself at Wisconsin. It’s real clear that he is fully bought into the program and has a level of care for fixing the issues at hand, but the Badgers are a long way from reaching the goals that their head coach set for when he was hired.

They’ve taken the steps with some strong recruiting classes, but they’ll likely need to hit the transfer portal hard and find the proper fits to set the tone because they’ll have to be prepared for a much harder schedule in 2024 and beyond.

Scary: For 2023: the current roster needs to shake off whatever has been dogging them and simply buy-in. Hunter Wohler said it best in his heartfelt tirade after the Northwestern game. There are too many guys on this squad whose hearts are not in it this season and while that’s certainly a reflection on the head coach (and coaching staff generally, who have had their own issues), it’s a bad look. I’d say this team’s best football of 2023 is likely behind it, but rallying to grab a sixth win to secure a bowl and extra month of practice would be a huge thing going forward. If I had to choose which game to win, I’d take the Axe.

For 2024 and beyond: it sounds pretty standard, but trust the process. Fickell is likely as surprised as anyone by this team’s failures, but he still has the coaching acumen and track record—including one rebuild where he got his team to the CFB Playoff—to suggest that the Badger program is in good hands. As of right now the 2024 and 2025 recruiting classes look very good and this was always about reshaping a sinking program and system into a winner. In hindsight, Fick had a much bigger task ahead of him than it first appeared.

Q: Are you considering the Luke Fickell hire a failure already?

Rohan: Hell no. You can definitely have questions, but there’s not a chance that I’m considering Fickell a failure, given his pedigree, the team he’s inherited, and his success on the recruiting front, despite the struggles on the field.

I’m still convinced Fickell was a slam-dunk hire and the right move for the Badgers last November, and you need to allow for the process to take time. At Cincinnati, after a disappointing first year, he was able to turn it around with an 11-2 season in Year 2 and continued success after that. I don’t expect that turnaround, and Fickell told me on Monday that this process been harder, but I do expect better things going forward.

I’m not going to harp on the argument that it isn’t fully his team, but the reason it’s important, even if he has a group of guys he likes, is how vital certain players are to making both the offensive and defensive scheme work. At the moment, a flurry of players don’t fit that profile, which is why I think the portal will be key, again, this summer in helping reshape the program.

The Badgers already have some cornerstones, and their high school recruits will ultimately define the success of Wisconsin Football in the future, but they also need to be better in the short-term, which is why this offseason is crucial.

That starts with the quarterback position, where I believe the Badgers will have to hit the portal for a second consecutive season, allowing their younger guys to have an extra year of development before being ready for Big Ten competition.

Scary: Absolutely not. For some of the reasons noted above, he needs to be given a reasonable amount of time to do this thing. One season isn’t enough to even come close to calling him a failure. Look at season No. 1 for most coaches who take over programs in decline and they rarely forge a winner immediately.

We can have this conversation again after the 2024 season, but if that Badger team is competitive (against a much tougher schedule than 2023) and plays with heart, Fickell keeps his 2024 recruiting class intact, and has a similar 2025 class, I’ll say the program is in good shape.