No. 14: Wisconsin Badgers

Jonathan Taylor, latest in long line of tough Badger runners, is ready to strut his stuff.

People are writing off the Badgers, who are coming off a tough year. And over-rating that other Big Red. They shouldn't.

When I was a junior at Wisconsin, I shared an apartment in an old frame house with at least four roommates on Fraternity Row. On Saturday mornings before football games, a big red fire truck would work its way down Langdon Street, picking up caffeinated cheerleaders, clanging its bell and generally making life impossible for people who were trying to ``sleep it off.’’

We did not like that big red fire truck.

There are a lot of compelling reasons to jump off the big red Badger fire truck this fall. But the noise comes from elsewhere.

Scott Frost-led Nebraska is setting a record for love given to a program that has gone 4-8 the last two seasons. Kirk Ferentz-led Iowa delivers with such UPS-like regularity that is should wear brown. Northwestern won the Big Ten West last year by three—count ’em!—three games. Purdue whomped Ohio State and got Jeff Brohm a big extension. Nobody rows the boat like Minnesota’s P.J. Fleck.

And most important of all, the Badgers are coming off an 8-5 season, their worst since Bret Bielema took off and stole the bacon at Arkansas in 2012.

(I keep hearing a rumor, by the way, that if the Lovie Smith Experiment short-circuits this season, Bielema will be on Illinois’ radar. I don’t want to believe that. And I don’t.)

Here’s why I believe the Badgers will back this fall. Last year was an anomaly. Wisconsin, a popular pick to make the College Football Playoff a year ago, was over-rated. A rash of injuries on defense and at quarterback, and the departure of some wide receivers for off-the-field messiness all contributed to the demise. And yes, there was a bad chemistry thing going on.

This year, the defense, which played young guys last fall out of necessity (especially in the secondary), will be better. The offense—centered around Jonathan Taylor, who might be the nation’s best running back—will get back to pounding the ball effectively.

And I believe Paul Chryst will sort out the quarterback thing, whether he ends up going with unassuming Jack Coan or exciting true-freshman stud Graham Mertz.

The question is, what about a schedule that features a hat trick (Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State) of ominous crossover games?

That could be a problem.

The key will be to get off on the right foot when the Wolverines come to Camp Randall on Sept. 21. That game will set the tone for both division races. A good start will make life easier in home games vs. Northwestern on Sept. 28 and Michigan State on Oct. 12. The second-half trips to Ohio State, Nebraska and Minnesota will be challenging, but the key will be whether the Badgers can get back to the blueprint Barry Alvarez used to revive Wisconsin football three decades ago.

It has worked ever since. And I believe it will continue to work.

What I don’t know (happily) is whether that darned fire truck is still making an unwanted Saturday morning racket.

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Herb Gould
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