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Wisconsin is an inconspicuous — but undeniable — college football powerhouse

Wisconsin is 11-0 and on the verge of entering the College Football Playoff. How it got here is hard to say.

I don’t know if it’s Barry Alvarez himself or just his legend, but this man intimidates the shit out of me. When I step into his office, two days before the Michigan game, he doesn’t get up from his desk. He doesn’t extend a hand. He says “hello,” then leans back and waits for me to ask him things. It feels like if I didn’t say anything — if I ran out of the room right then, sobbing — he’d just tidy up a few papers on his desk and go back about his job of being Barry Alvarez, the former Badgers head coach who took Wisconsin to three Rose Bowls after decades of irrelevance, then signed the check for his own bronze statue as the school’s athletic director.

He exudes the fact that he’s doing me the favor — and man, he really is — but I forge on, explain my story, and what I want to get out of all this: to finally know what makes Wisconsin college football’s great exception, the success story beyond a standard deviation, the one team that has won almost as much as anyone over the last 25 years with talent far below its peers.

In five minutes I have my answer.

“Our walk-on program is like bringing in a free group of kids, that so many make the difference in us winning and losing,” Alvarez says. “If you look at our team right now, we probably have five or six walk-ons that are starting and are big contributors. Without them, we're a .500 team.”

And that’s it. Story over. Across the span of the 30 minutes I have with him, Alvarez outlines Wisconsin’s walk-on industrial complex, whereby it takes underdeveloped-but-teeming high school talent from within its borders and turns them into stars. J.J. Watt, Jim Leonhard, and Jared Abbrederis are three of the best to ever play at the school. They played high school football up in Pewaukee, Tony, and Wautoma, respectively. I count five walk-ons who have played critical roles this season for one of the best teams in the country — tight end Troy Fumagalli, center Jason Erdmann, linebackers Ryan Connelly and Tyler Johnson, and safety Joe Ferguson.

It’s a simple explanation, and I hate it. If walk-ons are all that’s keeping Wisconsin from being a .500 team, then how have the Badgers gone so long without a letdown?

Wisconsin has had just two losing seasons (1995 and 2001) since Alvarez’s breakout 1993 Rose Bowl champion team, and the Badgers have the ninth-most wins since 2000 among Power-5 schools, and the fourth-most wins since 2005. Since 2014, only Alabama, Clemson, and Ohio State — winners of the last three national championships — have won more.

And Alvarez would like me to think that all this success, the reason Wisconsin became a national power, is all thanks to kids from, like, Sheboygan?

It’s just under 48 hours until kickoff of the 10-0 Badgers’ biggest game of the season. Michigan is like Wisconsin in so many ways — a dominant defense, a smashmouth offense, and only a semblance of a quarterback — and yet very different. It has regularly taken in four- and five-star talent for decades, but like most programs it’s gone through periods of volatility; the Wolverines are only just emerging back on the national scene after going barely over .500 under Rich Rodriguez and Brady Hoke.

Iowa v Wisconsin Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images

Michigan isn’t a great team, but the optics are important here. Wisconsin has beaten up on weak opponents and will finally be going up against a team that, for all its problems, definitively has more physical talent on scholarship. This game feels, in part, like a referendum: Is Wisconsin good enough to topple college football’s Brahmans, or is it capped at only ever being a quiet miracle, good enough to sustain a nearly irreplicable run of success but never win a national title?

It wasn’t that long ago that Wisconsin was getting pasted 59-0 by Ohio State in the Big Ten Championship game, and though it has improved, the Badgers went 0-3 against Michigan, Ohio State, and Penn State last season. As Wisconsin sits poised for a College Football Playoff berth, there remains the question whether its formula will ever accomplish more than occasionally winning a Big Ten title.

But don’t — don’t — tell Barry Alvarez that.

“We've been to six Rose Bowls since 2000,” Alvarez says. [Editor’s note: Technically five Rose Bowls since 1999 — it’s easy to lose track.] “When we had Russell [Wilson], we were right there, we were very close to winning a national championship — two Hail Marys.”

He raises his hand flat to his desk to show me Wisconsin’s metaphorical ceiling. “How can someone say you can only go ‘there?’”

Alvarez uses two important points of reference in recent Wisconsin history. There’s the Gary Andersen era, about which he says “we were on a downhill slide” because Andersen “did not emphasize recruiting the state or walk-ons. That's our meat and potatoes.” That era ended with the 59-0 lambasting.

Then there’s the high-water mark of the 2011 season, when, as Alvarez mentions, Wisconsin was two Hail Mary touchdowns away (given up to Michigan State and Ohio State) from being undefeated during the regular season and potentially playing for a national championship. Current head coach Paul Chryst was the offensive coordinator of that team, which finished sixth in the nation in scoring. He left after that season to become the head coach of Pitt. The fact that Alvarez hired him back after he went just 19-19 in Pittsburgh shows how strongly Alvarez felt that Wisconsin needed to return to a certain way of doing things.

And per usual, Alvarez was right. Andersen had nine- and 10-win seasons at Wisconsin, but he didn’t elevate Wisconsin’s success, notably missing the Rose Bowl. In contrast, 2016 — Chryst’s second season as head coach — felt like a revelation, beginning with the unranked Badgers’ upset win over No. 5 LSU. Wisconsin would go on to win 11 games and finish No. 9 in the AP poll after a New Year’s Six bowl victory.

They flirted with the playoffs then, climbing as high as No. 6 in the committee’s rankings. More impressively, the Badgers were young, setting themselves up for their present situation. There was one concern, however: Defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox, who led the Badgers’ seventh-ranked S&P+ defense, left Madison to become the head coach at Cal. In his place, Chryst and Alvarez promoted Jim Leonhard, the Wisconsin football walk-on legend who had joined the staff in 2016 as the defensive backs coach.

Leonhard was just two years removed from playing in the NFL, and had exactly one year of coaching experience. He is universally praised by anyone who has ever made contact with him as exceptionally bright and driven, but it was a bold promotion — what other national college football power would dare put a 34-year-old with no coordinating experience in charge of one of the best personnel groups in the nation?

And yet the decision seemed simple to Chryst and Alvarez.

“My question when Paul asked me if he was ready to do a good job was, ‘Does he want it?’” Alvarez says. “If he wanted it, then I knew he felt comfortable in managing it. There's no doubt in my mind he knew football.”

Somehow, Wisconsin has turned nepotism and nonchalance into a strength. The coaching staff includes former Wisconsin grads in offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph, tight ends coach Mickey Turner, and strength and conditioning coach Ross Kolodziej, in addition to Chryst and Leonhard. Inside linebackers coach Bob Bostad may as well have been a Badger, having graduated from UW-Stevens Point and coaching for Wisconsin from 2006 to 2011 before being rehired in 2017.

Chryst as the face of the Badgers is somewhat odd. The Badgers are as tough and hard-nosed as a college football team can be, and have only become more so under Chryst. But Chryst himself sometimes comes off as aloof and soft-spoken in his media appearances. He famously says little, but he does so in a way that feels sincere and thoughtful — not at all like he’s blowing you off, but that he believes deeply that taking too-small, too-slow high school kids and turning them into 6’5 hell-terrors is just a matter of course.

Chryst might be a genius, but he will never look it, and that’s entirely by design. He wants to be unassuming. He’s no Alvarez in that regard.

“Barry had a swag. You knew that Barry was riding with you, but Barry is also going to wear some Italian loafers and a nice button-up,” former Wisconsin wide receiver Brandon Williams tells me. “Paul is riding with you, but he's got on the team-issued sweatshirt and khakis, and he's gonna be Paul.”

Chryst is a reputed jokester. Montee Ball, the Badgers running back who set the FBS record for most career touchdowns in 2012, remembers feeling dejected after the Hail Mary loss to Ohio State in 2011. Chryst got the team to brighten up.

“He came into a meeting, the one thing that really sparked us all, he said, ‘Look, it's done, it's gone, who gives a crap about it now’ — that's what he said.” Then Chryst balled up a piece of paper and whipped it at the head of one of Ball’s teammates. “And from there, we all felt like, ‘We still got this, our OC's joking around.’”

Chryst feels lucky to be where he is because he knows Wisconsin as well as anyone can. He grew up in Madison, played quarterback for the Badgers during the Don Morton years — one of the worst three-year stretches in program history — and became a revered offensive coordinator before taking the Pitt job. He should be acutely aware of what it took to revive Wisconsin as a football program, and what could happen if it ever veered off script.

I catch up with Chryst after practice the Thursday before the Michigan game. He tells me he doesn’t spend too much time thinking about why Wisconsin seems to do more with less than anyone. I tell him I spend way too much time thinking about it.

”Right?” he says. “But I think I do agree that there is a formula or a blueprint — or whatever, that's even too fancy — but there's a way to do it that I think is right and kind of time-tested for this place. You always want to try to improve that, but you don't want to drastically change.”

You’ll be shocked to know that Chryst didn’t want to talk about his team’s current title chances — “I have a hard time talking about what this team is until this team is done, you know what I mean?” — but he stresses that this is all fun for him.

“And we talk about this all the time: The best part of football is playing the game. And you only win the game at the end of the game,” Chryst says. “So if all you're concerned about is winning the game, you missed the best part of the game, and that's playing.”

And that may be as soul-bearing as Chryst gets. I ask him if he has any last thoughts about anything we had talked about. He laughs and says, “I’ll never have more to say,” then jogs to the locker room.

Michigan v Wisconsin Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images

From midway through the second quarter until midway through the third quarter of Saturday's game, it seemed as if Wisconsin's existential nightmare had been realized.

Michigan looked insurmountably better at that point. The defensive front — one of the best in college football — was decimating a Wisconsin offensive line that was supposed to be the strength of the offense. Michigan's skill players were blowing past Wisconsin's physical defensive backs, who hadn't been tested much this season.

Michigan led just 10-7, but it could have been worse — Wisconsin's score came on a fluke-ish punt return; Michigan had a touchdown taken away after an iffy review. At that point, there was no conceivable adjustment that the coaching staff could make to stem a steady bleed.

Paul Chryst seemingly lost track of his game plan by committing to sophomore quarterback Alex Hornibrook to ignite the offense instead of feeding star true freshman running back Jonathan Taylor. Hornibrook entered the game with the highest interception rate in the country. Linebacker Devin Bush drifted in front of a deep pass over the middle for what felt like an inevitable turnover with 8:33 left in the third quarter.

Wisconsin seemed outmatched physically, and that's perhaps the most desperate feeling in college football. Wisconsin fans know this feeling. I’m one of them. My vented spleen is all over the internet. I once watched Wisconsin lose three straight Rose Bowls in person, and could only bring myself to write about the bacon-wrapped hot dogs after the last one. The loss to Duke in the 2015 NCAA tournament championship was the sickest I’ve ever felt after a sports loss. Last year, I saw Wisconsin lose a close game to Michigan in Ann Arbor, and wrote this afterward:

But it’s like all these concessions consign Wisconsin, and teams like it, to only ever be happy with itself and never full-throat celebrated.

That feels so wrong, given that Wisconsin won 11 games two years ago in the same season Michigan won five and missed a bowl game, given that Wisconsin won at least nine games in six of its last seven seasons while Michigan has done it just twice, given that only Ohio State has won more games than Wisconsin among Big Ten teams this century. The difference is, Wisconsin doesn’t have Michigan’s potential at any moment, and that doing the best you can seems to be very boring to the rest of the world.

I was reliving that day on Saturday. Michigan is a much younger squad than Wisconsin — the youngest in the nation, in fact — and yet the Wolverines were dominating the more veteran, better-coached Badgers because Michigan, at the full height of its talent, was better.

Wisconsin’s defense was its last hope. After Hornibrook’s interception, the person running the in-stadium sound system played the Badgers’ third-down pump-up music on first down, hoping to artificially energize a worried crowd. The fact that Michigan could only manage a field goal after taking over at Wisconsin’s 29-yard line was an enormous win. Still, that meant the ball would be turned back over to Wisconsin’s offense, and that seemed likely to produce more disasters.

An iffy pass interference call gave Wisconsin a first down at their own 34. No matter, Michigan’s defense forced Wisconsin into a must-throw third-and-13. Hornibrook dropped back and, like on the interception, released the ball quickly. Unlike the interception, his target was wide open, streaking through the left seam of the defense. Hornibrook, from no-one-knows-where, threw a dime to A.J. Taylor for a 51-yard gain.

Just as Michigan's dominance had seemed predictable, suddenly Wisconsin's victory seemed ordained. Four plays later, Hornibrook found Taylor again on third-and-long for a 24-yard touchdown into a tight, closing window that gave Wisconsin a lead that it wouldn't give up.

Wisconsin's defense doused the Wolverines, further adding to the legend of Jim Leonhard and validating Alvarez and Chryst. Michigan outgained Wisconsin 179 yards to 99 in the first half, converting 4-of-9 third downs. After half, Michigan gained just 64 total yards and went 1 for 8.

Barry Alvarez yells

Wisconsin’s 24-10 win felt important. No, it didn’t guarantee them a playoff spot — far from it. Wisconsin is No. 5 in the latest College Football Playoff rankings and has plenty of work still to do. Assuming the Badgers beat Minnesota on the road this Saturday, their game against Ohio State in the Big Ten Championship will have the highest stakes of any in Wisconsin’s history.

The win was important for how Wisconsin won. Normally, the Badgers need to play a near-perfect game to beat a more talented opponent, but on Saturday they played sloppily and still won. Normally, the best Wisconsin teams rely on redshirted players and upperclassmen, but this time youth led them against Michigan. True freshman Jonathan Taylor rushed for 132 yards on 19 carries. Another true freshmen, Danny Davis, made a one-handed grab on a crucial third-down conversion, and arguably should have had another in the first half if not for a questionable officials review. Hornibrook and A.J. Taylor, both with sophomore eligibility, made the two biggest plays of the go-ahead drive.

That’s another thing: A team built on walk-ons and “lesser” talented players should struggle with depth, but the Badgers have weathered injuries with aplomb. Wisconsin didn’t have perhaps its two best interior linebackers, Jack Cichy and Chris Orr, and it still held Michigan’s rushing attack to 2.2 yards per carry excluding sacks. The offense could have stalled when sophomore Quintez Cephus — the Badgers’ best wide receiver, and another leader of the youth movement — was lost for the season against Indiana, and yet Wisconsin scored on three of its final four non kneel-down possessions against Michigan because a committee of pass catchers stepped up.

You’ll also notice that all of those young, promising skill players are from out of state. Step 1 of Wisconsin’s renaissance, led by Alvarez, may have been securing its borders and wringing every ounce of potential from in-state talent, but more and more the Badgers are complementing those Wisconsin kids with far-flung players from places like New Jersey, California, and Georgia. The mix is formidable.

“Typically the California kid, he wouldn't want to work as hard as a Wisconsin kid,” outside linebacker Leon Jacobs, who played for Golden Valley in Bakersfield, Calif., tells me. “Cali being more people obviously has more talent, but just hard-working Wisconsin kids have them beat by far. And I just took that and molded that into myself.”

Nose tackle Olive Sagapolu, who played for Mater Dei in Santa Ana, Calif., concurs.

“Just knowing kids from Wisconsin, they're hard-nosed workers,” Sagapolu says. “Just look at them, some of the guys on the offensive line, they're big dudes. Especially dudes here in the Midwest, they like to get up early, get their chores done ... it just speaks for itself.”

The argument that “Wisconsin is simply different” seems hard to buy, and yet it’s the best explanation I hear all week for the reason why Wisconsin seems to embody football’s most tired platitudes better than any team in the country.

“We used to say, ‘What's important now’ — double you, eye, en — What's Important Now,” Alvarez says. “It's not rocket science, nothing magic. What's Important Now,” he knocks on the table as he says this, slipping into coach mode.

“Let's wrap up this week, let's stay focused, let's get your rest, let's eat right, let's take care of your business off the field” — (he’s telling me this) — “if your parents are coming, make sure they've got everything taken care of so somebody's not distracting you the day before the game or the day of the game, prepare yourself for Michigan and stay focused.”

No one I speak to seems to understand what I’m confused about. If they do, then maybe they know better than to question what appears to be an immaculate mini-society. In Wisconsin it all just makes sense: When you drink, you’re drinking; and when you work, you’re working. The least important players work as hard as the most, and somehow no one ever stops improving. If you ever lose your way, there are people like Leonhard to show you how it’s done.

“If you're not where you want to be, change it, and having the wherewithal to put it on your shoulders and not always look somewhere else,” Leonhard tells reporters after Wednesday practice. “They embrace the fact that if you want to get better, you might have to do a little bit extra, you might have to find a little bit different way to get the job done.”

Whatever Wisconsin’s secret formula, it helps that it’s situated in the considerably weaker half of the Big Ten. Even if they weren’t playing at an elite level, the Badgers would be well positioned to win at least a conference title every year. The Badgers are poised to stay in the national conversation, however. They lose just Troy Fumagalli and fullback Austin Ramesh off next year’s offense. The defense loses six starters, but many of the backups have already taken reps because of injuries.

“Will it be like that five years from now? I don't know, and frankly I don't care,” Williams says. “But right now, I can go sit on a kid’s couch and go, 'Hey, you want to go to the Big Ten Championship? I promise you, we have a better chance of going to the Big Ten Championship than Ohio State, Penn State, Michigan, or Michigan State right now, because we dominate our division.’ That's just how it is. And you can be the kid that can put us over the top, win the championship, and go to the College Football Playoff. What's up.”

Wisconsin is raising its expectations, even if no one will say so out loud. Where once a banner read “Road to the Rose Bowl” between the Badgers’ locker room and the field, it now reads “Road to the College Football Playoff.” It’s the same road Wisconsin has always taken, but an uncharted destination. The Badgers will push on until they get there, or else just push on forever.

How? I’m not sure. You could ask around, but you’ll get the same answer.

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