Wisconsin was a Big Ten mini-dynasty not long ago. That the Badgers made three Rose Bowls in a row from 2010 to 2012 is obscured because they lost them, and maybe because their 2012 appearance came, remarkably, amid a six-loss season. But this program won 32 games from 2009 to 2011. It even won 21 the last two years. Business has been consistently good.
But the big fish has been elusive. The Pasadena losses are what they are, and the 59-0 thrashing by Ohio State in the 2014 Big Ten title game left a mark. Wisconsin’s had a ceiling.
But if Paul Chryst’s team wins its next two games, the Badgers will be a Playoff frontrunner. We’ll be talking about a 12-0 regular season, and we’ll be doing it with straight faces.
We shouldn’t expect that to happen, because those next two games come at Michigan and against Ohio State, who both appear at the height of their powers. A win against either one of them is a pretty big ask. Our panel of game-pickers has very little faith that Wisconsin can win this week in the Big House.
Wisconsin’s schedule was supposed to hold the Badgers down. Not so far.
LSU might not be any good, even if it was a top-five win when Wisconsin beat the Tigers at Lambeau Field. But if LSU finishes strong under new interim coach Ed Orgeron, that win could look sterling. You could say the same about Michigan State, whose win at Notre Dame looked good at the time.
Maybe Wisconsin doesn’t have a great win yet. Maybe it has two. But 4-0 is 4-0, and now the Badgers have chances at two unquestionably elite wins.
Wisconsin’s not playing with house money, because every loss makes winning the Big Ten West harder. The worst case is that the Badgers emerge 4-2 overall and 1-2 in the league, with a potentially delicious buffet of Iowa, Northwestern, Illinois, Purdue, and Minnesota left, with Nebraska at home.
The best case is the Badgers come out 6-0 and 3-0, with two best-in-show wins against Michigan and Ohio State, while maybe the LSU and MSU wins start to look prettier.
Either Wisconsin is fine, or Wisconsin is way better than fine.
Yeah, there are reasons to pour cold water on this thing ...
The West isn’t necessarily a two-horse race. The Badgers and Nebraska look better than everyone else at a combined 8-0, but Iowa and Minnesota are in the picture.
Wisconsin has a 28 percent chance of finishing league play 7-2 or better, which probably would put the team in Indianapolis for a second date with either the Buckeyes or Wolverines.
UW also has a lot to work on. The proud running game has been nowhere to be seen, either in efficiency or explosiveness. The Badgers only ran for about 3 yards per game in the LSU and MSU wins, and feature back Corey Clement averages a mediocre 3.9. As a team, Wisconsin's 81st nationally in rushing success rate (an efficiency measure) and 102nd in rushing IsoPPP (explosiveness). The yards-per-carry figure is 3.9, the same as Clement's and 99th.
The quarterback play has been fine, but not spine-tingling. Redshirt freshman Alex Hornibrook replaced veteran Bart Houston as the starter last week and did OK, going 16-of-26 for 195 yards, a score, and a pick. A few of the receivers are really good players, but nobody’s exactly un-coverable.
Again, Ohio State and Michigan continue to exist. That’s tough.
... but focus on the potential.
The brutality of Wisconsin’s schedule is quickly falling into the rear-view mirror. It’ll be all the way gone in a few weeks, with nothing left to do but hunt double-digit wins.