MADISON, Wis. — The nature of college football fandom is such that supporters of a program almost always are left wanting more. If it’s a losing season, then the goal is simply to reach a bowl game. If it’s a third-tier bowl, then the objective is to play in a more prestigious postseason event.
And if, in the case of Wisconsin, it’s going to Rose Bowls and winning double-digit games in multiple seasons, then the goal shifts to a realm about which only few programs can dream: competing for a national championship.
For all the Badgers’ successes in the last 25 years — and there have been plenty — a legitimate national title chase has eluded the program and its fan base. There have been six Rose Bowl appearances since the 1993 season and 11 seasons of double-digit victories. Yet only twice in that span did Wisconsin open a season with more than six consecutive victories.
That figures to change this season thanks to a favorable schedule and a tremendous amount of team-wide talent. Which is why I’m here to tell you it’s OK to dream big about Wisconsin for the next two months. It’s still early, but the stars appear to be aligning for what could be one of the best and most special seasons in program history.
Wisconsin is off to its first 5-0 start since the 2011 team opened the season with six straight wins. Already, the Badgers have taken over sole possession of first place in the Big Ten West and continue to climb up the national rankings. Wisconsin is ranked No. 6 in the latest coaches poll and No. 7 in the Associated Press poll. Wisconsin overcame a major hurdle at Nebraska, which had won 20 consecutive night games until Saturday. And there is little reason to believe the Badgers will be significantly challenged in the next four weeks with games against Purdue, Maryland, Illinois and Indiana.
Consider that, since 2004, Wisconsin is 32-1 against those four teams. Purdue, while much improved this season, has lost 11 consecutive games to Wisconsin. Maryland has lost its first two games against the Badgers since joining the Big Ten, Illinois has lost seven straight and Indiana nine straight. Those four teams are a combined 2-6 in conference games this season.
If Wisconsin plays at the level expected, the Badgers will be 9-0 entering a critical three-game stretch to close the regular season against Iowa, Michigan and Minnesota. Iowa and Minnesota are a combined 1-4 in Big Ten play, while Michigan just lost 14-10 to Michigan State.
The deepest a Wisconsin team has made it into a season still undefeated in the last 25 years came in 1998 and 2004, when the Badgers opened 9-0. The 1998 team lost 27-10 at Michigan, ending any shot of a national championship opportunity. Wisconsin went on to win the Rose Bowl and finish 11-1. The 2004 team, meanwhile, lost its final three games.
Michigan has stood in the way of Wisconsin making history more than once. During Bret Bielema’s first season as Badgers coach in 2006, Wisconsin lost its fourth game at Michigan. It marked the only ranked team the Badgers played during the regular season. Wisconsin finished 12-1, a school record for wins in a season. But that Wisconsin team was unranked through the first six games and didn’t even crack the top 10 in the AP poll until its bowl game against Arkansas.
This time around, Michigan figures once again to be the only ranked team on Wisconsin’s regular-season schedule. Unlike those other two matchups against the Wolverines in 1998 and 2006, which were in Ann Arbor, the game on Nov. 18 will take place at what will be an absolutely manic Camp Randall Stadium.
Wisconsin is fast approaching uncharted territory, and how players and coaches handle the attention that is sure to follow will be vital. But since these opportunities don’t come along often, they should be savored by the Badgers fan base.
My first season on the Wisconsin beat came in 2011, and I arrived in time to watch Wisconsin obliterate Indiana 59-7 at Camp Randall Stadium and move to 6-0. The Badgers were ranked No. 6 in the BCS standings entering a two-game road stretch against Michigan State and Ohio State. By the time they returned to Camp Randall for a home game against Purdue, they had lost twice and fallen to No. 20. Wisconsin hasn’t won its first six games since.
So enjoy the moment, Badgers fans, because one never knows where it could end this season. Perhaps Wisconsin wins double-digit games again but falls short of its goal and plays in a nice New Year’s Six bowl that would still make about 100 other FBS fan bases envious.
Or maybe Wisconsin finally stays in the national title hunt, qualifies for the College Football Playoff and provides the type of thrill that Badgers faithful have dreamed about for years. This team certainly has the skill to pull off such a feat. Now it’s a matter of executing where past Wisconsin teams have faltered.
Either way, it figures to be a wild ride. Buckle up.
The post On the Beat: Why it’s OK to dream big about a truly special Wisconsin football season appeared first on Land of 10.