The Badgers are off to a fantastic start. They’re 4-0, and none of the games have been close. In victory, they’ve demonstrated a dynamic offense, one that’s likely send terror through their upcoming opponents. But here’s the problem. Wisconsin has played four games, its entire non-conference slate, and beaten nobody of note.
For shame, Wisconsin.
The Badgers are off to a fantastic start. They’re 4-0, and none of the games have been close. In victory, they’ve demonstrated a dynamic offense, one that’s likely send terror through their upcoming opponents.
Quarterback Russell Wilson, who transferred from North Carolina State after getting run off by coach Tom O’Brien, has not just fit in seamlessly but added a dimension no Wisconsin team has had during its return to prominence over the past 18 years.
The Badgers have had solid quarterbacks, most recently Scott Tolzien, but they were game managers, decent passers. Wilson is a superb runner and strong thrower. Combined with Wisconsin’s usual power running attack, his presence poses too many problems for defenses to stop.
If teams load the box against the run, he picks them apart through the air. If they drop back in pass coverage, Montee Ball and James White gut them with runs up the middle. And then there’s Wilson’s running.
It’s potentially unstoppable, and has shown with the Badgers averaging 532.3 yards of total offense and 48.5 points per game.
But here’s the problem.
Wisconsin has played four games, its entire non-conference slate, and beaten nobody of note.
The four opponents to date have been UNLV, Oregon State, Northern Illinois and South Dakota. That’s a sub-.500 team from the Mountain West, a winless team from the Pac-12, a .500 team from the Mid-American Conference and an FCS team.
Plenty of teams schedule four patsies in order to inflate their record before getting into the meat of league play, where losses are a lot more common given the power of the teams that populate the Big Six conferences. But those are the second-level teams and below, the schools that rarely compete for conference championships and national titles and instead consider eight or nine wins a success and sometimes struggle to reach bowl eligibility.
Teams with high aspirations, those who play for BCS bowls, do more.
They have a couple of sure non-conference victories, but they also sprinkle in at least one major test and sometimes two. It doesn’t necessarily serve them, the risk perhaps higher than the reward, but it shows honor.
Consider LSU. The top-ranked (using the AP poll) Tigers opened the season against Oregon, and last Saturday night traveled to West Virginia. Second-ranked Oklahoma was at Florida State a couple of weeks ago. Third-ranked Alabama was at Penn State three weeks ago.
The list goes on.
Boise State beat Georgia. Stanford will play Notre Dame. Oregon lost to LSU. South Carolina has Clemson looming.
Among teams currently ranked in the top 10, only two others have non-conference slates that don’t include another team that’s traditionally strong. One of them, Oklahoma State, plays in the Big 12 where teams play nine conference games rather than eight, and is also one of those teams that’s not usually highly ranked and more often than not is middling. The other, Nebraska, is a team still in recovery mode after falling hard in the years after Tom Osborne retired, a traditional power that hasn’t played like it for quite a while and could still use some easy wins to pad its record as it continues to improve.
Virginia Tech also deserves to be called out for its horrendous non-conference schedule, but the Hokies currently lurk outside the top 10.
And then there’s Wisconsin, the defending Big Ten champions, a school that has been right behind Ohio State for the unofficial title as the conference’s top dog, ahead of Michigan and Penn State. But the Badgers still play a non-conference schedule reflective of their former status as an also-ran.
If Wisconsin truly wants to be considered a premier program, it needs to upgrade its schedule. It needs to start playing the kind that get the Badgers on national television early in the season rather than just against the Buckeyes and Wolverines - and now the Cornhuskers, who play their first Big Ten game Saturday night in Madison.
It’s true that Wisconsin played Oregon State, a team from the Pac-12. But the Beavers have never been considered one of the best of the west, in its good years an eight- or nine-win team but just as apt to win five, six or seven. Mediocre. And this year Oregon State is 0-3, the lone team from a BCS conference without a win.
Wisconsin is a school that was terrible 20 years ago. It’s rise under Barry Alvarez and the fact that Bret Bielema has been able to keep the Badgers not merely relevant but perhaps improved on what Alvarez accomplished has been remarkable. Teams that come back from the dead like Wisconsin did usually get good for just a little while and then recede toward mediocrity - like Rutgers or Louisville - or stay good under the coach the rebuilt them but fall apart when he leaves, like Colorado.
But the Badgers now have close to two decades of excellence. They’ve won three Rose Bowls and played in another. They are always in the conversation when contenders for the Big Ten crown are considered. They are often given an outside chance at making a run toward the national championship, like this year.
Yet the schedule doesn’t reflect that kind of success.
It’s time to start playing more than just the Big Ten. It’s time to see more than just a single lousy to mediocre school from a Big Six conference show up on the schedule. It’s time to see the Badgers butt helmets with another of the nation’s best before the start of October.
Until then, shame on Wisconsin. You, too, Va. Tech.
What We Learned
Two weeks ago, it looked like the ACC was on the rise. Last weekend demonstrated that teams like Miami and Florida State still have plenty of problems, and Maryland’s blowout loss to Temple was simply an embarrassment to a conference struggling for credibility.
But one team showed that its performance the previous week was no mirage, that while the ’Canes and ’Noles may not be ready for prime time there is someone in the ACC that is worthy of praise, and fear from opponents.
Yes, Clemson, the perennial underachiever.
Two weeks ago in a battle of Tigers, Clemson took down Auburn, ending the defending national champion’s 17-game winning streak. And last Saturday afternoon Clemson toppled Florida State, the team that was expected to run through the ACC and make its return to the Orange Bowl after a six-year absence.
Should the Tigers win at Virginia Tech this weekend, an 8-0 start heading to Georgia Tech is a very real possibility.
Then again, given Clemson’s mercurial past, so is a bad loss to the Hokies. It’s far too soon to say the Tigers are a great team, but through four weeks they’ve shown this year could be different than those others when accolades were heaped on them in August and by the time October rolled around they were already a disappointment.
“We’re excited about this game,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said this week. “I’m anxious to take these guys on the road and see where we are. We’ve been a good
home team, but we have to be able to win on the road. We’re starting at the top and it’s going to be a big test for us. I like the demeanor of our team and where they are mentally. They’re excited about playing in that venue.”
So far, Clemson is winning with offense. Running back Andre Ellington and quarterback Tajh Boyd - not to mention stud freshman receiver Sammy Watkins - lead an attack that is averaging better than 505 yards per game and scoring 37.8.
The concern, however, is defense. There’s no shame or worry in giving up 24 points to Auburn or 30 to Florida State, but allowing Wofford to score 27 has to be troubling. As well as the offense has played, the defense has been its polar opposite, allowing 405.5 yards per game and 25.5 points.
“I think our guys are ready (for Virginia Tech),” said Swinney. “They’ve been an easy group to refocus every week. Our schedule has helped us. We haven’t had a chance to think about the last game because we’ve had to focus on the next game. You’re going on the road now, which is a little different. These guys have a ton of respect for our conference opponents. Every game counts.”
Clemson may yet do its usual fade. The last two weeks, however, have shown that this year may be different.
Game of the Week
Three games leap from the rest.
There’s Nebraska’s first Big Ten game, playing at Wisconsin in a battle of teams ranked in the top 10. There’s suddenly hot Clemson facing what figures to be its stiffest conference test with a trip to Blacksburg to play Virginia Tech. But the game that will most likely have the biggest impact on the national-title chase is Alabama’s journey to The Swamp to play Florida, where Bama coach Nick Saban will match up against his former assistant Will Muschamp, who served under Saban at LSU.
If form holds, the Tide will roll over the Gators and set up an epic clash at home against LSU on Nov. 5 between what could be No. 1 and No. 2. But there’s nothing easy about a night game on the road in Gainesville, and that plays in Florida’s favor, making an upset distinctly possible.
In fact, if the Gators win, it sets a monster showdown next Saturday between Florida and LSU.
“This is a challenge for our team, a great opportunity for our team to play probably one of the best teams in our league,” Saban said on Monday. “No doubt it is one of the most difficult places to play and a program that has great tradition. This is a great opportunity, and I want our players to focus on what they need to do to play well. These guys have great players; we’ve got great players.”
Statistically, Alabama and Florida are extremely close. The Gators are giving up an average of nine points per game, and the Tide eight. The Gators are averaging 40.25, and the Tide 38.5.
If there’s a difference, it’s in the level of competition.
Alabama has done its work against four opponents that include Penn State and Arkansas, while Florida has done its against four unranked opponents (Tennessee and Kentucky among them).
The Gators boast the running tandem of Jeff Demps and Chris Rainey, leading an attack that’s gaining 259 yards per game. But the Tide counter with Trent Richardson, and its rushing average of 230.8 yards per game has been done against better defenses.
“It’s going to be a real good game,” said Alabama linebacker Dont’a Hightower. “It’s always a good game with Alabama and Florida.”
And the stakes are high.
My Top 10
1. LSU (4-0): West Virginia is the latest notch in the Tigers’ belt.
2. Alabama (4-0): At Florida is no gimme.
3. Oklahoma (3-0): Maybe there was a bit of a letdown after beating Florida State.
4. Oklahoma State (4-0): Winning at Texas A&M was eye-opening.
5. Boise State (3-0): Kellen Moore’s accuracy remains a marvel.
6. Stanford (3-0): The schedule is not particularly tough until Oregon on Nov. 12.
7. Wisconsin (4-0): Business picks up with the Cornhuskers coming to town.
8. Oregon (3-1): The Ducks’ offense is rolling again.
9. Florida (4-0): A huge test comes against Alabama.
10. South Carolina (4-0): Unimpressive, but the Gamecocks keep winning.
Contact Eric Avidon at 508-626-3809 or firstname.lastname@example.org.