Badgers' Non-Conference Schedule: Taking A Trip Down Memory Lane (& Looking Ahead)

By: Rex Sheild

Doctors, nurses, and the like constantly stress that excessively eating sweets, particularly cupcakes, is not a good habit to partake in. However, that has not stopped members of Automatic Qualifying (AQ)/Power-Five (P5) conferences from excessively divulging in their own form of cupcakes year after year. The Wisconsin Badgers are no exception.

As such, the team’s previous non-conference opponents were far from stellar dating back the last 15 years or so. Bucky would play host to teams like Cal Poly, Wofford, and Austin Peay while traveling to UNLV, Hawaii, and Fresno State, among others.

My personal favorites were those late-season games against the Rainbow Warriors, watching Ron Dayne or John Clay (or really whatever running back was at the helm for that particular year) run for a million yards, more or less, against an inferior defense.

Of course, over that same time span, the Badgers played teams from the traditional powerhouse conferences. For instance, they had home-and-home series with three Pac-12 teams: (1) Oregon, 2000 and 2001; (2) Arizona State, 2010 and 2013; and (3) Oregon State, 2011 and 2012. Not to mention, in direct correlation to the advent of the College Football Playoff, UW upped its game so to speak and began scheduling perennial powerhouses.

The Badgers played LSU at NRG Stadium in Houston in 2014, played Alabama at AT&T Stadium in 2015, and played LSU at Lambeau Field in 2016. While the latter game may not have helped Paul Chryst’s squad as much as they would have thought at the time, because LSU started the season in the top five and never cracked the top 12 after that game, the outcome still presumably put a feather in their cap in terms of the eye test for the CFB Playoff Committee.

Altogether, all three games stood as a win-win proposition regardless of the outcome. Lose the game? That was expected. Win the game? Praise the heavens above; the Badgers are a CFB Playoff sleeper! 

This year, for whatever reason, there were no win-win propositions during the non-conference slate. As you know, the non-conference slate did not churn out a perennial powerhouse or even a Power-5 program for that matter. Further evidence that this year’s slate was more of a misnomer relative to recent history: Saturday’s contest at BYU marked the first time since 2010 that the Badgers played a true road game against a non-P5 program.

On that scorching September 2010 night in Sin City, UW beat UNLV, 41-21. If you include the game against Northern Illinois at Soldier Field in 2011, one that featured the Badgers as the road team, it was still six years since UW traveled to play a non-P5 program.

Instead, UW shelled out an obscene amount of money for the measly opponents to travel to Camp Randall Stadium. And as far as the 2017 regular season is concerned, Badgers paid $1.2 million to both Utah State and FAU, totaling $2.4 million. UW is not alone in that regard, either, as other P5 programs will spend roughly $150 million for “guarantee” games when the regular season is all said and done, according to USA Today’s Steve Berkowitz.

Regardless, Badger fans will have to come to terms with the following four scenarios related to future non-conference games over the next eight years, though this may be subject to change:

(1) Ten home games against non-P5 teams, which are all destined to be 11:00am kickoffs;

2018: Western Kentucky, New Mexico, BYU

2019: Central Michigan, Kent State

2020: Southern Illinois

2021: Army

2022: Hawaii

2023: Buffalo

2025: North Texas

(2) Two road games against non-P5 teams;

2019: South Florida

2024: Hawaii

(3) Three home-and-home series against P5 teams that are currently either somewhat decent (Virginia Tech and Washington State) or quite bad (Syracuse); and

2020 and 2021: Syracuse

2022 and 2023: Washington State

2024 and 2025: Virginia Tech

 (4) Two neutral-site games against Notre Dame

2020: Lambeau Field

2021: Soldier Field

While I am not a medical professional by any means, that schedule seems like a health scare waiting to happen. And from a fan's perspective, it may seem even worse. 

Lessons from 1997

BuckAround contributor Andy Schaaf (@akschaaf) compares the 2015 Badgers, especially along their reconstituted (reloading?) offensive line, to the Badgers of 1997 - the precursor squad to the Rose Bowl champs of 1998 and 1999.

It's been a rough month for your Wisconsin Badger offensive line. The departures of Kyle Costigan, Rob Havenstein, and Dallas Lewallen officially signaled the end of the Wisconsin O-Line dynasty that sprung up in 2009 and 2010. August of 2015 has been spent learning new names and hoping those new names can do enough to simply keep Joel Stave from getting killed in Dallas. The glory days of having future NFL’er Travis Frederick redshirt simply because there is no room for him on the depth chart these are not.

While redshirt freshman Michael Deiter spent 2014 impressing coaches and being groomed to be the next man up at right (or perhaps left?) guard, and fifth-year senior Tyler Marz and fourth-year junior Dan Voltz have left tackle and center, respectively, locked down, the other two spots have proven much more challenging. RS frosh Beau Benzschawel and RS sophomore Hayden Biegel were expected to compete for the RT position, but both have been injured for most of the past couple weeks. Many hoped Ray Ball would build on his experience last year and run away with the left guard position, but it has not happened (and he was recently added to the injury report). A week and a half until they meet Alabama's dominant front seven, Wisconsin is practicing with unknown RS freshmen Micah Kapoi at left guard and Jacob Maxwell at right tackle.

So there are some issues.

The issues are mostly the result of youth. There has been well-documented attrition, mostly injury-related, in the position group and it's hard to think of a time Wisconsin was this inexperienced in such a key program area. Of 13 scholarship offensive lineman, 9 are freshmen or sophomores. Of the 4 upper classmen, only Marz and Voltz have established themselves as reliable starters.

As a recent Buckyville poster mentioned, the last time a Wisconsin offensive line was inexperienced was 1997, deep in the heart of the Alvarez Era. It got me thinking about how that season came to be, how it played out, and what it meant going forward.  There are some interesting parallels to 2015.

The 1996 Badgers are known today almost exclusively for Ron Dayne bursting onto the scene, and that is fair, but that team featured a very experienced offensive line that helped get him started. Seniors Jerry Wunsch, Cayentano Castro, Derek Engler, and Jamie Vanderveldt anchored that line, with freshman Chris McIntosh learning on the job at LT.

The 1996 team was better than their 8-5 record, losing three in a row, to #3 Penn State, #2 Ohio State, and #14 Northwestern (JUST KNEE THE BALL!), by a combined 10 points. Dayne averaged 6.5 yards per carry and ran for 2,109 yards total. The senior-led line made things easy for him - and I don’t think we even hated Mike Samuel yet.

After the 1996 seniors left, things felt a little like they do today. The champions of 1993 were all but gone, and although the 1997 team featured some talent at the skill positions (Dayne, primarily), a new era had most certainly begun. Sixty-one of the 85 scholarship players were freshmen or sophomores, and when the 1997 fall training camp began, Alvarez was left in a similar situation to what Paul Chryst is facing this fall.

Chris McIntosh was already establishing himself as a mainstay at LT, and (large) project Aaron Gibson was ready to assume the RT position. Outside of them, there were a lot of unknowns. Casey Rabach, similar to Deiter this year, was the next young guy "ready to go," but Alvarez was forced to start freshmen unknowns Bill Ferrario and Dave Costa at the guard spots.

So, going into the 1997 season, Wisconsin had an established left tackle, a project right tackle and three mostly unknown freshmen on the interior. Sound slightly familiar?

Oh, and did I mention the 1997 team opened the season against a marquee opponent (#17 Syracuse was good at the time, I promise!) in a nationally- televised neutral-site game?

You probably recall that the 1997 opener didn’t go too well. Dayne, who ran wild a year earlier, finished with just 46 yards behind the new offensive line, and the 24th-ranked Badgers got smoked 34-0.  Throughout that year, the team showed the struggles that come with an inexperienced offensive line. After getting blown out in the opener, they eked out a 4-point win against (at the time) a lowly Boise State team at Camp Randall, and would go on to finish 8-5.

Unlike the 1996 team that was probably better than its record, the 1997 team probably wasn’t as good as its record, winning 3 games by a single point and losing 5 games by at least 10 points, including a depantsing in the Outback Bowl by Georgia.

The offense went from 36th nationally in ppg to 68th, with basically the same skill position players. Only Ahmad Merritt graduated after the 1996 season; Dayne, Samuel, Donald Hayes, and Tony Simmons all returned. Dayne saw his per carry average drop a full yard.

So does that mean the 2015 Wisconsin Badgers are doomed? Certainly not. It's foolish to put too much stock in a season 18 years ago when projecting 2015. It does, however, serve as a warning for expectations this year.

The thing about 1997 was that those growing pains all paid off. The freshmen that struggled then got a little better in 1998. The 1998 Big Ten Champs were built more on defense and special teams than on a dominant offensive attack, but still, the lasting memory of that season is the Badger offensive line and Ron Dayne steamrolling UCLA in Pasadena.

By 1999, the now upper classmen-filled offensive line dominated opponents and the Badgers sported one of the best offenses in the country. By 2001, the struggling freshmen of 1997 were all on NFL rosters. Will we be toasting Michah Kapoi’s NFL career in 10 years? One can hope the program and player trajectory follows a similar pattern.  

So even as we go through training camp angst this August, and pre-panic about the offensive line with the Alabama Crimson Tide on the horizon, 1997 serves as both an example of how a great offensive line at Wisconsin isn’t a given, and the potential that can be realized later with some patience and plenty of growing pains.

Who would have thought this would be a popular topic? Check out Jeff Potrykus' interviews with guys from the 1997 team for a first-hand account of the 1997 season.

Era of Good Feelings with Paul Chryst - How Long Will It Last?

"New" head coach Paul Chryst comes in this job welcomed as if he were an old friend, and it should provide him a wide berth from fans - but how wide will the berth eventually be in 2015?

When I was a kid in Racine, Wisconsin, I played sports like a lot of kids – in my neighborhood, at school, on organized teams.  Mostly, soccer, but some baseball and, as I got older, softball.  Softball was the best because I played in adult church leagues and got to play with older brothers, regular guys, and a few aging ex-jocks.  When I hear Paul Chryst talk in interviews – in any format – he reminds me not only of those older guys but also of nearly every single coach from whom I learned about technical aspects of sports.

Maybe, because like him, I grew up in Wisconsin; he sounds like those guys in tone and temper and looks a lot like them, too – right down to the tobacco he may or may not still chew.  I never knew or played with anyone like Urban Meyer, Jim Harbaugh, or even a Tim Beckman – most likely because I wasn’t ever much better than an average player, but equally so because those kind of head coaches are special  personalities – it takes a little crazy to get to the top of college football coaching.  Those guys are variously extremely driven, high-intensity, and, in some cases, just plain weird.  Few “regular” people come across the type very often.

Chryst, on the other hand, doesn’t seem like any of those head coaches (obviously I, and just about anyone reading this, don’t know him personally).  In fact, he doesn’t even come off as particularly erudite, brainy, or intense.  When he talks to the media, he’s not high-minded, arrogant, or even football geeky; he’s even worked on his media approach with experts.  Most people call him “down to earth.” Even as he often reveals very little other than his obvious, but yet still subdued, enthusiasm for football in general and this job, and this team, in particular, he’s perceived by nearly everyone as “honest.”

Most fans know his mild-mannered exterior also merely lies on top of his considerable offensive football acumen.  He might be underestimated by opposing fans, but rarely by opposing coaches.  For Wisconsin, he showed it as an offensive coordinator; the offenses of 2009, 2010, and 2011 are your evidence.  That success, any maybe his familiarity to us, makes it easy to forget that we still have to wait and see how he applies all this as Wisconsin's head coach.

There is his well-known and well-documented background in Wisconsin Badger football; it’s as if he was born for this job.  But I suspect that many, if not most, Wisconsin fans grew up in a more or less similar, and Wisconsin(-y), milieu to the one I did and I also suspect that this kind of perceived familiarity, personality-wise, accounts just as much for the warm welcome he’s received from Badger football fandom at large.  We relate to him because he comes off like so many people we knew growing up and/or know now in our everyday lives; it’s a little preposterous really, but we feel like we “know” the guy.

The more senior members of the media covering Wisconsin have often treated Chryst as a prodigal son returned home, but who can blame them?  They DO actually know him personally and have for years.  There's certainly no dereliction of duty, but the media's handling of Chryst, especially when he was hired and introduced, has helped shape fans' reception of him as well.

By the same token, these widely held feelings on the part of fans that balance seems to have been restored to the Force, especially after the apparently ill-fitting Gary Andersen bolted for a something of a lesser position (two years after erstwhile Barry Alvarez acolyte Bret Bielema did roughly the same thing), have tended to gloss over at least some legitimate concerns as Chryst opens his tenure.  His 19-19 record at Pitt is underwhelming, even if that program was a basket case when he took it over.  Even though his first classes at Wisconsin came or are coming together well enough, he’s never been known or seen as an ace recruiter.  Then there’s what happened at Pitt on defense under his watch; the longer Dave Aranda stays, the better, but it can’t be forever for such a rising star.  Nevertheless, until on-field results start to be compiled, Chryst will be given the benefit of the doubt by most fans because of his deep ties to the program and, equally, his familiar, oh-so-“Wisconsin” personality.

Chryst does step into a situation where the team he takes over just won a conference division title and was, on the whole, fairly young.  Even after losing a Heisman runner-up, it’s the consensus opinion that this team has sufficient personnel to repeat as a division winner; put another way, Chryst is, and probably should be, expected to get the team back to yet another B1G title game.  It probably won’t happen, but what if the Badgers are 3-3 in conference and still have a potentially resurgent Northwestern and Ax-rival Minnesota left to deal with?  What if Nebraska wins the West?  What if Alabama wins 38-0?

When Chryst made the quite off-hand “Quest for Fun” comment during his season-opening press conference, it was revealing.  You may hear Beckman or maybe Harbaugh say something like that, but never Meyer.  It was reminder that while he brings a serious mind, commitment, and intelligence to this job, there’s an essential element of levity with Chryst, too.  This should help the players keep in mind that any pressure in Arlington will be on the Crimson Tide, not the Badgers.  On-field performance notwithstanding for now, the same levity should carry this team through the more important games on the schedule this season: at Nebraska, at Minnesota, and, where the lion’s share of any pressure is almost certain to be on the East Division winner, in a quite possible B1G title game.

The comment of course also harkened back to the local adult sports guys of my youth.  It’s something most, if not all, of them would have said, although maybe not in so many words.  And boy, did help me and my teammates to always give it our level best to win, toughly and usually smartly.  Didn’t always do it, but it was almost always fun – when we didn’t win, we usually felt like we didn’t lose, we just ran out of time.  For this season, under “new” coach Paul Chryst, the only question is in how many games will it feel, for players and fans both, like the Badgers just simply ran out of time?  Or in other words, how long will the honeymoon last?