by Andy Schaaf
One of the most disheartening things about being a die-hard Badger football fan in the summer of 2016 is that every conversation I have seems to revolve around the schedule. I can’t chat up someone about the beauty of Jack Cichy rushing the passer or the ridiculous potential of the offensive line without first acknowledging that yes, they have a lot of tough games and they won’t win 11 of them this year.
It is something that has been hanging over the fandom for at least a year, if not longer. As if somehow this season doesn’t matter or is something we shouldn’t invest in because there’s a good chance they lose a bunch of games.
Well, that’s crap.
This isn’t a National Championship caliber team
When the polls come out, I expect the Badgers to be ranked in the 15-25 range. This team should be good, possibly very good, but this isn’t “adding Russell Wilson to a Rose Bowl team” good, just a very solid Badger team.
Breaking in a new QB with a still very young and green line, just one real, potential game changer at a skill position (Clement), and a new defensive system -- this isn’t the sort of year where even the most optimistic Badger fan is thinking National Championship in August.
If there aren’t realistic National Championship goals, the schedule matters much less.
Seasons aren’t judged by record
This is the biggest point that gets lost. We care so much about the record from September to November, then immediately forget it, because it truly doesn’t matter, and it is not how teams are remembered.
There aren’t 10 year anniversary celebrations planned (that I know of) for the 2006 12-1 team (that didn’t play anyone until the Bowl game and lost to the only ranked team it played before then). There won’t be a 30 for 30 on Gary Andersen’s epic 7-1 march through the Big Ten West in 2014.
We will still however, remember Ron Dayne destroying the Big Ten, Melvin Gordon embarrassing Nebraska (x2), the Brett Bell game, the Jazz Peavy catch, the David Gilreath kickoff return, the Scott Starks fumble return, etc. Just listing these is a post on its own, but it showcases how we remember games and players, not how many conference losses a particular team had.
On a recent Buckaround podcast, Chris Vannini made a remark entirely applicable to this year’s team: most Michigan St fans view the 2013 and 2014 Spartan teams as better than the 2015 playoff team. As a casual follower of that program I find that easy to agree with. People forget the teams' records as once they stop mattering.
But the Bowl Game!
Granted, there are tiers for bowl games, and it's undeniably a point of pride to fans where their team ends up every December/January, but in the end, they are exhibitions that don’t matter. Does anyone look at the Holiday Bowl with bitterness because they think the Badgers could have been playing in the Citrus instead? I doubt it.
Making a bowl is obviously important for a variety of reasons, both financial and on the player-development side, and you definitely don’t want to be playing a MAC team in Detroit in mid-December, but: for the most part, a bowl is a bowl.
The Schedule forces the Badgers to get better
While no fan wants to watch Bucky lose on Fall Saturdays, there credible advantages to a schedule like 2016s.
Teams can get complacent when they just show up and win 9-10 games. But playing good to great teams week in week out gives the program a goal and helps it set a bar for where it should be. It could force a team to address recruiting differently or it could force innovation in game plans and schemes. It could force the teams to try different players at a given position instead of the "safe" pick, like at the QB position.
Barry Alvarez summed it up himself after the Badgers' lopsided Outback Bowl loss to Georgia in 1998:
If fans want the program to compete with college football's blue bloods, they have to actually play those blue bloods, even if it means taking a lot of lumps. When you beat a blue blood, though, that's making some real progress. Alvarez's teams did that a bunch of times; Bielema's teams less, but still a few. For this year's team, the schedule is filled with chances.
We get to watch good teams!
I always get confused by the doom and gloom with the schedule. Would people rather watch the Badgers play at Rutgers instead of at the Big House? Austin Peay instead of LSU at Lambeau? Yes, they are going to play tougher teams, they are going to have some tough losses, but that’s part of the beauty that is college football.
Having a couple home games good enough to get the students there before halftime and stay into the fourth quarter. Playing in road venues where alums want to travel. This is what college football is about. I became a Badger fan by going to big games and watching the Badgers on the biggest stages in college football, not by watching 11 a.m. games on ESPNU.
So instead of being perpetually and prematurely down on a season that will most likely have has a few losses, let's get ready to embrace the experiences of having real college football back in our lives this Fall. And do so with both arms when the Badgers actually play these great games.