On Wisconsin

By Ramzy Nasrallah on May 21, 2013 at 11:30a
jared abbrederis

The Big Ten's deteriorating reputation in football has been a tragic comedy in three acts.

First, there's the Southeastern Conference, which is 17-8 in BCS bowls and owns the past seven crystal balls. That kind of ruthless domination requires a counterbalance, and since no one seems to notice or care that the ACC is 3-13 (with landmark wins over Northern Illinois, Cincinnati and a pre-ACC Virginia Tech) or that the Big XII is 9-11 in those games, the Big Ten (13-14) gets to be the big slacker. Act I: Perception.

Second, despite the BTN money train and nationally-competitive athletics spending overall there seems to be very little appetite among the majority of B1G programs to join the arms race in football, which results in no fewer than seven programs who are consistently punching up in games against other major conference teams.

Michigan and Ohio State are the only two programs consistently recruiting with significantly higher aspirations than simply achieving bowl eligibility. Unfortunately Penn State had to replace its naked emperor with crippling sanctions, otherwise that could be a three-team league. Act II: Reality.

If Wisconsin is the B1G's national protagonist this conference must be pretty awful.

And third is Wisconsin, which emerged 20 seasons ago from the Big Ten's basement under Barry Alvarez and has overstayed its welcome recently with the aid of both a blighted conference blinded by easy television money as well as deliberately weak and fortunate scheduling.

The Badgers, the defending B1G champions, are pursuing their fourth consecutive Rose Bowl trip. In any other period this would easily be the mark of a dynasty. In this era, it reinforces just how far the Big Ten has fallen.

Act III: Historical context. If Wisconsin is what now constitutes the B1G's national protagonist, this conference must be pretty awful.

Behold the programs that have graced Pasadena three straight Januarys over the past half-century: Southern California under John McKay, Larry Smith and Pete Carroll; Washington under Don James, Michigan under Bo Schembechler, and Ohio State under Woody Hayes.

Think of how those teams are revered and consider that Wisconsin under Bret Bielema is also on that list. Which one of these is not like the other?

Bielema left Wisconsin 1-5 against Ohio State, 2-3 against Penn State, 3-4 against Michigan State and 2-5 in bowl games. He went 3-2 against Michigan with three shots at Rich Rodriguez and none at Brady Hoke, whose Wolverines haven't seen the Badgers since 2010.

This is the program that has represented the Big Ten - and lost - in three consecutive Rose Bowls. Fart. Noise.

Racking up wins against one of the consistently weakest schedules doesn't translate to Rose Bowl victories. 

Unless Nick Saban's success at LSU and Alabama following a half-decade of futility in the Big Ten isn't an anomaly, Bielema should struggle at Arkansas, though the non-conference dessert scheduling he enjoyed in Madison will follow him south.

The timing has been serendipitous for Wisconsin's "rise": During Bielema's tenure, Michigan sustained both Lloyd Carr's apathy and the failed Rodriguez experiment. Ohio State's scandal ruined a shot at two of those three aforementioned Rose Bowl trips, and with the Buckeyes ineligible last season Penn State would have gone to Indianapolis instead were it not for its own sanctions.

Kirk Ferentz also lost command of maddening witchcraft. And Michigan State, which has never been allowed to have nice things, still carried a winning record against Bielema's Badgers. That setback epidemic hasn't kept these programs from beating Wisconsin during its Rose Bowl runs - they all have. It's just prevented them from reaching Pasadena themselves. 

Protected rivalries force all of those teams (except Iowa) to play each other regularly, while the Badgers skate through each schedule with fewer landmines. When they don't skate, they usually lose, but since programs like Minnesota, Illinois, Purdue and Indiana seem disinterested in being legitimately competitive, Wisconsin has taken advantage.

And in all seriousness: Good for Wisconsin. But bad for the Big Ten. That's Act III in a nutshell.

If you would like a granular glimpse into the paper-thin façade of Wisconsin's three-year Rose Bowl run, look no further than FBS career touchdown record-holder Montee Ball.

Ball finished his college career with an absurd 83 touchdowns to his credit. He racked up 15 of those scores in Wisconsin's traditional non-conference slate against paycheck opponents like Northern Iowa, UTEP, UNLV, Austin Peay, South Dakota and Hawaii. He got another 11 against Indiana (!) and four in one game against that famous Greg Robinson 3-3-5 defense.

That isn't to say that Ball wasn't an exceptional college back (he was) or that Wisconsin isn't a decent program (it is) but one player scoring 30 goddamn touchdowns exclusively against willfully-scheduled cupcakes and historically record-setting bad defenses is a similar grade inflation and curve to the one that propelled the Badgers under Bielema.

You see this coming at you and then you pee a little and then you die.There are more gaping holes in UW's 3-peat than...um...

The coaches change, but the formula remains the same: This August the Badgers open with Massachussetts, arguably the nation's worst FBS team. The following Saturday they actually downgrade and host Tennessee Tech, one of the weakest programs in FCS' Ohio Valley Conference.

Michigan, Michigan State and Nebraska might pose a challenge to Wisconsin - if they played them. They're all off the schedule.

So Bielema's replacement Gary Andersen is already the front-runner for B1G Coach of the Year, which will probably go to winner of the Wisconsin/Northwestern game on October 12. Look for James White to be showered with Ball comparisons no sooner than mid-September.

The Badgers are positioned to be exactly what they have been for the better part of the past decade: A bridesmaid-caliber program that finagles its way to the altar. They have done nothing improper to get there. Their methods and successes are a larger indictment of how poor the rest of the conference has been.

Somehow, it's going to get easier: Once Rutgers and Maryland join in 2014 there will be no Buckeyes, Wolverines, Nittany Lions or Spartans on Wisconsin schedule (no, seriously) while Western Illinois, Bowling Green and South Florida all "invade" Madison. 

It's all aligned for a fourth act which would look a lot like the third one, since the only six-loss Rose Bowl program in history won't be threatened by Ohio State and Michigan furiously returning to their myopic 1970s grudge match. 

The Badgers will not only be nesting comfortably over in the significantly weaker West Division, they will continue to opportunistically lurk near the top of the standings just as they have since this tragic comedy began.

As a tone-deaf Bielema once quipped upon being asked about the scandal in Columbus and the tragedy in State College: It's a good day to be a Badger. He's never been more right.


Comments Show All Comments

OSUs12-OH's picture

Your articles are always great but this line even made me laugh on a really tough day.   On a day where I find myself wondering how my mom is doing in Riverside with no clear reason what's wrong (she required two pints of blood and multiple tests such as spinal taps and so on in just one days time).  Thanks for your albeit inadvertent way of making me laugh on such a tough day. 

"This is the program that has represented the Big Ten - and lost - in three consecutive Rose Bowls. Fart. Noise."

Thanks again Ramzy:-)

"I want a hungry team. I want a team that can't wait to get out there. I want an angry team! You're the Ohio State Buckeyes. You're an angry football team. You're a hungry football team and I'm proud to be your coach." UFM

BrooklynBuckeye's picture

I hope nothing turns out to be wrong with your Mom. Best wishes. 

OSUs12-OH's picture

Thanks man.  Just got a phone call from my dad that she's getting out of ICU tonight:-) They had nothing as far as a diagnosis after staying at Riverside till they made my leave last night.  That worried more than anything.  So far so good.  

"I want a hungry team. I want a team that can't wait to get out there. I want an angry team! You're the Ohio State Buckeyes. You're an angry football team. You're a hungry football team and I'm proud to be your coach." UFM

pasadena buckeye's picture

Hope your mom has a speedy recovery.

Pasadena Buckeye

EastwoodsCousin's picture

Ah, Wisconsin football.  The Wisconsin basketball of the FBS.

"I tried being reasonable, I didn't like it"

MackRM408's picture

And Michigan State, which has never been allowed to have nice things

I lol'ed at this...as my MSU grad boss was lurking behind me and asked what was so funny.

Earle's picture

Hold on just one gosh darn minute!  So you are telling me that 3 consecutive Rose Bowls do not make Bielema a great coach? Someone better tell Arkansas...Nah, they'll find out soon enough.

Have you tried Not Your Father's Root Beer?  It tastes just like the real thing, but it packs a punch (5.9%ABV).  It's a little sweet for me though.  Two is my limit.

nickma71's picture

I pretty much think the same thing of Oklahoma, and long before Stoops made an ass of himself this spring.

81Alum's picture

This is why I hate all things Wisconsin. These rodents, be it the Wolverines or the Badgers must be put in their place, or destroyed, and Urban's the man to do it.

MN Buckeye's picture

Don't forget the rodent Gophers.

Earle's picture

But if he kills all the Gophers, they're gonna lock him up and throw away the key!

Have you tried Not Your Father's Root Beer?  It tastes just like the real thing, but it packs a punch (5.9%ABV).  It's a little sweet for me though.  Two is my limit.

buckatron32's picture

It's not my fault you have a Scottish accent

BME_Buckeye's picture

Hey you shut your mouth and respect my gophers otherwise I'll get Goldy to come hunt you down. 

Look closely, because the closer you think you are, the less you will actually see.


MN Buckeye's picture

Goldy is about the only thing awesome about the Gophers.

BuckeyeSki's picture

Watch out Ramzy, Valai can read (allegedly)

Banned from BlackShoeDiaries since 2008. Crime: Slander/Defamation of Character Judgement: Guilty

Hovenaut's picture

I hate Wisconsin.

Alvarez started it back in the nineties, "They don't like us and we don't like them", although the Badgers seemed to beat Earle Bruce's teams every other year.

Bert took it up a notch, even though he only beat OSU once.

Enjoy the West, the Buckeyes will take it from there.

I didn't need this post. I hate Wisconsin.

MilwaukeeBuck's picture

Thank you for this article!  This is a true masterpiece.  Since moving to Wisconsin from C-bus eight years ago for work, it has been difficult to stomach the ascension of Bert and his boys over the last few years as I work with a lot of badgers.  This is the best summary I have seen that showcases the circumstances that were necessary for this to happen.  Hopefully Urban & Co. can provide a silencing blow this fall and relegate these vermin to their rightful place in the B1G.

USMC11917's picture

I agree with what you wrote, whole heartedly in fact. Why do we still have trouble with them? Even though we are 4-1 against Bulimia we won not one of those games handily. We had one that we won by multiple touchdowns but that was more poor play by Wisconsin and us taking interceptions back to the house. I agree that they have often had the easy road to the Rose Bowl/Title Game but they have given us our fare share of difficulties. TP's freshman game with a last minute touchdown, Sophomore game was basically given to us by Wisconsin's Offense and our stellar defensive play. We lost TP's Junior year. Braxton's last minute heroics his Freshman year and last years overtime victory. There hasn't been a more entertaining rivalry in the last 5 years. 

Ahh Saturday's picture

Agree that the Wiscy game was emerging as a nice 2nd rivalry within the B1G, but the new divisions have probably killed it in the cradle. 
The one thing I would take exception with in your comments is that the 2009 win over Wiscy was "basically given to us."  The D took what it wanted with two outstanding interception returns, six sacks, and a stifling run defense that held John Clay to 59 yards.  People point to the TOP, or the yardage advantage Wiscy had and assume that some how the Buckeyes got lucky with the win, but  at 31-13 that game was every bit the blow out the scoreboard indicates.  It's the statistics that lie.   
With two pick 6s and a kick return to the house, this one was a JT special.  He shut down a QB he didn't quite trust once we had a sizeable lead and just waited out the W.  It is also worth noting that the one time the Buckeyes were down in this game, at 10-7, TP led the team straight down the field on an 80+ yard drive for a go ahead TD, giving the Buckeyes all the points they would need to win the game.

lippertini's picture

Well, at least they'll have to play someone in the B10 championship game, hopefully our own pride and joy.  I'd much prefer anyone other than Wisconsin to emerge from that side, could actually see NW being pretty good for a while...

thatlillefty's picture

In Wisconsin's defense, those first two Rose Bowl defeats were to 2 really solid teams with current NFL quarterbacks: TCU (Dalton) & Stanford (Luck).
The year they had Russell Wilson was their best team by far.

andyb's picture

you lost me at "In Wisconsin's defense"

yrro's picture

I agree. The year they lost to TCU they were a really good football team... TCU was just two points better in that one game.
The next year they underachieved in general, but benefited from OSU being down, even though we managed to beat them.
Last year was some serious bullshit, but for that I blame Pelini's inability to win a conference championship game, ever.

IBleedSandG's picture

Sconny lost to Stanford in the '13 Rose Bowl. Luck had already finished up his rookie season in the pro's. Kevin Hogan quarterbacked the Cardinal in this years Rose Bowl.


Run_Fido_Run's picture

Five or ten years from now, Wisconsin's fans will look back at 2010 - 2012 with bittersweet memories - the lost opportunities will probably resonate more than the overall number of wins and/or consecutive Rose Bowl appearances.
When I run into an obnoxious Badger fan in a sports bar, the above realization comforts me . . .
Likewise, five-ten years from now, Wisconsin will go back to being harmless and their fans will magically become less cocky and more congenial once again - ahhh, the joys of gravity!

MN Buckeye's picture

While I have nothing positive to say about Bert, I have been impressed with Anderson so far.  He seems to have more class than the past two coaches there combined.

CentralFloridaBuckeye's picture

Bert you will be forever missed by the B1G.  Bob did such a good job with Wisconsin then he got out of there.  Way to go Bart.  Now hopefully Wisconsin will return to the cellar dweller position in time.  I'd rather see Iowa and Nebraska battle it out on that side of the conference.

Poison nuts's picture

This Anderson guy isn't going to even hold a candle to Bret's hateability...

"Do not pass me, just slow down - I can move right through you" Superchunk - Precision Auto.

MN Buckeye's picture

Therein lies the problem.  But I can still get over my conflictedness and hate WI.  Although I do own property just across the border, and the badger state does like to drink, so I remain conflicted.

New alum's picture

The really galling part is that Bielema parlayed Wisconsin's "success" the past few years into his new gig at Arkansas.  John L. Smith didn't set the bar too high last year, either, so he will probably look brilliant for a couple of years.

Proud Michigander, OSU grad. Life is complicated.

MN Buckeye's picture

How appropriate that he became a hog.  Oh, sorry, he already was one; he just found his home.

New alum's picture

Kind of reverting to his natural habitat.

Proud Michigander, OSU grad. Life is complicated.