Wisconsin Football: Meet the Big Ten’s most overlooked program

ARLINGTON, TX - JANUARY 02: Wisconsin Badgers hold up the Cotton Bowl trophy after the NCAA Bowl Game Series Goodyear Cotton Bowl matchup between the Western Michigan Broncos and the Wisconsin Badgers on January 2, 2016 at AT
ARLINGTON, TX - JANUARY 02: Wisconsin Badgers hold up the Cotton Bowl trophy after the NCAA Bowl Game Series Goodyear Cotton Bowl matchup between the Western Michigan Broncos and the Wisconsin Badgers on January 2, 2016 at AT /

Despite being one of the most consistent programs in the country, everyone continues to overlook Wisconsin football.

It all started with a forgettable three-year span under head coach Don Morton from 1987-89. Those three seasons, totaling a 6-27 overall record, led to the hiring of Barry Alvarez, who has completely changed the Wisconsin football culture.

After Alvarez’s first season in 1990, the Badgers looked to be headed further down the losing trail, but he followed a 1-10 season up with two five-win campaigns. Then, Alvarez led the Badgers to their first-ever 10-win season in 1993.

That magical 1993 campaign ended with a Rose Bowl victory — the program’s first bowl appearance since 1984 — and an unclaimed national title. He then went on to lead the Badgers to 10 bowls in the next 12 years, including two more Rose Bowl victories and three additional 10-plus win seasons. Moreover, he led the 1999 Badgers to their first outright Big Ten title since 1962.

The Big Ten was put on notice. The Badgers were no longer a laughing stock in the Big Ten, but rather a mainstay among the conference’s elite.

Choosing to retire following a bowl win over Auburn at the conclusion of the 2005 season, Alvarez settled into a role he earned two years earlier as the athletic director. His first order of business: choosing a successor to continue the program build of Wisconsin.

Alvarez landed on his defensive coordinator at the time, Bret Bielema. The former Iowa Hawkeye defensive lineman turned grad assistant turned flipped his allegiance to the Badgers and the rest was history.

Who would have guessed that Bielema would have led an even more successful, arguably, tenure than his predecessor? While he took over a budding program, he went 12-1 in his first season in 2006 before three consecutive 10-win campaigns with the Badgers from 2009-11.

Moreover, Bielema led the Badgers back to the Rose Bowl three times during his seven-year stint in Madison, although he went 0-for-2 and didn’t coach in the last one as he took the job at Arkansas in December of 2012.

Respectability was no longer a foreign term for Badger alumni, fans, coaches and players. Wisconsin was a Big Ten threat year in and year out, despite the loss of Bielema.

Granted, there was concern about who would replace the outspoken, sometimes controversial, head coach and Alvarez chose wisely. In fact, he reeled in Utah State’s Gary Andersen who was just coming off an 11-2 season and WAC title with the Aggies.

In two seasons, Andersen led the Badgers to a 19-7 record with a 13-3 mark in Big Ten play. The Badgers seemingly didn’t skip a beat with the coaching change and wound up with the 2014 Big Ten West division title. They played in the championship game against Ohio State, but were clobbered, 59-0.

Andersen then surprisingly departed for a lesser job with Oregon State, moving back out west and closer to his home state of Utah.

What could the Badgers do to keep a head coach? Not even multiple 10-win seasons or division titles seemed to be enough for Bielema and Andersen as Alvarez was left sweeping up the messes. In fact, he gave himself the interim label for the 2013 Rose Bowl and 2015 Outback Bowl. He went 1-1 in those games and was forced to find replacements soon thereafter.

Now, two seasons later, the Badgers are entering their third season under Paul Chryst, a former Wisconsin quarterback who has come back home to lead his alma mater. Maybe this is the ideal situation for the Badgers and they will be able to hold on to Chryst because his roots are in Madison.

Chryst has become a favorite of the fans, going 21-6 in two seasons with Wisconsin, including a Big Ten West title in 2016 and a Cotton Bowl victory to boot. He seems happy in Madison and the stability is what fans, and players, crave.

Wisconsin has become a staple of the Big Ten Championship Game in Indianapolis, but no one likes to talk about the Badgers because they don’t have the flash or the electrifying athletes of say Penn State, Michigan or Ohio State. Heck, they’re like the little brother who is the best athlete of the family, but no one gives him any credit because he hasn’t been around long enough.

Well, it’s been over two decades and Wisconsin isn’t going anywhere. The Badgers have “10-win season” written all over them before the opening kickoff each year.

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Not many programs can go from Big Ten zero to conference elite, including four conference title game appearances in the six years it’s been around, and still be overlooked, but the Badgers are used to it.

Should the rest of the national start pegging the Badgers are perennial contenders? If you ask Wisconsin fans, they’ll tell you that they’re just fine with being the dark-horse. Please, for their sake, keep overlooking the Badgers. They feed on the disrespect.