CHICAGO – Since Barry Alvarez had his breakthrough season in 1993, when he guided Wisconsin to its first Rose Bowl in 31 years, the Badgers have been a perennial Big Ten title contender. They’ve played in Pasadena six times in that span and haven’t missed a bowl since 2001.
And recently, they’ve been elbowing their way to stand among college football’s blue bloods, with back-to-back Cotton and Orange bowl victories and a 34-7 record in coach Paul Chryst’s three years.
One thing, however, has been elusive for the Camp Randall crew: a spot in the College Football Playoff.
Could this be the year?
Chryst offered no bold predictions, but he wouldn’t dismiss the notion.
“There’s a lot of teams that have goals and aspirations … you know, you have a chance, too,” Chryst said Tuesday during Big Ten football media days. “Just talked about that earlier. Nothing that happens outside really impacts inside the [locker] room. And our expectations and our goals inside the room have always been really high.”
The Badgers can focus on such lofty goals because they return a wealth of talent from last year’s team that went 13-1, with the only blemish a 27-21 loss to Ohio State in the Big Ten Championship Game — a setback that likely cost Wisconsin a spot in the playoff.
With running back Jonathan Taylor, who rushed for 1,977 yards as a freshman last year, operating behind what might be the nation’s best offensive line, the Badgers have the horses to grind down opponents. That eases the burden on quarterback Alex Hornibrook, a third-year starter whose biggest detriment is the 15 interceptions he threw last year while passing for 25 touchdowns. Though Wisconsin lost eight starters on defense, standout linebacker T.J. Edwards and strong safety D’Cota Dixon are back.
“I’m glad of who we have on our roster,” Chryst said in his usual, understated way.
The Badgers were a unanimous pick to win the Big Ten West by conference writers, and they’ve become a trendy playoff pick, too. Offensive lineman Michael Deiter wants to keep the hype in its place.
“It’s exciting to get that type of publicity, but we’re not going to pay that much attention to it,” Deiter said. “I don’t think that bodes well when you start paying attention to what people say about you.”
Wisconsin’s schedule could be a dual-edged sword when it comes to contending for a playoff spot. Its nonconference opponents — Western Kentucky, New Mexico and Brigham Young — were a combined 13-25 last year, so the Badgers likely won’t get a boost there. In Big Ten play, trips to Iowa, Michigan, Northwestern and Penn State await, which could build the Badgers’ résumé or torpedo their title hopes.
The first big test for Wisconsin figures to be the Sept. 22 Big Ten opener at Iowa, a team hoping to end the Badgers’ West Division supremacy.
“Whenever you’re opening up the Big Ten season, you’re nervous, you want to start it off right, and you don’t want to start it off behind the eight-ball,” Deiter said.
Should the Badgers win the West, they’d play in the conference title game for the fourth time in the five years of the East-West format. Wisconsin has yet to win the Big Ten title in that format, though it won two of the three crowns when the divisions were Leaders and Legends.
“Sometimes it comes down to us executing,” Dixon said of last year’s title game loss to the Buckeyes. “… It’s just man-on-man, and they were the best man that day.”
Edwards takes confidence from the Badgers’ 34-24 Orange Bowl win over Miami (Fla.) last season, when Wisconsin beat the Hurricanes at their own speedy game.
“A lot of people thought we were outnumbered and outmatched because they have speed and we’re a power team,” Edwards said. “It shows we can play an all-around game. If the other team’s playing fast, we have the guys to do it.”
And if that results in Wisconsin reaching new heights, Chryst will welcome it.
“That bar’s been set because of those that have come before,” he said. “And some of them are on our team now. Each year is a new opportunity. That’s what’s fun about it.”