There are tough schedules, and then there’s what the Wisconsin Badgers have in front of them this fall.
The Big Ten slate usually provides a big challenge whether you’re Ohio State or Purdue, but Wisconsin got an exceptionally tough draw this season, facing off against the consensus three best teams in the conference — Michigan State, Michigan and Ohio State, all in the East Division — to open conference play, followed by games against the three toughest teams in the West Division (Iowa, Nebraska and Northwestern). Four of those six games are on the road, including unwelcoming environments in East Lansing, Ann Arbor and Iowa City.
Oh, and that’s without even mentioning a season-opening battle with perennial SEC power LSU.
“This has probably been the most-asked question here at Big Ten (Media Days) has been our schedule,” linebacker Vince Biegel said last month during Big Ten Media Days. “And I think the best way to put it is, when an opportunity such as the schedule presents itself and the preparation that we have done up to this point with our spring and our summer, it can mean greatness. … We still have a long way to go to prepare, but I love the young men in our locker room and I wouldn’t want to go to battle with any other guys to have this daunting schedule with.”
Every once in a while, a Big Ten team will run into this type of situation, especially with the conference’s new nine-game schedule. This time it happens to be the Badgers who are the unfortunate recipients of this scheduling. The Buckeyes, Wolverines and Spartans are the league favorites, and in a more wide-open West, the Badgers would normally be picked to be among the leaders. But the Hawkeyes, Huskers and Wildcats don’t have to face that gauntlet from the East.
Nebraska has Oregon, perhaps an even tougher non-conference opponent than LSU. Northwestern’s top non-conference game is Duke (in Evanston). Iowa again has a light slate with no real non-conference test and a home game against Michigan the lone game against those three East Division powers.
It makes for pessimism surrounding the Badgers’ chances to reach the Big Ten title game before the season even starts. This will be the third straight campaign that opens with Wisconsin taking on an SEC power. Last year it was a 35-17 loss to eventual national champion Alabama, and the season prior, Wisconsin lost 28-24 to this same LSU team.
“At the end of the day, we set a high standard at Wisconsin for ourselves, for our defense and collectively as a team,” Biegel said. “I think we set the bar high last year for our defense, and we have the same expectations coming in this season. I think the offense was young last year. They’re experienced now, so there’s no excuses not to be great.”
It’s hard to say that the season-opener against LSU will allow us to “see what the Badgers are made of.” After all, the Bayou Bengals have one of the nation’s best offensive players in running back Leonard Fournette, and the Badgers will be breaking in a new quarterback and a new defensive coordinator. Dave Aranda, who coached the Wisconsin defense for the past three seasons, left this offseason to join the coaching staff at — wait for it — LSU.
And the problem is that while evolution can certainly take place over the course of the season, Wisconsin has little chance to catch its breath or work through growing pains. It’d be one thing if the Badgers could face such a tough stretch to close the season, but to get that hard Big Ten stretch just three games after the LSU game, even dates with Akron and Georgia State likely won’t allow Wisconsin to work out all the kinks.
The schedule is the schedule, though, and Wisconsin has no choice but to play it. Might as well look on the bright side.
“It’s exciting. I’ve never been to Michigan State, never been to Michigan, so I haven’t played them in their home stadiums. I’ve heard a lot about those places, so we’ll see if they measure up to Camp Randall like people say,” running back Dare Ogunbowale said. “But there’s teams that we haven’t played in a while, and that just makes this schedule that much more fun.”