The Wisconsin Badgers, through no fault of their own, are a walking embodiment of a question mark as they prepare for the big, bad Buckeyes of Ohio State on Saturday night in Madison.
Wisconsin has become a subject of critical scrutiny to this point in the season, even though it has overachieved. That’s a difficult pair of claims to reconcile, but life can be very complicated on some occasions.
Remember when Texas beat Notre Dame in Week 1? Many of us in the college football pundit class felt the Longhorns had fundamentally fixed their problems — not to the point of national championship contention, but certainly to the extent that Texas was going to win nine games and eventually re-establish itself as a top-tier program under Charlie Strong, probably by 2017.
As Sarah Palin might say, “So, how’s that Texas renewal thing workin’ out for ya?”
The use of the Texas-Notre Dame game as a misleading Week 1 result — as opposed to (say) Georgia-North Carolina or Kansas State-Stanford — is no accident or idle coincidence. It’s a lead-in to Ohio State-Wisconsin, and more precisely, the Badgers’ very uncertain identity heading into this ballyhooed ballgame in Camp Randall Stadium.
When Notre Dame lost to Texas, the focus shifted to the Longhorns and how much they had improved. Few analysts felt Notre Dame was going to plummet to great depths midway through the season. When Michigan State took a 36-7 lead in South Bend — at night — a few weeks later, it seemed that Mark Dantonio had once again lifted the Spartans to a place of power and prominence in college football.
Therefore, when Wisconsin smashed Sparta in East Lansing, the conquest felt substantial at the time.
Yet, that result has subsequently been stripped of its significance. Michigan State is a hollow shell of a team which might not even make a bowl game this season. Meanwhile, over in Baton Rouge, the LSU team Wisconsin defeated in Week 1 has fired Les Miles and could very easily finish fifth or even sixth in the SEC West — it might be a shock, but only in terms of the recent history of LSU football. The Bayou Bengals do not look anything like an upper-tier team in their own division, and they’ll have to work like the dickens to prove they belong in the SEC over the next month and a half.
It is clear and murky at the same time: It is obvious that Wisconsin’s identity — the level of chops possessed by these Badgers — is not obvious at all.
Does it mean something that Wisconsin held Michigan to 14 points on the road? Yes… but how much? Michigan has not been tested this season, except for a home game against Colorado, a team which is — in turn — a mystery unto itself. Colorado won at Oregon… but Oregon isn’t Oregon anymore.
What is the value of a win over LSU, or Michigan State, or Oregon, or Colorado, or other schools this year?
Not what it was a year ago… and beyond that, who knows at this point?
The forecast in college football — in terms of assessing the relative quality of teams across the nation — is cloudy with a chance of upsets. Into this dynamic steps Wisconsin, coach Paul Chryst, defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox, and quarterback Alex Hornibrook.
Chryst, Wilcox and Hornibrook all face many questions heading into Saturday night. Ohio State, Urban Meyer, offensive coordinator Ed Warinner, and defensive coordinator Greg Schiano will all ask those questions. Victory is the Badgers’ ultimate goal, but on a larger scale, this contest might finally enable the nation to see exactly what Wisconsin is — how capable, how potent, how resilient — in the crucible of big-game pressure.
Michigan State has turned out to be a paper tiger this season. Ohio State most assuredly won’t be slapped with that same label in two months. The Buckeyes — unlike dozens of brand-name programs in 2016 — represent an authentic measuring stick, not just discernibly clear, but discernibly great.
On, Wisconsin — the spotlight is shining squarely on your backs in Madison.
We’ll see what this Big Ten battle brings to the season at its mysterious Madisonian midpoint.