The Wisconsin Badgers find themselves in a strange situation heading in to the 2018 season — they are equal parts hunter and the hunted.
Such is the case when you are a member of the Big Ten West division, have played in every Big Ten championship game since Paul Chyrst took over and have won back-to-back New Years Six bowl games.
On the one hand, every team in the Big Ten West division knows its route to Indianapolis takes a detour through the team in Madison, Wis.
Take in to account Northwestern quarterback Clayton Thorson’s thoughts on where things stand.
“They’ve been top dog in the Big Ten West for the past few years,” Thorson said of the Badgers, via the Wisconsin State Journal. “We know in order to get to the Big Ten Championship (Game), we’re going to have to beat them. That’s how we think about it and that’s the truth.”
UW’s praises were sung by just about everyone else in the West division, but many of the coaches also saw the challenge of beating Wisconsin as a stepping stone to improving the West division overall.
Some coaches believe the competitive level has inched up in the last few years, especially because of the coaching talent that has come to the division. Purdue went from doormat to a bowl game in the first year under Jeff Brohm, P.J. Fleck is over at Minnesota and the hottest offseason coaching name, Scott Frost, is now at the helm of his alma mater, Nebraska.
That’s not to mention that two of the longest-serving head coaches in the Big Ten, Kirk Ferentz and Pat Fitzgerald, happen to lead the two programs that have managed wins over the Badgers since Chryst took over. Iowa and Northwestern have been easily the most competitive teams in the division and have managed to play well against cross-division opponents.
Who can forget Iowa’s butt-kicking of then-No. 6 Ohio State last season, or its two heartbreaking losses to Penn State and Michigan State?
It should all serve as a reminder that nothing is guaranteed in the Big Ten…even in the weaker West division.
“Wisconsin’s very good,” Brohm said at Big Ten Media Days earlier this week. “They’re well-coached, they’ve got great players, they play their style of football and they are tough to beat. I’d like to find a way for other teams to inch up. I think Northwestern has. I think Iowa is in the vicinity. Obviously, the rest of us need to pick it up and try to get closer.”
On the other hand, the Badgers have built themselves a national reputation as a perennial contender and are seemingly just one big step away from competing on the field for a national championship. Winning the West division title is just the stepping stone to two bigger and realistic goals at the end of the season — a Big Ten title and a berth in the College Football Playoff.
It’s a strange situation to be in, but it is the reality for this Badgers team.
Luckily for the Badgers, Chryst is about as good as they come in getting players to focus on what is right in front of them and not all the chatter around them.
Chryst’s message since arriving in Madison has been consistent — control what you can control and let the chips fall where they may.
For the Badgers to not fall pry to being the hunted, this mentality that has paid off in the past must be repeated in 2018.
After all, It’s how they have racked up a 22-4 record in conference play since Chryst showed up and how they have managed only two losses (15-2) against the West division since he took over the UW program.
However, the bigger question might just be how the Badgers handle hunting some of the other competition for national supremacy in 2018. Unlike last season, UW faces a much tougher overall schedule and will likely see two top-15 opponents out of the East division — Michigan and Penn State — on the road no less.
Win those games and the Badgers will likely have put themselves in a position to challenge for a national championship. Of course, there is likely to be that final hurdle that has eluded Chryst and Co. so far…the Big Ten championship game. Figuring out how to navigate that final challenge and hoist that silver football on the first Saturday in December will be the ultimate hunt for the Badgers.
Given the perceived strength of the Big Ten overall in 2018, it is hard to fathom that its champion wouldn’t have a serious case for the College Football Playoff.
Just don’t expect UW’s coaches or players to do anything other than go out and handle business as they have always done so. That means less talk of big picture and plenty of talk and action about what is right in front of them.