Wisconsin National Title Hype Not Diminishing

Wisconsin National Title Hype Not Diminishing

Football

Wisconsin National Title Hype Not Diminishing

MADISON, Wis. – Going from the hunter to the hunted has rarely looked easier for the University of Wisconsin as it did at times Friday night. How is that possible? Easy, says T.J. Edwards, because the approach hasn’t changed, no matter the situation or season.

“It’s what we have here, what’s been built here,” the senior inside linebacker said. “When we were freshmen, that’s what all the seniors told us, and it’s something we tell the younger guys. I think it’s special here. Nobody looks too far ahead or tries to do too much.” 

Ranked fourth in the preseason Associated Press poll, tied for the highest such preseason ranking in school history, and seventh in the USA Today coaches poll, Wisconsin will have to shake the stigma of being the best team of the Big Ten’s worst division. 

The journey has begun and chapter one was a rousing success. Jonathan Taylor – UW’s Heisman Trophy favorite – rumbled for two first-half touchdowns while a remade defense suffocating a visiting offense and forced a pair of red-zone turnovers, two big reasons UW went on its way to a convincing 34-3 victory over Western Kentucky at Camp Randall Stadium.

It’s a win that marks 23 straight season-opening home victories for Wisconsin, 40 straight nonconference home triumphs and keeps the hype machine running at full capacity that this season could be something memorable.

“I feel like our group is something special,” tight end Jake Ferguson said. “There’s no cliché. Everybody’s together, and I think fans learned that a little bit.”

At the MGM Resorts International, Wisconsin is listed a 2-to-1 favorite to win the Big Ten title, second-best odds behind Ohio State’s 6-to-5, and 18-to-1 to win the national title. It’s hard to not buy into Wisconsin considering its run of recent dominance.

Since 2014, UW has a 29-5 record in the Big Ten regular season and has won three of the four division titles. Its record against West teams is 21-3 with a 13-game winning streak against divisional opponents dating to 2015, giving them a virtual free ride to Indianapolis in early December.

In July’s Cleveland.com preseason survey, 13 of 28 media members picked UW to win the Big Ten, and 14 believe the Badgers will make the playoffs. 

How bad is the rest of the West perceived? In that same AP preseason poll, the East has four of its seven teams ranked in the top 15. Other than Wisconsin, Iowa is the only other West Division team receiving votes (a measly two).

Good thing UW’s players don’t see it that way.

“We don’t pay attention to that,” left tackle Cole Van Lanen said. “We just focus on playing the best we can. We tried to do that but now we can get better from here. We obviously didn’t play the best we could, but we poured everything we had. We know we can go up from here.”

The next two weeks will likely provide little intrigue for UW fans. The Badgers host New Mexico next week for an 11 a.m. kickoff and then BYU the week after, the same Cougars team UW pasted 40-6 in Utah last year. The main story will be UW’s first road game at Iowa – a huge conference opener on the horizon – in late September.

Considering Nebraska, Purdue and Minnesota are all in various rebuild modes, and Illinois remains in the conference cellar, Wisconsin will have to make its hay on the road with challenging tests at Northwestern, Michigan and Penn State.

So even though the “cupcake” nonconference games make the home crowd eye roll, they are invaluable for the young players needing to get their feet wet. In the 31-point win, nine players made their first career start while 12 made their collegiate debut, including Ferguson.

“It’s very big just getting a feel for everything,” he said. “The flow of the game, it’s always going to be 10 times different than high school. It’s a lot faster, people are moving a lot faster, the hits are harder. It’s really good. I got a real good feel of things this game and I’m excited for next week already.”

The Badgers entered the year with questions in their secondary and on the defensive line, two units critical to the success of an impressive linebacking corps. The unit passed the first test by holding the Hilltoppers to 4.8 yards per play and forcing two turnovers, both coming in the red zone.

“Those are big plays and so you appreciate that,” Wisconsin head coach Paul Chryst said. “There’s always going to be learning that goes on in the game and you want to take advantage of those opportunities to learn and grow from.”

And while the offense is stacked, there’s still question marks about who steps up at tight end without Troy Fumagalli, finding a steady option at left tackle and depth at wide receiver with two players suspended.

Quarterback Alex Hornibrook didn’t have too big of a problem in finding capable options in week one, completing 17 passes to seven different receivers for 257 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions.

“(Receivers coach Ted) Gilmore always has the motto, he tells the starter to protect that job and whoever is behind to take that job,” said freshman Kendric Pryor, who caught Hornibrook’s first touchdown pass with eight seconds left in the first half to make it 24-0. 

“That helps makes the room competitive, so if someone goes down or something happens to a receiver, they can feel confident with the next receiver. The competition level helps us and that helps the team out. They can feel confident with anybody in any time in any situation.”

Facing a gauntlet in 2016, a schedule that eventually included seven teams ranked in the top 11 of the AP poll at the time of the matchup, Wisconsin players made it a point to defend themselves against those who doubted they were up for the challenge.

Since knocking off No.5 LSU in that year’s season opener, Wisconsin hasn’t been ranked outside the top 11 in the AP poll, gone 24-4 and won two New Year’s Six bowl games.

But after missing out on multiple Big Ten titles and falling one drive short of making it into the 2017 College Football Playoff over that successful stretch, Wisconsin knows this year that can achieve so much more … as long as they still take it one week at a time.

“(National title) is the goal; I don’t know why else you would play this game if you don’t have that goal,” Edwards said. “It’s definitely something we want to reach but there’s a lot more than goes into it. That’s the good thing about this team is they don’t look too far ahead.”

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