If Bret Bielema’s Wisconsin Badgers defeat Gary Patterson’s TCU Horned Frogs on January 1, will Bielema be credited with putting together the best Badgers season of the last twenty years?
Clearly Bielema’s tremendous 2010 campaign is predominantly being compared with Barry Alvarez’s three Rose Bowl-winning seasons of 1993, 1998, and 1999.
Let’s take a look at those three Alvarez-helmed seasons and Bielema’s yet-to-be-finalized 2010 season.
1993: The year that older (re: non-student) fans will probably always think of as the Badgers’ ”championship season.”
Coming off of a pedestrian 5-6 season in 1992, most followers couldn’t have seen what was to come in 1993 (although a 1992 victory over Ohio State was a portent that the Badgers were gaining some level of respectability). The Badgers won their first six games of the season by an average margin of 18 points (proving that Bielema didn’t invent the lopsided victory), but then had a setback with an inexplicable loss at rival Minnesota.
The following week’s victory over Michigan was bittersweet: The 13-10 win over the Wolverines was a rarity at the time for the Badgers, but the joy at winning the game turned quickly to sorrow as 73 fans were injured after the game as thousands stormed the field in celebration. Fortunately, no such incident occurred the next week in what turned out to be a more significant contest against then-undefeated Ohio State. In the days before college overtime, the Badgers tied the Buckeyes 14-14.
The Badgers then went on to dominate Illinois and Michigan State, the latter game being the final “Mirage Bowl” which took place in Tokyo, Japan. The time difference between Tokyo and Madison meant that the Badgers’ sealed the invitation to the Badgers’ first Rose Bowl in thirty years at about 1 a.m. Madison time. Predictably, a huge party erupted downtown, and fortunately it was not the final time of the season that Wisconsin fans would feel compelled to celebrate as the No. 9 Badgers beat the No. 14 UCLA Bruins 21-16 on January 1. The Rose Bowl victory in front of 101,237 in attendance was impressive and not as close as the final score indicated: The Badgers’ suffocating defense forced six turnovers, MVP Brent Moss ran for 158 yards and two touchdowns, and QB Darrell Bevell scored an unlikely (for him) 21-yard touchdown run to give the Badgers what proved to be an insurmountable 21-10 fourth quarter lead.
1998: ESPN analyst Craig James famously called Alvarez’s 1998 11-1 Badgers team “the worst team to ever play in the Rose Bowl.” After Wisconsin beat UCLA 38-31, Alvarez famously shot back, “I know we’re at least the second worst.” But did James have any legitimate basis for his remarks?
Well, the team was able to avoid facing 11-1 Ohio State and got beat badly at No. 12 Michigan 27-10. But behind running back Ron Dayne and a brilliant defense, the team had little trouble with the rest of their schedule, beating No. 21 Penn State by 21, and outscoring Northwestern, Illinois, Iowa, and Minnesota by a combined total of 132-17. What the Badgers didn’t have in 1998 was solid quarterback play: Senior Mike Samuel threw just six touchdowns all season while only completing 52 percent of his passes. The team also showed a surprising vulnerability on defense when it surrendered a record-setting 538 yards to UCLA in the Rose Bowl. As ridiculous as James’s comments were, the 1998 team was indeed the least well-rounded of Alvarez’s Rose Bowl teams. But it was fun to watch Ron Dayne rumble.
1999: Dayne continued to rumble in 1999, gaining 1,834 yards on the ground, setting the NCAA career rushing record mark with 6,397 yards, and taking home the Heisman Trophy.
But early on things didn’t look so promising for the team during Dayne’s senior season. A shocking loss to the Cincinnati Bearcats and yet another defeat to Michigan left the Badgers at 2-2 four weeks in. But in week five, the Badgers blew out their rival Ohio State 42-17 and then didn’t slow down the rest of the year, finishing the season with eight straight wins and a school-best No. 4 ranking.
Unlike recent Rose Bowl seasons, the Badgers didn’t need a tie-breaker to advance to Pasadena, as they were the only Big Ten team to finish 7-1 in the conference. While freshman quarterback Brooks Bollinger, who completed 59.5 percent of his passes with just eight touchdowns, wasn’t an enormous improvement in the passing game over Mike Samuel, his ability to run added a dangerous dimension to the offense. Bollinger totaled five touchdowns on the ground, ran for 427 yards, and took home Big Ten Freshman of the Year honors.
Also in Alvarez’s final Rose Bowl season, the Badgers averaged more than 35 points a game and were among the top ten programs in the nation in scoring offense. Oh, and the defense was pretty good too, culminating in a suffocating Rose Bowl performance during which they surrendered a ridiculous minus-5 yards rushing. After beating Stanford 17-9, the Badgers became the first Big Ten team to win the Rose Bowl two years in a row. Alvarez’s best team.
2010: But not as good as this one.
Despite nostalgia for Alvarez’s early years and the return to power of Wisconsin football, despite wonderful memories of Ron Dayne shredding opposing defenses, Bielema’s team in 2010 was simply astonishingly good. Instead of Dayne solo’s act, Bielema had an embarrassment of riches in the backfield with John Clay, Montee Ball, and standout freshman James White. And while the defense as a whole perhaps wasn’t as solid as in Alvarez’s glory years — hard to fault the intensity wavering a bit when your offense is putting up 83 points — defensive end J.J. Watt, recipient of the 2010 Lott Trophy, and safety Jay Valai — he of the key blocked PAT against Arizona State — in particular were phenomenal contributors.
But the biggest difference between this and previous Badger Rose Bowl teams was the quarterback play. Scott Tolzien completed a whopping 74 percent of his passes for 16 touchdowns, giving the Badgers a dimension on offense that they simply didn’t have before. They became shockingly efficient on that side of the ball, ranking number four in total offense. In the nation.
And from a coaching perspective, Bielema not only distinguished himself by running up the score on several occasions — and there’s really no debate, as the Badgers clearly did. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that.) Bielema also distinguished himself by making superb and gutsy coaching decisions, the most obvious being the fake punt against Iowa that directly led to Wisconsin’s winning score in a 31-30 instant classic.
Now all that’s left to seal the 2010 Badgers team as the best team in Badgers history is for Wisconsin to beat TCU on January 1.
Playing the Horned Frogs, who not only are clearly talented but are playing with a chip on their shoulder after being the only undefeated team left out of the BCS Championship Game — not to mention being marginalized by many due to the conference they play in — is probably the biggest challenge the Badgers have faced in Pasadena.