If you're looking for some perspective on how the perception of the University of Wisconsin football program has changed in the last dozen years, look no further than Craig James and Colin Cowherd.
Back in 1998, the Badgers were as much an ugly duckling figuratively as one of Mike Samuel's throws was literally. The tough-as-nails quarterback completed just 52 percent of his passes that year, with six touchdowns to four interceptions. But he had Heisman Trophy running back Ron Dayne, an offensive line stocked with NFL draft picks, the nation's best defense and a quietly dangerous kicking game that controlled the field position battle.
Still, many observers questioned Wisconsin's legitimacy, based on its lack of a track record (to that point, the program had slipped after winning its first Rose Bowl in 1994), a lack of style points and the fact that the Badgers lost to Michigan and didn't face Ohio State that year. Carrying the torch for that crowd was TV analyst Craig James, who infamously pronounced in the weeks leading up to the game that UW "was the worst team to ever play in the Rose Bowl."
Fast forward to a week ago Monday, when ESPN national sports talk show host Colin Cowherd — who is as perceptive as he is bombastic — called for the Badgers to "blow TCU out of the water" when the teams meet Jan. 1 in Pasadena, Calif.
Full disclosure: Cowherd has been on a rampage of late, insisting that Texas Christian University is an impostor. A recent gem: "I would rather have Rosie O'Donnell give me a sponge bath than watch TCU play for a national championship."
What's notable these days is that while few were high on the UCLA team that UW stunned in the first of unprecedented back-to-back victories in Pasadena by a Big Ten team — a very un-Badgerlike 38-31 triumph that prompted then-coach Barry Alvarez to retort: "Well, I know we're at least the second-worst" Rose Bowl participant — the Badgers have become something of a lovable Goliath, even for those who aren't hating on the Horned Frogs.
It's not just that the talking heads are saying the Badgers are among the elite; they've been there before as a program, most recently in 1999 when they finished No. 4 nationally. What's hard for UW fans to fathom, because it has happened so quickly, is an extreme marketing makeover worthy of Madison Avenue. Almost overnight, national perception of the Badgers has been transformed from a batch of plodding maulers to a explosive, team-first ath-a-letes worthy of the catchy Taio Cruz anthem "Dynamite" that became all the rage on the Camp Randall sound system this season.
At its heart, Wisconsin is still bludgeoning opponents to death, rather than spreading them out on the field and exploiting their weaknesses, as has become the norm at the college level over the last decade. For evidence, note that six offensive linemen received votes for All-Big Ten honors; that's one more than is generally on the field at the same time. That all three of UW's running backs could probably start anywhere in the Big Ten is also a hallmark of its old school approach.
And the Badgers haven't been afraid to move over to the left lane of the Autobahn to see how fast it can go. They've hit 70 points on three occasions — a mark that hadn't been achieved at UW since Woodrow Wilson was president and schools like Lawrence and the Haskell Indians were on the schedule — and of course 83 against Indiana, the flashpoint for much of this conversation.
"Bret has put his stamp on the program this season," ESPN college football commentator Rod Gilmore says in a recent phone conversation. "The Badgers are still regarded as a tough, physical program, and running the ball first while playing strong defense is still their hallmark.
"But they have an edginess, if that's what you want to call it. It's no longer good enough to win the Big Ten. There's a desire to win a national title, and they've paid more attention to style points and the national media.
"I don't think there's anything wrong with that. It certainly has worked. It's allowed them to be in the discussion."
A familiar formula
Some would say Bielema hasn't allowed a discussion to be held without the Badgers as a component.
Last Thursday, he appeared on 10 ESPN shows across three platforms — TV, radio and online — at the behemoth's Connecticut headquarters, an orchestrated effort to enhance the program's reputation and recruiting efforts that Big Ten Network college football analyst Howard Griffith jokingly dubs the "car wash" in a recent phone conversation.
From the outset, Bielema was intent on saying that UW's offense is based on the fundamentals established during the Alvarez Era.
"We play an American-style football; we come straight at you," he says on "First Take" on ESPN2. "There's no spread in our game. It's about playing football. We put a hat on a hat."
Matt Lepay, the longtime UW play-by-play voice, echoes that sentiment. He notes that in the lopsided wins over Indiana (83-20), Michigan (48-28) and Northwestern (70-23) that capped an 11-1 regular season, the Badgers threw a grand total of 12 second-half passes among 95 offensive plays.
"They probably have more in common than different," he says of Bielema and Alvarez, now the athletic director. "In an age of spread-'em-out offenses, it's still about running. Barry, next to Bret, was probably the happiest guy on the sidelines when they ran 29 straight times at Michigan Stadium."
From this seat, it's easy to draw parallels between the defenses of the last two decades; among Rose Bowl teams, this one's most like the bend-but-don't break 1993 unit, although toward the end of the year they bore resemblance to the ball-hawking 1999 group. But overlooking the differences on the other side of the ball is like equating the Corvette and Silverado because they're both made by Chevrolet.
True freshman James White, who leads the team with 1,029 rushing yards, is a running back like none other UW has produced, thanks to a combination of speed, vision and cutback ability. Scott Tolzien has made a strong case as the best quarterback in school history; he's masterfully efficient, completing 74.2 percent of his passes with 16 touchdowns to six interceptions this season. He's also a hilariously focused and humble team leader. (Asked last year if there was anything surprising about Tolzien's sudden rise from third-stringer to starter, loquacious left guard John Moffitt replied: "Yeah, that he still can't get a date.")
It's among Moffitt's ilk where the most marked change has taken place. Though Wisconsin is known for massive offensive lines, this is the biggest ever, averaging 6-foot-5 and 320 pounds. The stunner is that it's also the most mobile.
Whereas the three Rose Bowl teams from the 1990s relied predominantly on a zone blocking scheme in which linemen would move laterally as a unit, hitting whichever players got in front of them, this year's edition features three players who regularly "pull," looping behind their teammates to lead runs on the outside. In the game at Michigan, right tackle Ricky Wagner, who stands 6-6 and weighs 323 pounds, made a block 20 yards downfield on the left side of the field to help spring White for a 61-yard touchdown.
Then there's tight end Lance Kendricks, who, like left tackle Gabe Carimi of Cottage Grove, was named a first-team All-American last week by the American Football Coaches Association. As a stationary object, Kendricks would be difficult enough to defend; but as Griffith notes, Chryst likes to send him in motion to force defenders to realign in the moments leading up to the snap, putting them on their heels.
"A team may look at Kendricks and decide to play him as a wide receiver, so they may need to take out a linebacker and bring in a safety to cover him. What does that mean for the running game? They'll run it down your throat," says Griffith, who compared the Badgers' power running game to that of his Denver Broncos team that dethroned the Green Bay Packers as Super Bowl champions in the late 1990s.
Combine those weapons with an almost-flawless execution — UW has just nine turnovers this season and is the least penalized team nationally — and the results aren't surprising. The Badgers have shattered the school record by scoring 520 points this season, an average of 43.3 points per game, and their 46 rushing touchdowns is two off the Big Ten record. They scored on all 12 possessions against the Hoosiers and on 55 of 87 possessions in league games, an astounding 63.2 percent.
"Down the stretch, they blew up," Lepay says. "They were playing as close to perfect as you can get."
And here's a scary thought: John Clay, the Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year a year ago, was a non-factor in each of the last three games as the offense exploded, while fellow junior Nick Toon, who is regarded as one of the best receivers in the Big Ten and an NFL flight risk, has been almost an afterthought due to turf toe early in the season and a deep thigh bruise late.
"They just may be the best offense in the country right now, and I still don't think they have played their best," Griffith says. "When all these guys get rolling, I just don't know how you get ready for them."
Changing by staying the same
As both Griffith and Gilmore note, however, these differences between Badgers teams of varying vintage are just part of the story. The other is that just as the spread threw traditional teams like Wisconsin for a loop when it became a phenomenon in the early part of this century, the now-marginalized power game has become equally difficult to defend.
"So many teams run the spread, practice against the spread, that when they play against a team that's physical, that uses two backs, they can't handle it in a game," Gilmore says, counting UW, Stanford, Notre Dame and Pittsburgh among the few and prominent exceptions. "By being who they are, they are at a definite advantage."
"That's why I'm a fan of the pro-style offense," Griffith says, "because there are so many things you can do with it when you have the players — and there are a ton of players out there. There are so many players out there who don't fit the spread."
For that, both analysts credit Michigan for inadvertently helping Wisconsin's cause by enriching the talent pool. Coach Rich Rodriguez brought the spread and a less power-oriented defensive philosophy with him when he arrived three years ago, a dramatic change from the philosophies of Lloyd Carr and of course Bo Schembechler. Through Alvarez's tenure, as good as the Badgers were, it wasn't often that they won a head-to-head recruiting battle with the Wolverines. Now, in many cases they don't have to.
"The fullback who would have gone to Michigan, he's no longer wanted there. He's available. The tight end at Michigan is no longer a" priority, Gilmore says. "There are four-star guys in the mix who may not have been available in the past. That's a big change."
Of course, this lovefest will end as quickly and notoriously as Jon and Kate's should the Badgers run into a buzzsaw against TCU at the Rose Bowl. Alvarez certainly set the bar high among the red-sweater crowd by going 3-for-3 in Pasadena, but as a sign of the biggest change in the program's perception, UW will also be carrying the torch for the Big Ten's cause nationally due to all the attention focused on the Horned Frogs, the nation's only undefeated team not playing for the national title.
Win, and the Badgers can stake a claim to playing The Best Season in School History and validate the Big Ten having all three of its co-champs among the top nine in the final BCS standings. Lose, and it'll be open season on the Big Ten, as potentially damaging as Ohio State's back-to-back lopsided defeats in BCS title games a few years back.
"In the past, Ohio State had that mantle to bear, a responsibility to go out and show the rest of the country what type of football is being played. This year, it just may end up being Wisconsin," Griffith says. "A lot of people will watch this team closely come bowl season: ‘This team that scores 70 points, who are they? Let's see what they can do now.'"
For his part, Griffith isn't concerned.
"They'll be just fine," he says.