Some of the discussion in the Michigan article got me thinking a bit about how Wisconsin will fare in the new divisional alignment starting next year. Of course, being a Badger fan I'm reasonably confident that we'll kick ass and take names. But let me break that down a bit.
The key is to look at the trends for Wisconsin football over the past 20+ years. Everyone knows that Barry Alvarez took over the program in 1990 and put Wisconsin on the map after decades of futility. But the truth is Alvarez was hit and miss. He had phenomenal seasons in 1993, '98, and '99. And he went out strong with pretty solid teams in 2004 and 2005. But in between those five seasons, we had some pretty weak squads. Between the Rose Bowl teams in '93 and '98, we had four seasons that ended with Wisconsin unranked. We were barely ranked at the end of 2000, and unranked at the end of '01, '02, and '03. In most of those seasons we finished in the bottom half of the B1G. By the time Alvarez stepped down, Wisconsin was a relevant program in the conference, but not consistently top tier.
Bielema took over in 2006 and made an immediate splash with a 12-1 season. The team declined a bit the following year, then fell off a cliff in 2008. To the credit of Bielema and his staff, they actually took a lot away from that year. 2008 served as a guidepost for the program for the rest of Bielema's tenure. Starting in 2009, they turned the program around. They had a strong team in 2009, followed by two of the best teams in program history in 2010 and 2011. The 2011 team coulda, shoulda, woulda been in the national title game. Obviously they fell short, but they probably would have had a decent shot to win it if they had been there. In 2012, the team fell victim to its own success. After the '09, '10, and '11 teams achieved at a high level, the coaching staff was raided in consecutive years to the point that Bielema was pretty much the only guy left of the 2010 staff come the start of 2012. Bielema never really had the coaching chops to do it on his own -- he's a great manager/CEO when surrounded by a strong staff, but he clearly struggled with a new staff that didn't have the familiarity with the team, the cohesion, or really the talent that the old group had. The point is, for all his faults, Bielema elevated the program beyond what Alvarez handed to him. He didn't get the Rose Bowl wins Barry did, but then he played better teams in those games.
Now we have a new staff, and so far all indications are that they are a step up from the Bielema regime. The team has been sharp and well prepared. The staff put in place their new schemes without much of a hitch. They have had good solid game plans for every opponent we've faced. They have demonstrated impeccable professionalism, character, and attitude. They are also putting together one of the best recruiting classes in Wisconsin history. We're not going to jump to the top of the recruiting rankings, but just getting to the top 25 would be a major accomplishment. At this point it would be shocking if Andersen doesn't turn out to have been a great hire. I think the expectation all around the program is that this staff will at least maintain at the level of Bielema's last few years, if not improve on it.
Then there's the competition. Since I'm considering 2009 and after as the "new era" of Wisconsin football, we'll look at the results from that period.
Team UW record Cumulative Score Differential Diff/game
Indiana 4-0 235-69 +166 +41.5
Purdue 5-0 212-54 +158 +31.6
Northwestern 2-1 136-62 +74 +24.7
Nebraska 2-1 145-78 +67 +22.3
Minnesota 4-0 152-77 +75 +18.8
Illinois 3-0 115-63 +52 +17.3
Iowa 2-1 69-59 +10 +3.3
Total 18-3 829-393 +436 +20.7
Wisconsin has a 0.86 win percentage against our soon-to-be division rivals. That extrapolates to an average division record of 5-1, with probable multiple TD margins in all of the wins (except against bloody Iowa). That would likely be good for a lot of division titles. Not every year, of course, but a lot of years. Sure this doesn't account for potential improvement in these teams. Minnesota is clearly on the upswing. Iowa seems to be rebounding at least somewhat. Indiana could be good if they develop a defense. Purdue has nowhere to go but up. But at this point that's just speculation. A lot of anticipated turnarounds never actually materialize (remember when Northwestern was going to be one of the best teams in the B1G this year?). Wisconsin has proven it can consistently perform at a high level over the last five years (and arguably going back to 2004). Maybe we'll fall on our face, maybe some of the other teams will surge to the top. But until some of these teams can demonstrate otherwise on the field, I think it's reasonable to assume that Wisconsin will own this division.