Apologies in advance, but this is going to be a bit contemplative. I guess that’s what happens when the program you root for undergoes such a substantial overhaul.
However, I’m not only talking about Wisconsin in some ways, and I do hope that if you trouble yourself to read the article, you find that there are pieces to chew on relevant to your program too, at least at the macro-level.
Often during a team’s preview, Tuesday is about the coaching staff and a general overview on where the program is at. However, 1) I broached that yesterday, 2) there are so many new faces that an article only on that would be very boring, and 3) because of 1) and 2), let’s widen the lens a little.
What did AD Chris McIntosh know, or could reasonably foresee, when he bypassed Jim Leonhard and landed Luke Fickell last November?
- The CFP was probably expanding beyond four teams, and pretty soon
- The B1G is expanding, bringing in another blueblood (USC) and a UCLA program that is capable of competing right away.
- The B1G was probably doing away with divisions, and pretty soon
- The B1G had locked down a huge TV deal that would widen disparities with all other non-SEC conferences
- NIL had become established and wasn’t going anywhere
- The transfer portal had become established and wasn’t going anywhere
- Wisconsin football had stagnated and recruiting had been underwhelming for a couple of years
That’s quite the list.
“I cheer against Wisconsin, so it’s cool they stagnated, but you hooked me with your opening. Please let me know when I should pay attention again.”
As a program, Wisconsin has almost always toed the conference line. Barry Alvarez was a Rose Bowl guy, a “our main goal is to win the Big Ten” guy.
The one exception was 2000, when UW was coming off consecutive Rose Bowl victories, the conference was down, and UW was preseason #4. For a number of reasons, it wasn’t a great year, despite the 9-4 record.
Then, from 2001-2003, UW went 20-19 overall and 9-15 in B1G play, and a more national recruiting strategy didn’t pay off.
After a 9-3 season in 2004 and a 10-3 season in 2005, both where Alvarez was pulling double duty after becoming AD, the time was right to make a change.
From that point until last November, at no point did UW conduct itself as if a CFP playoff spot was a priority, or, at least, that it could be earned any other way than by winning the conference. In 2017, UW went 12-0, lost by a score in the B1G title game, and nobody agitated for a spot in the playoff. Everybody knew it wasn’t going to happen, and the team was fired up for their Orange Bowl appearance.
Look again at the list above.
If UW had somehow gotten up off the mat and won the B1G West under Jim Leonhard last year,* it’s probably impossible to deny Leonhard the HC position. However, even though I have no proof, I feel confident that, failing that, it wasn’t going to happen. Again, see the list above.
*You laugh, but as things played out, had UW beaten MSU in OT rather than losing that game, the Badgers would’ve been in position to win the West with a victory over Minnesota to end the season...so, um, yeah, glad that didn’t happen.
Luke Fickell 1) has taken a team to the four-team playoff, 4) has done so with far less than a B1G budget, 3) knows the B1G footprint very well, and 5) and 6) has established himself as a dogged recruiter who could evolve with the times. What more could you want when 2) and 7) are staring you in the face?
If you want to give Chris McIntosh the benefit of the doubt, he saw seismic changes coming for both the B1G and CFB generally, and he went and got ahead of the curve. No guarantee it works, but it was a move to match the moment. Hubris? Maybe. Pride goeth before the fall, and all that. But Wisconsin had clearly stagnated. No less an authority that Barry Alvarez quickly and publicly supported the Fickell hire, despite Leonhard being one of his all-time favorite players.
Here might be a good time to start reading again.
So let’s zoom in tightly, and zoom way out. What does this say about Wisconsin’s sense of it’s program, about the B1G, and about CFB going forward? And what might it say about your program?
Playoff Expansion: Wisconsin
Wisconsin thinks it can be an elite (not blueblood, but top 20) program. And, with an expanded playoff, that means playoff spots with some regularity. Maybe it won’t play out this way, but if the playoff were 12 teams in the 2010s, UW probably snags 5 bids (‘10, ‘11, ‘16, ‘17, and ‘19). Fickell is selling recruits on playing in the playoffs and has repeatedly said that he wants to win a national title and UW is a place where that can happen.
Playoff Expansion: Non-Wisconsin
Okay, if you’re an Ohio State, Michigan, or Penn State fan, you don’t care. You’re already aiming for the playoffs every year because you know winning the East puts you in position for that. If anything, now finishing second in the East probably gets the job done. Or, just finishing third in the B1G since we’re doing away with divisions. And, because you’re an OSU, Michigan, or PSU fan, you don’t respect the teams in the West and think that finishing third in the B1G is easier than finishing second in the East. [I’m not saying you’re wrong.]
But if you’re Michigan State, this is a big deal. Iowa and Minnesota can both point to relatively recent years where they would’ve been in the running for a 12 team playoff.* Bret Bielema can tell Illinois recruits about his experience coaching playoff-caliber teams. So can Matt Rhule at Nebraska.
*Will Iowa look at it this way? Not as long as Ferentz is there, but, still.
Division-less B1G: Wisconsin
The particulars are still being sorted out, but the road to the B1G title game will clearly involve more than just having the best intra-divisional record in the inferior division, the way it happened most years from 2014-2022. That said, UW is 3-3 against Michigan under Harbaugh and 0-3 against PSU under Franklin, but two of the losses were basically toss-ups. Yes, there’s a nine-game skid against OSU, but 1) it’s OSU, and 2) five of those losses were of the one-score variety. Again: the playoff has expanded. To make it doesn’t mean unseating OSU or Michigan as the top dog. It (probably) means beating one of these three teams at home to offset losing to another on the road, and finding your way to 10-2 and third in the conference. Is that feasible for UW one out of, say, every three years? Maybe. Luke Fickell seems to thing so.
Division-less B1G: Non-Wisconsin
If we had a 12-team playoff all along, how many B1G schools can reasonably argue the would’ve have made it already?
- OSU, Michigan, and MSU have
- Wisconsin, Iowa, and PSU definitely would have
- With a 12-team playoff in place, does Minnesota beef up the 2019 non-conference schedule? If so, maybe it happens for the Gophers.
- Indiana was 11th in the final 2020 playoff rankings, and if they play a full schedule and go 10-2, they’re almost certainly in.
- Northwestern was 6-1 in the 2020 regular season. Going 10-2, then playing OSU tough in the B1G title game—like they did—possibly gets it done. Don’t sleep on the committee giving them a look in 2017, either.
That’s 9 of 14 teams. And each of the coaches at the other five schools can either point to teams they helmed that were playoff caliber (Bielema, Rhule, Schiano) or argue that they have things on the upswing and are a class or two away from making noise (Locksley and Walters).
If you’re a West school, future schedules will probably be harder, but there will still be years you miss teams, or get the right one at home (night game at Kinnick, etc.). If you’re an East schedule, you probably are no longer facing OSU, Michigan, and PSU each every year. You’ve complained about the schedule for years, you better be ready to do something once things ease up a bit.
B1G $$$ -> NIL -> B1G $$$ -> Transfer Portal -> B1G $$$: Wisconsin
The Badgers are the only FBS program in the state. They have a sizable fan base. The recent TV deal only widens, on paper, the gap between UW and similarly positioned schools in other (non-SEC) P5 conferences. Tomorrow and Thursday when we look at the UW offense and defense, note all the presumed impact players Fickell has brought in since taking the job. And, if your reaction is “big deal, so has my school” well that’s the point, right?
Commit resources to NIL, get a coach who is willing to dive into the portal with both feet, and see what happens.
B1G $$$ -> NIL -> B1G $$$ -> Transfer Portal -> B1G $$$: Non-Wisconsin
EVERYBODY is watching Colorado pretty closely. Not everybody can do what Deion Sanders has done, but if he has success in Boulder, there really aren’t many excuses for better-resourced B1G schools. TCU caught plenty of breaks last year, but if they can do it, why can’t Maryland or Minnesota, with a few breaks of their own, and a superior budget?
Okay, I’m Fired Up. I Think My Team Can Seize the Moment With the Right Plan and a Couple of Breaks!
I agree. I mean, it’s still a very long shot for some B1G schools. But, again, money talks. What if Indiana, Rutgers, Northwestern, and Purdue become something like the MAC within the B1G? I know that sounds condescending, but what I mean is what if the worst B1G schools become a place where coaches on the rise go to prove themselves before moving on to better jobs? What if the path to a really good P5 job includes overachieving at a lower echelon B1G school? Couldn’t you see a Matt Campbell or Sonny Dykes type leading Purdue or Rutgers to a 9-3 season out of nowhere (perhaps aided by a favorable schedule), with a home upset of at B1G powerhouse? Would that guarantee one of six at-large bids? No. It would probably be less than a 50% chance, in fact. Still, though, if it’s easier to make the playoff than win the conference, that changes how you approach things as a program.
And with the financial arms race headed the direction that it is, that REALLY (should) change(s) how you approach things as a B1G program.
I’m Even More Depressed About the Future of College Football. <Plugs Ears> Old Bowl System! Old Bowl System! Old Bowl System!
I feel your pain. But you and I both know that isn’t happening.
If you are willing consider that there’s lemonade to be made, while a lot of this money will funnel right in the football arms race, not all of it will.
If you just enjoy college sports, and can live with a little “conference pride” type of argument, consider these B1G performances:
- National runner-up in WBB
- National runner-up in MHKY
- National champion in WHKY
- National champion in wrestling
- National champion in WLAX
- Final four participant (and controversial goal away for possible championship appearance) in MLAX
- Dominant conference in VB
MBB has been disappointing lately, but more money can’t hurt. Why can’t Indiana (or Purdue) largely write off football and aim to be the UConn of the B1G?
And if Oregon State can win multiple nattys in baseball, why can’t a B1G school? (Softball too, obviously.) Etc., etc.
Sure, the financial aspects are grimy, but the old bowl systems wasn’t great because college football was ever clean. It was great because it kept things smaller and more regional. You can’t get that back 100%, but aren’t many (most?) non-rev sports still fairly regional?
Look, huge changes are coming to CFB, and college athletics generally. The more I have thought about things since Fickell was hired, the more I like what Wisconsin has done. Nothing is promised, but the logic is there.
If you’re not a Wisconsin fan, that’s fine too. Your school is either already a “have” or you can watch how things unfold in Madison and learn from any missteps. But, one way or another, your school is going to have to face this tidal wave. Maybe you think your AD is up to the challenge; maybe you don’t. (Maybe you didn’t, but now have new hope. If so, you probably live in Iowa City.)
If you do, great. Now is the time to act.
If not, you’re still soon going to have a shit load of money to lure a new one.
You need to see the next couple of years as an opportunity.