There will never be an adequate way to measure how one football team stacks up against another from a different generation or year. Because the laws of time do not permit such a matchup, it is impossible to know whether Wisconsin’s 2017 team is the best ever in a Badgers uniform.
But in the aftermath of Wisconsin’s 13-1, Orange Bowl-winning campaign, what is clear is that it should be remembered among the greatest in program history, even if quantifying a true pecking order remains elusive.
Consider that no Badgers team before had won 13 games in a season. Only three had finished in the top 5 of the Associated Press poll: in 1942, 1962 and 1999. Wisconsin currently ranks No. 6. And the Badgers’ only loss came by 6 points to an Ohio State team that will finish in the top 5 and could have vied for a national championship.
To a certain generation of fans, no season is likely to be remembered more fondly than the 1993 campaign, in which Barry Alvarez led the Badgers on a remarkable journey from Big Ten doormats to Rose Bowl champions. Ron Dayne’s final two seasons in 1998 and 1999 that culminated in two more Rose Bowl victories also rank near the top.
Some people may argue that those teams are better on the grounds that they won the Big Ten championship, while the 2017 Badgers did not. But the 1993 team finished in a tie with Ohio State. And the 1998 team finished in a three-way tie with Ohio State and Michigan. The only reason Wisconsin reached the Rose Bowl on both occasions was because of tie-breaker rules, which sent the first-place team with the longest Rose Bowl drought to the game.
The 1993 team lost on the road to a bad Minnesota team that finished 4-7. The 1998 team lost 27-10 at Michigan and didn’t have to play Ohio State, which went 11-1, won the Sugar Bowl and finished No. 2 in the country in the final AP poll. The 1999 team lost twice, including on the road to a Cincinnati team that finished 3-8. It should also be noted that those teams did not have to play an additional game for the league title, as is the case now.
Wisconsin has been among the most consistently good programs since the Alvarez era. And since 2014, only Alabama, Clemson and Ohio State have won more games than Wisconsin. Each of those programs has won a national championship in that span. But Wisconsin’s run of success also shouldn’t be held against the 2017 team, which separated itself as a notch above by polishing off the school’s first 12-0 regular season.
No, this wasn’t the best offense in school history. Wisconsin’s 33.8 points per game this season ranks seventh. The No. 1 offense goes to the 2011 team, led by quarterback Russell Wilson and running back Montee Ball, which averaged 44.1 points per game and featured nine starters who became NFL draft picks. That team suffered because of its defense and lost three games, including the Rose Bowl.
Wisconsin’s defense this season lived up to its end of the bargain and allowed 262.1 yards per game, which ranks 10th in program history. Only the 2006 unit was better among Badgers teams from the last 60 years. This unit could be compared favorably to most defenses Wisconsin has compiled based on the sum of its parts.
Certainly, people are free to lament Wisconsin’s regular-season schedule and wonder what it might have looked like with games against Ohio State, Michigan State or Penn State ― teams that finished 33-7 this season. But the opponents were beyond Wisconsin’s control, and the Badgers went out in style by beating a top-10 Miami team in what amounted to a true road game. Expectations were sky high entering the season, and the Badgers met those expectations in almost every way, save for an appearance in the College Football Playoff.
I asked Wisconsin coach Paul Chryst in the team locker room early Sunday morning after the Orange Bowl victory against Miami what it meant to be a part of such a special group, one which achieved goals that had never been done in the program.
“I don’t think anyone’s done it that quietly,” Chryst said. “I think what allowed this group to do that, you appreciate it as a coach being a part of it. And you want to share it with them. … Everyone wants to say, ‘What’s it mean going forward,’ but really what it is, it’s a culmination of a heck of a season.”
Indeed it was. Among the best that Wisconsin ever has experienced.