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Today is Monday, Jan. 2, and this is your Wisconsin Wake-Up Call.
It’s game time, finally
Wisconsin will close out its second season under coach Paul Chryst today with a matchup against undefeated Western Michigan in the Cotton Bowl. And though the game itself is, despite the players saying otherwise, a consolation prize for losing the Big Ten title game to Penn State, that doesn’t mean it’s meaningless.
Here’s a quick look at what each side is playing for at AT&T Stadium, along with our prediction:
The 2016 season has already been the best in the history of Western Michigan football, with a school-record 13 wins. But it can become even more special with a win against Wisconsin. The difference between 13-0 and 14-0 is notable, because only five teams have ever finished 14-0.
But even more than that, a victory over an upper-level Big Ten team would legitimize the record. Sure, coach P.J. Fleck’s crew beat Northwestern and Illinois, but no one would confuse them for Wisconsin, especially not this season.
The game could also establish Western Michigan as a power among Group of 5 teams, just like it did for Boise State after its 2007 Fiesta Bowl victory against Oklahoma and TCU’s Rose Bowl win in 2011 against the Badgers.
The game is a no-win situation for the Badgers. If you win, you were supposed to. If you lose, the laughter from other Power 5 teams will be heard for months. But that’s an outside perspective.
Inside, things are viewed a little different.
T.J. Watt: I promise you, they (Western Michigan) do not care more. We want this game bad.
— Benjamin Worgull (@TheBadgerNation) December 31, 2016
First and foremost, Wisconsin is motivated, especially on defense, to show that blowing a 28-7 lead to Penn State in the Big Ten title game was a fluke. It would get at least some of that bad taste out of their mouths if they can shut down a Western Michigan offense averaging 43.5 points per game.
#Badgers definitely not overlooking Western Michigan. Just about every player said "They're 13-0 for a reason."
— Evan Flood (@Evan_Flood) December 31, 2016
At the heart of the Badgers’ motivation, though, is exactly the opposite of what motivates the Broncos. That historic season Western Michigan is trying to finish off is the same thing Wisconsin wants to ruin. Several players have said this week that slamming the door on the storybook year has been a focus throughout bowl prep. It’s essentially the thought that, “if Penn State ripped our hearts out, we’re going to do the same to you.”
Prediction: Wisconsin 31, Western Michigan 17
Wisconsin’s run game dominates and the quarterback duo of Alex Hornibrook and Bart Houston make enough plays, as the Badgers wear down a smaller Western Michigan defense. On the other side of the ball, a now healthy Wisconsin defense holds quarterback Zach Terrell and wide receiver Corey Davis in check. A late Corey Clement touchdown gives the Badgers a double-digit victory.
Saving the Big Ten?
It has not been a banner postseason for the Big Ten so far. After seven games, the conference, which had been lauded as the best in college football much of the season, is just 2-5. And it’s not just the record. It’s how the record got to be like that, most notably the embarrassing 31-0 whipping that Clemson put on Ohio State in one of the College Football Playoff semifinals on New Years Eve.
I covered the Cotton Bowl last year. Therefore I have not seen the Big Ten playoff team score a point since 2014.
— Stewart Mandel (@slmandel) January 1, 2017
The return of the Big Ten to national prominence, which began with the hiring of Urban Meyer at Ohio State followed by Michigan’s revival behind Jim Harbaugh and the late push by Penn State under James Franklin, didn’t happen overnight, so the conference performing poorly this postseason certainly isn’t going to send it back down.
But could it use big days from the Nittany Lions and Wisconsin? Absolutely.
This idea that suddenly the Big Ten stunk this year is revisionist history based on some of the least important games of the season.
— Mike Greenberg (@Espngreeny) January 1, 2017
Penn State, the actual Big Ten champion, takes on a USC squad that was thought to be among the best teams in the country at the end of the year, but unable to make the playoff because of three early season losses. The Trojans are favored by a touchdown in the Rose Bowl, but a Nittany Lions victory would show the cream of the conference held up their end of the bargain.
The Badgers are on the other end of the spectrum, facing a Western Michigan team that despite being unbeaten is an 8.5-point underdog. This game isn’t about building up the Big Ten, but merely staving off any additional embarrassment.
Only a Wisconsin victory can save them from that.
2017 Bold predictions
With 2016 now in our rear-view mirror, it’s a perfect time to take a look forward at what 2017 could hold for the Wisconsin football and basketball teams. Here are a few bold — in our mind — predictions for the rest of the year.
1. Wisconsin wins the regular season Big Ten title, fails to make the Final Four
Before the season, the Wisconsin basketball team was the favorite to take home the Big Ten title, and though they still have questions, there isn’t a single team in the conference that has their experience and depth. As we’ve seen in the first week of Big Ten play, there are no guarantees — who saw Nebraska beating Indiana or Minnesota taking out Purdue? — but over the course of an 18-game conference schedule, the Badgers will show their mettle and earn their fifth league title since 2001.
That should be good enough to get them to spend the first weekend of the NCAA tournament in Milwaukee at the Bradley Center, and they won’t lose there. But it takes a lot of good fortune to reach the Final Four as the team did in 2014 and 2015. And though it’s certainly possible that they’ll be able to ratchet up what’s necessary, their penchant for turning the ball over and lulls in shooting could ultimately doom them.
2. Wisconsin will win the Big Ten West, lose to Ohio State in title game
In coach Paul Chryst’s third year, the Badgers will repeat as Big Ten West champions, taking advantage of a schedule that will see them miss Ohio State, Penn State and Michigan State. Led by a defense stocked with seniors, and a powerful running game with the one-two punch of sophomore Bradrick Shaw and junior Chris James, the Badgers copy their formula from the second half of the 2016 season to push their way into the College Football Playoff talk. The division title will be decided in the final weeks, as the Badgers host Iowa and Michigan on back-to-back weekends in November.
Wisconsin ends up taking the title and facing Ohio State in Indianapolis, where the ultra-talented and motivated Buckeyes take care of business and punch their ticket to the playoff, while the Badgers “settle” for a trip to the Rose Bowl.
3. 2017 will be defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox’s last at Wisconsin
Like Dave Aranda before him, Wilcox will take advantage of a hugely successful year and turn it into a huge payday in the SEC or Pac-12. Though scheduled to make $950,000 this fall, a desperate team with even deeper pockets will come calling. Don’t fret, though, Wisconsin fans. He’ll be replaced by current secondary coach Jim Leonhard, who in his first year shaped a unit that outperformed most people’s expectations, even with the Big Ten title game factored in.
- Wisconsin’s Nigel Hayes and Ethan Happ will earn first-team All-Big Ten honors, but Purdue’s Caleb Swanigan will win the conference’s players of the year award.
- After seven seasons at Wisconsin, associate head coach Lamont Paris will get a head coaching position somewhere else and the well-deserved chance to run his own program.
- Quarterback Alex Hornibrook will start all 14 games in 2017.
- Wisconsin’s defense will lead the country in fewest points allowed per game.
The Cotton Bowl will be the last college game for some pretty remarkable seniors. There’s outside linebacker Vince Biegel and cornerback Sojourn Shelton, who will be making their school-record tying 54th appearance. There’s quarterback Bart Houston, whose roller-coaster of a career will conclude with him playing an important role, while running back Corey Clement’s time in a Wisconsin uniform comes to an end with him playing his best football. There’s a pair of former walk-ons in running back Dare Ogunbowale and long-snapper Connor Udelhoven, while team MVP Leo Musso finishes off his heart-warming but unexpected strong final year.
Overall, it’s a group that with a win on Monday will own the school-record for most wins in a four-year period. It’s a pretty special accomplishment when you consider all the upheaval in the coaching staff, with some of them, like Biegel, playing for three different head coaches.
On Sunday, with all the game prep completed, the seniors got to take part in an annual tradition, as they were carried off the field of their final practice.
Going out on top.
Seniors carried off the field by teammates after the final practice of the season.
— Wisconsin Football (@BadgerFootball) January 1, 2017
- From Jason Galloway at the Wisconsin State Journal: T.J. Watt’s lofty goals pay off with a breakout season for the outside linebacker
- Expect the unexpected when Paul Chryst has a month to prepare, Tom Oates writes at the Wisconsin State Journal.
- The Badgers, according to Jeff Potrykus at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, see playing Western Michigan as a tremendous opportunity.
- Here at Land of 10, Chris Bils writes that with quarterback Alex Hornibrook’s return, Wisconsin has a signature element of its offense back.