MADISON, Wis. — When right tackle Joe Panos uttered the famous words that galvanized Wisconsin’s football team during the 1993 season, it represented a watershed moment for a program intent on changing its history as a Big Ten doormat.
Panos, of course, responded to a reporter’s question about whether the Badgers could actually win the Big Ten championship that season with three words that became etched into lore: “Why not Wisconsin?” The Badgers ultimately earned a share of the Big Ten crown and went on to win their first Rose Bowl.
The trajectory of Wisconsin’s football program has drastically changed in the last 25 years. Instead of aspiring to win Big Ten championships, the Badgers now maintain a firm belief that they can win national championships. They have been on the cusp of the four-team College Football Playoff but have yet to break through.
Which is why, on the heels of one of the most successful seasons in school history, players are uttering a familiar refrain.
“Why not?” Wisconsin inside linebacker T.J. Edwards said recently, when asked whether winning a national title was a realistic goal. “Why shouldn’t it be one of our biggest goals? The part that gets me every time is we can’t win the damn Big Ten championship, so that hurts. Going back-to-back in Indy and losing is something that sticks in my brain. So in order to get to our biggest goal, we have to accomplish that one in front of us.
“It all starts with winning the Big Ten West. We talk about these things every day and how important they should be to us. I think every day we kind of practice, lift and meet with that in mind.”
Wisconsin has become one of the most consistent powers in college football. The Badgers have reached bowl games in 23 of the last 25 seasons, including a current streak of 16 consecutive appearances. They have played in five of seven Big Ten Championship Games, won four straight bowl games and two consecutive New Year’s Six bowl games. Since the start of the 2014 season, they have the fourth-most wins in the FBS. The top three schools — Alabama, Clemson and Ohio State — each have won at least one national title during that span.
But for all of the team’s successes, Wisconsin has not managed to earn a shot at a national championship. Two seasons ago, Wisconsin entered the Big Ten title game against Penn State ranked No. 6 in the College Football Playoff poll. The Badgers gave up a three-touchdown lead and lost 38-31 but likely would not have qualified for the playoffs even with a victory.
Last season, Wisconsin completed its first unbeaten regular season in 105 years and entered the Big Ten Championship Game ranked No. 4 in the CFP. Wisconsin needed 71 yards for a touchdown with 2:53 remaining in the game but came up short in a 27-21 loss to Ohio State. Wisconsin ultimately defeated Miami 34-24 in the Orange Bowl to cap a 13-1 season.
The fact the Badgers were so close has given rise to a renewed belief.
“It definitely does,” said Badgers running back Jonathan Taylor, a Doak Walker Award finalist last season. “When you go back and look, you just look at the little details. And that’s one of the biggest things. Guys who execute, make fewer mistakes, those are the guys that get over that hump. And those are the guys that win national championships.
“In meetings, we do discuss it. And I think it’s like an understood goal. Guys are coming out and competing at a high level. We know we’re right on the cusp of getting over that hump. So that’s one of the biggest things that we come out here and push ourselves to work for. We know that’s one of our motivations. Besides personal motivations, that’s one of them of why we come out here every day and work hard and compete.”
A big reason Wisconsin enters the season so confident is the team’s experience and depth. Wisconsin returns its top two tacklers, including Edwards, who earned first-team All-America honors last season. The Badgers also bring back 20 of their top 22 offensive players from last season.
“I think we have a lot of talent,” said Wisconsin quarterback Alex Hornibrook, who will be a three-year starter this season. “I don’t look at one part of our offense and think that, ‘Man, I wish we were better here.’ Obviously, we want to improve. But we have a lot of talent. I’m excited about how these guys work together every day. We’ve been around each other for a while, so it’s kind of fun to come out here and practice.”
Hornibrook threw for 258 yards with 4 touchdowns to earn Orange Bowl MVP honors. He recorded the second-most touchdown passes in a single season at Wisconsin (25) and the fifth-most passing yards (2,607). If he limits his interceptions, the offense will have a chance to thrive on a level that is rarely seen in Madison.
Wisconsin’s top four wide receivers each contributed in big ways last season. Junior Quintez Cephus has the potential to develop into one of the best receivers in the country. Freshman Aron Cruickshank could push for playing time after a stellar spring practice. It is not a stretch to suggest that the wide receiver depth and talent is as good as it has ever been.
Meanwhile, the Badgers bring back their entire offensive line two-deep. That group includes three returning All-Americans: Michael Deiter, Beau Benzschawel and David Edwards. All three bypassed the NFL draft and returned for another season, as did T.J. Edwards.
“They all could have left, but they didn’t,” Badgers running back Chris James said. “Because I think they understand that we have a great opportunity to really end this thing off right and get that national championship. We were close and we got a little taste of it, but it’s just still not the whole plate.
“It’s not that we have no weakness. But we have a chance where everybody on the team has experience and everybody is playing confident. We know that we’re good. We know everybody in the Big Ten West is going to be coming for us. But the thing about these guys here, these guys don’t back down from competition.”
Wisconsin has reached a level of national prominence that the program could only dream of three decades ago. Scan the list of way-too-early preseason top 25 polls and Wisconsin isn’t ranked lower than No. 7 in any of them. Taylor is the Heisman Trophy favorite in some Las Vegas betting circles.
But there is still a burning desire to accomplish so much more and bring a national championship to Madison. In order to achieve that objective, it begins with a simple offseason question: Why not?
“Being around here for so long and knowing the culture of this place, knowing that we have the personnel, we have the coaches, we have the work ethic, we just have to put it all together,” T.J. Edwards said. “We’ve been so close. I want to gain that respect of Wisconsin’s a team that can do it.
“We just lose those big-time games that we need to win. It’s something that can’t happen anymore and won’t happen anymore. So I’m really excited to get this season going just to prove a lot of people wrong.”