MADISON, Wis. – When The Athletic released the results of its Wisconsin football poll in early July, two things became immediately clear. 1) Optimism is high in Luke Fickell’s era. 2) This also applies to expectations.
The question that best expressed this combination was defining a successful season for the Badgers this fall. In other words, what was the least you felt was a good year for Wisconsin?
Of the 995 voters, 85 percent of respondents defined a successful season for Wisconsin as winning the Big Ten West, with another seven percent defining success as winning the Big Ten Championship. That meant 92 percent of respondents believed anything short of a West Division title would be considered a failure.
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Many Wisconsin players feel the same way.
“I think a successful season is winning a championship,” Badgers running back Braelon Allen said this week. “When Coach Fick came here it was the mentality that he taught us. That’s what drove us through the off-season workouts, Spring Ball, and this summer. Anything else is, frankly, probably a failure.”
Fickell has made it clear multiple times since he arrived at Wisconsin that the only goal that matters is playing for championships. The Badgers are the preseason favorites to win the West, something they haven’t done since 2019. When Fickell was asked this week what success looked like to him in his first year at Wisconsin, he repeated another phrase that’s always a topic of conversation: “Playing our best ball at the end of the year.”
“I know that’s pretty vague, and that’s a way of not answering the question in a lot of ways,” Fickell said. “But if we stay consistent, continue to grow and do our best at the end of the year, I think we will have everything ahead of us. We will have the chance to play for the championship in the last three or four weeks and that is what matters.”
What Fickell meant was that he wouldn’t talk about reaching the Big Ten championship until Wisconsin’s season opener against Buffalo in December. Instead, its focus is on the process necessary to achieve the end goal. Fickell said if Wisconsin is in the same spot in Week 8 (when it plays Ohio State) as it was in Week 1 against Buffalo, it will be terribly difficult to succeed this season.
“We know there is progress here,” Fickell said. “There is a process. And I don’t want our guys, just like our coaches, to feel like you have to win in Week 1. No. It’s a process of doing the things you need to do to get better and finding out what we have and developing what we have.
“For me it’s important how we do things together. That’s what I always look back on at Wisconsin and realized that whenever I played against them, whether as a player or as a coach, you knew you were going to get one. Everyone has their own personal goals with novelty. But how do we do things together? Do we have complementary offense and defense and special teams and the ability to really keep the locker room strong and do everything together?”
Here are some more tidbits and a prediction ahead of kick-off:
Tanner Mordecai transferred to Wisconsin after spending the last two seasons at SMU. (Mark Hoffman/USA Today)
Wisconsin made drastic changes to its roster via the transfer portal this offseason, bringing 15 scholarship players in from the portal. That decision has already paid off, as evidenced by the fact that 11 of those players are on Wisconsin’s Week 1 two-deep chart.
Six players are on offense: quarterbacks Tanner Mordecai (SMU) and Braedyn Locke (Mississippi State), wide receivers Bryson Green (Oklahoma State), Will Pauling (Cincinnati) and CJ Williams (USC) and left guard Joe Huber. The other transfers are backup defensive end Darian Varner (Temple), backup outside linebacker Jeff Pietrowski (Michigan State), starting cornerback Jason Maitre (Boston College), backup cornerback Nyzier Fourqurean (Grand Valley State) and kicker Nathanial Vakos (Ohio). in the two-deep.
Punter Atticus Bertrams was not in the transfer portal but joined the program after spending last year in Australia. Center Jake Renfro, a potential starter after transferring from Cincinnati, is out with a foot injury.
Despite the influx of transfers, Fickell maintains his position that Wisconsin will not rely heavily on portal players in the future. He said he would be disappointed if his roster wasn’t 85 to 90 percent high school players. Fickell said he would like to sign 18 to 22 high school players on scholarship each year, although he noted the staff would continue to look for transfers who could fill gaps at positions of need.
“I think you have to have guys for three, four, five years,” Fickell said. “For me, we still have to make our hay there. And we have to believe that. That’s why continuity and things are really important to me. And I don’t just mean that with the players. It’s also on coaches. It is also included in your strength program. And if that’s your philosophy, why would you approach recruiting any differently?”
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Turn up the heat
Forecasters say the temperature is expected to reach 90 degrees Saturday afternoon at Camp Randall Stadium. If that works, it will be the warmest home game since at least 1950. The record currently dates back to Wisconsin’s season opener against UNLV in 2011, when quarterback Russell Wilson made his debut. The only other home games in the last 73 years where the temperature was above 85 degrees were against Western Michigan in 2000 (87 degrees) and against BYU in 2018 (87 degrees).
Will the Heat have any impact on the pace at which Wisconsin wants to play in the first game of the Air Raid system? That remains to be seen. But how players react to the weather could be one of the storylines to watch. During one of Wisconsin’s first preseason practices at UW-Platteville, several players experienced cramps on a sweltering day.
5 questions Wisconsin’s new offense still needs to answer after kickoff
There isn’t a football season in Wisconsin where so many questions arise about what the product will look like going forward. New personnel, new attack, new defense. Players and coaches have expressed confidence that they can produce results straight away and we will finally have the opportunity to see everything they have been working on when kick-off comes.
Wisconsin is a 28-point favorite. Buffalo has several key pieces returning from a team that finished 7-6 and won the Camellia Bowl against Georgia Southern, including quarterback Cole Snyder and first-team All-MAC linebacker Shaun Dolac. But this is an opportunity for Wisconsin to showcase its talent and make a statement about what to expect this season.
Wisconsin 45, Buffalo 10
(Top photo: James Black / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)