Editor's note: This marks the first sports column by Cap Times city editor Jason Joyce. He will examine the Wisconsin sports scene on an occasional basis in the coming months. Follow him on Twitter @jjoyce.
Keith Jackson was the iconic voice of college football on ABC for decades — think “Whoa, Nellie!” and “Hold the phone!” — and visited dozens of stadiums and campuses in his career. The 1989 season opener between the Wisconsin Badgers and Miami Hurricanes, ranked third in the country at the time, brought him to Madison.
The Badgers had finished the 1988 campaign with a 1-10 record, good for ninth in the 10-team Big Ten. Miami’s only loss in 1988 was by one point at Notre Dame, the national champion, and the ‘Canes finished number two in the country. The decision to feature such a lopsided match-up as ABC’s season opener remains as dumbfounding today as it was 30 years ago. For those who buried memories of the result — or weren’t alive to witness it — the ‘Canes prevailed, 51-3, in front of less than 39,000 fans.
In preparing for the call, Jackson, who passed away in 2018, took the pulse of fans on campus and was asked by a State Journal reporter if he encountered any excitement about the game.
“I didn’t sense any feeling about it being a social event,” he said, adding that students should have something to look forward to every week. “I don’t think sitting on the back veranda smoking pot is it.”
As you process how that would sound in Jackson’s distinctive voice, also consider how much has changed in the last 30 years. Wisconsin’s Friday night season opener at South Florida (6 p.m., ESPN) isn’t even a home game and it will most assuredly be a showstopping social event in Madison, even among the veranda pot smoking set.
The Badgers are coming off an 8-5 season that only a dozen programs across the country — including Wisconsin — would describe as disappointing. The lowest points included a Sept. 15 home loss to BYU that erased any chance of making the four-team College Football Playoff and a Nov. 24 home loss to Minnesota, breaking a 14-game winning streak for the Badgers in the battle for Paul Bunyan’s Axe.
An aside: I grew up in the Twin Cities and many of my friends and family members are Gophers fans. I’m pretty sure each one of them has posed for a photo with the Axe since November. If everyone who has grabbed the Axe got a free ticket to a Gophers game, they might actually fill up TCF Bank Stadium.
But despite all that, fans have many reasons to be more excited about this season than they did a year ago, when the Badgers were ranked fourth in the country and were expected by many to make a run for the national title. Here are a few:
The schedule is loaded, starting with Friday’s test at South Florida, a road game not many big-time programs would play. The Bulls will test Wisconsin’s defense by running a no-huddle offense in hot, humid conditions. The Badgers will also face Michigan, Michigan State and Ohio State, with the late-season Minnesota match-up on the road. These are marquee names in college football and even the most casual fans will be motivated to take notice.
Jonathan Taylor is the best running back in college football. He ran for 2,194 yards last year, 7.1 yards per carry. Two years ago, those numbers were 1,977 and 6.6. His combined total of 4,171 yards in two seasons is the most ever for a college running back. Those numbers are attracting attention from Heisman Trophy voters and, more importantly, opposing defensive coordinators who will have to account for him on nearly every play, ideally allowing Wisconsin’s untested quarterbacks to learn on the job.
The 2019 Badgers are back to basics. When asked during fall training camp what sets this version of Wisconsin football apart, several players delivered a message similar to, if not as concise and direct as what senior linebacker Chris Orr said: “I feel like in today’s game, people get a little lost on what actually playing good football is. They get caught up in who scores the most points or who can have the flashiest plays rather than playing solid defense, moving the ball on offense and ending each drive with points. That’s what good football is. If you’re a fan of good football, you’re gonna love this team.”
Running back Garrett Groshek, a junior from Amherst Junction, explained why Orr’s version of “good football” resonates with fans in this state: “I think this group has done a pretty good job so far of getting back to the grindstone, like a lot of blue collar people in Wisconsin are. We really come in to work every day and try to get the most out of every day, and obviously have some fun along the way. I think we’re a team that really embodies the state of Wisconsin.”
A loss in Tampa Friday night may temper fan enthusiasm, but there will still be many more than 39,000 for the home opener against Central Michigan on Sept. 7.