ANN ARBOR, Mich. — The University of Wisconsin spent just one game as the fourth-ranked team in the county to begin this season, and it only took a few weeks for the Badgers’ College Football Playoff chances to become a distant pipe dream.
Their shocking loss to BYU at Camp Randall Stadium on Sept. 15 appeared to shatter the lofty preseason goals of a team on the brink of that achievement the past two seasons, and the Cougars' poor play since that day certainly hasn’t helped the perception that UW entered the year severely overrated.
"Some people kind of wrote us off early when we had that slip-up versus BYU,” UW sophomore cornerback Madison Cone said. “But honestly, at the end of this season, we might look back on it as the thing we needed to get us going, to really lock us in and get us going in the right direction."
Some may call it naivety or overconfidence, but until that second loss actually occurs, the Badgers aren’t counting themselves out of anything.
Unlike last year, when UW started 12-0 against a weak schedule before its loss to Ohio State in the Big Ten Championship game, the 15-ranked Badgers know this season’s slate allows for opportunities to overcome a bad September loss.
It starts this week at No. 12 Michigan, where a victory could vault them back into the top 10 and allow them to at least re-enter the playoff discussion midway through the season.
"When we lost that BYU game, we came in and one of the first things that our coaches made sure that we knew was that the goals we had at the beginning of the season, they’re still attainable,” Cone said. “Last year our schedule kind of made it to where we couldn’t afford to slip up. This year I feel like we have a tougher schedule, so that slip-up doesn’t hurt as much.
"If we get this win at Michigan, we get Penn State at Penn State and if we can get Ohio State in the Big Ten ship, I feel like we have a valid case to be in that top four."
Cone called the Wolverines "hands down the best team we’ve played so far,” and it’s difficult to argue against that statement.
Since UW beat Michigan at Camp Randall Stadium in November of last season, the Wolverines upgraded significantly at quarterback with Ole Miss transfer Shea Patterson, have enjoyed improved offensive line play this season and still own one of the country’s best defenses.
It could prove to be a tougher test than any the Badgers faced during the regular season a year ago, and the 6:30 p.m. kickoff time on ABC means many eyes around the country will take note of how they fare.
"Especially going on the road and playing there, night game, all the stuff that goes into it, it’s a huge opportunity for us to kind of show everyone what we are,” UW left guard Michael Deiter said. "And that’s on us. It comes down to what we do this week, and then also making sure we don’t make the moment any bigger than it is. It is a really big opportunity for us to let people know that we’re a good football team."
It’s not just the BYU loss, however, that forced many to slow their roll on this UW season. The Badgers’ defense, one of the best in the country over the past three years, took a sizable step back and surrendered a number of big plays in each of the last three games.
UW struggled to stop the running games of BYU and Iowa, and its young secondary allowed more than 400 passing yards to Nebraska last week. That secondary’s even more shorthanded heading into Saturday’s big contest. Cornerbacks Caesar Williams (left leg) and Deron Harrell (head) are questionable to play, and starting safety Scott Nelson will miss the first half after being ejected for targeting against the Cornhuskers.
Defensive end Isaiahh Loudermilk (left leg) won’t play against Michigan, and outside linebacker Andrew Van Ginkel (right ankle) may still be limited.
A road win over a highly ranked team could be the best and only way to prove recent shortcomings won’t necessarily prevent UW from competing against top-level competition.
Other players agreed with Cone that the BYU loss energized the team rather than draining its confidence. Still, wide receiver A.J. Taylor said the Badgers’ trip to Ann Arbor on Saturday also serves as an opportunity to add some real substance to that optimism.
"We’re more proving it to ourselves that we can do this thing,” Taylor said. "We try not to rely on the outside noise or try to let that pressure us to be better. We pressure ourselves enough. ... I think our goal (Saturday) is just to win. And if that happens to put us back up the rankings, then so be it. If not, so be it."
A victory would certainly boost the Badgers up the national polls and hand them a quality road win just two weeks before the College Football Playoff committee releases its first rankings. With the exception of a game at Penn State on Nov. 10, UW would also likely be favored every week for the remainder of the regular season.
It certainly won’t be easy, and perhaps not even likely, but an upset Saturday night could change the course of the Badgers’ season, much in the opposite way their loss to BYU did.
"We’ll get to find out who we are as a team,” UW safety D’Cota Dixon said. "You’re playing one of the best teams on the schedule. It’ll be fun. It’ll be exciting. It’ll be a good challenge. Hopefully we’ll rise and see where we’re at."