CHICAGO — Last year's preseason discussion didn't focus on whether the University of Wisconsin would win the Big Ten West.
Why bother? The Badgers were already the class of the division — two straight years in College Football Playoff contention and another on the way.
UW vs. Iowa or UW vs. Northwestern weren't real debates in July 2018. Instead, the Badgers' chances of upending Ohio State in Indianapolis became the hot topic of those Big Ten Media Days, illustrated by the fact that the Buckeyes garnered just one more vote than UW as the predicted conference winner in Cleveland.com's annual Big Ten preseason poll.
"It was definitely a different energy from ... the attention that we were receiving outside of the program," UW inside linebacker Chris Orr said. "It was definitely different and exciting.
"I can admit to that. It was definitely fun to be in."
The fun didn't last long. UW came back down to earth with an unfathomable loss to BYU in Week 3, and then suffered four more defeats to Michigan, Northwestern, Penn State and Minnesota.
The Badgers' disappointing year knocked them completely off the national radar, and they'll enter coach Paul Chryst's fifth season next month predicted to finish third in the West, a borderline top-25 team at best.
UW said all the right things leading up to last season. In various interviews, players vowed that they weren't listening to the hype or outside expectations placed upon them by media and fans.
But wide receiver A.J. Taylor revealed this spring, after the dust settled on the Badgers' 8-5 season, that the pressures of entering the year as a top-five team may have affected certain members of the team.
"You get a sense, but I don't know that you know," Chryst said Thursday when asked about Taylor's comments. "You get a sense of it, and your messaging's pretty consistent. Mine's always been pretty consistent because I believe in that.
"I mean, (Taylor's) probably telling the truth, right? And they've got to learn from it. And I think each guy's affected a little bit differently."
Running back Jonathan Taylor said Friday that some of UW's young players didn't know the hard work it took to win last season and even committed the cardinal sin of looking ahead on the schedule.
"When you tend to look two weeks ahead, one week ahead, things right in front of you seem to get foggy," he said.
Chryst said he eventually attempted to deliver that messaging in different ways, as well as tweaking the way UW practiced in certain situations.
"I think that was one thing we tried to do and I think we were on to something," Chryst said. "We've got to practice some things differently so that the situation becomes a little more real. We talked about it, and the older group understands it because they probably lived it at some point, but with this group did we do that?"
UW enters this season in a more familiar and perhaps comfortable role - an underdog hungry to exceed expectations. Orr said the Badgers are used to being disrespected by national media, rather than lauded as College Football Playoff frontrunners.
They now hope last year's failures become lessons instead of habits.
"That experience was very different ... always expecting to win," Jonathan Taylor said. "You've got to make sure that you don't let those things get to you because you know you can lose on any given Saturday.
"I feel like guys are older now, they're refocused and they're ready to go."