Unranked but unbothered, the preseason version of the University of Wisconsin football team saw its schedule through a completely different prism than anyone outside the program.
While the media and fans checked off loss after loss back in August, declaring the season over before it began, the Badgers were viewing the schedule as a reward — a chance to finally play consistent games against some of the country’s best competition.
These players had been waiting years to face the Michigans and Ohio States of college football, and they weren’t going to let those opportunities go to waste.
“I think everyone kind of thought we were going to back down from this schedule or this and that,” UW outside linebacker T.J. Watt said. “But we definitely throughout the offseason had been in an attack mindset and just wanting to showcase what we can do.
“It’s nice to have these really big games where you can showcase what we’ve been working on. In years past, we haven’t had as many primetime games where you can show people on these big stages what we’re about. I think it’s definitely opening people’s eyes to what we can do.”
The 11th-ranked Badgers have flipped the perception of their team so severely over the past eight weeks they enter tonight’s game against No. 7 Nebraska favored by a whopping 9 points.
They won their first two marquee matchups with LSU and Michigan State and gave themselves a great chance to do the same against Michigan and Ohio State.
Many would consider UW the favorites to win the Big Ten West Division despite the Cornhuskers’ current two-game lead, and the Badgers are ranked higher than any two-loss team in the country, ahead of two big-name programs — Oklahoma and Florida State — who have made College Football Playoff appearances over the past two seasons.
“Even in the losses, we showed people that we’re a good team,” UW running back Dare Ogunbowale said. “We’re probably getting looked at more, but that doesn’t really affect us that much. We just want to win games, and that’s what this is all about. It’s nice for people to believe in us, so to speak, but at the same time we want to make sure that we go out there and win games.”
And others are now expecting them to do just that.
UW thrived in an underdog role early in the season, but any advantage or edge gained from that has been lost since taking the nation by surprise and thrusting itself into the playoff discussion.
Tonight’s game will mark the fifth time this season the Badgers have played a team ranked in the top eight. With many predicting UW to roll past the Cornhuskers at Camp Randal Stadium, however, it’s unlike any situation this group of players has experienced.
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“I think it was good for us to have a little chip on our shoulder,” Watt said. “(We were) building confidence, feeling like we can hang with some of the best teams in the country, individually and as a whole.
“I don’t think the chip is ever going to be gone. We’re all a bunch of three star and two star, some walk-on guys out of high school. I don’t think the chip is ever going to be gone. We’re always going to be out to prove something. We’ve been here and we haven’t been getting the respect. We come out each day like we’re out to prove something, and I don’t think that’s going to change anytime soon.”
One thing hasn’t changed for the Badgers over the past eight weeks. They expected to win early in the season, and they expect to win now.
The altered view of this team from those outside the program hasn’t changed anything within it, and that’s allowed UW to prepare for this week — and any week thereafter — like it would if tabbed a double-digit underdog.
“It’s the same approach every week,” UW cornerback Sojourn Shelton said. “No matter if it’s Week 1 or Week 12 or a bowl game, we expect to win as a team, and we’re going to try to do whatever we can to put ourselves in a position to win the game.
“We take it one game at a time. Whether people think we should win or we shouldn’t, that’s not for us to buy into. We’ve just got to do what we’ve worked on the whole week, and everything will take care of itself.”
It helps, too, that tonight’s game could determine whether or not the Badgers reach the goals they set out for themselves before the season began.
The stakes are undeniable for both teams. A win for Nebraska gives the Cornhuskers a three-game lead over UW and a massive advantage against the rest of the Big Ten West. For the Badgers, a victory would move them to 6-2 following a stretch of games that was supposed to wreck them.
An underdog role served UW well early, but the team doesn’t feel like it needed that to enjoy the successes of this season.
UW believed in how good it could be at the beginning of the year, and the drive to reach that potential doesn’t change now that others can see it as well.
“Individually and as a group, we know what we’re capable of,” UW tight end Troy Fumagalli said. “When you (have success), you really start to push yourself even harder because you know where you can be and where you stand right now.
“I think we’ve done a lot of good things, but we can be even better. We can be that group that wins championships, and that’s what we want to do.”