The Wisconsin football team has yet to sniff any of college football's top 25 polls this season. That's fine with me.
When the Badgers traveled to Ann Arbor to begin Big Ten play last season, they sported what later proved to be a highly inflated No. 9 ranking they had earned after three victories over non-BCS opponents to begin the season. Thanks to a second-half meltdown, the Badgers were upset by unranked Michigan. Three more Big Ten losses ensued and the Badgers went on to end the season unranked with a 7-6 record, one of the worst for a Wisconsin team in recent memory.
The 2009 season has begun with many similarities to the beginning of the 2008 season. The Badgers still sport a talented running game and, what seems to be, an improved passing game. Although Wisconsin graduated several members of their defensive front from last season, they have rattled off three victories over non-BCS opponents, just as they had done in 2008. The only recognizable difference is that Wisconsin remains unranked and out of the national spotlight.
By cracking the top ten in 2008, the Badgers were being thrown around as dark horse national championship contenders if they could escape back-to-back home games versus Ohio State and Penn State unblemished. The pressure got to the Badgers. Wisconsin quickly fell from grace and into the basement of the Big Ten.
This season, you won't find SportsCenter leading off their broadcast with Wisconsin football highlights and the Badgers are no one's pick to make a surprise run at any bowl game with the slightest bit of importance. Actually, Bret Bielema headlining ""coaches on the hot-seat"" in college football preview magazines is probably the only mention Wisconsin has received on the national level.
It sounds like Wisconsin has something to prove.
Unlike 2008, when the Badgers were under the microscope of the national audience, the 2009 Badgers only seem to be grabbing the attention of the 80,000 people who come to watch them on Saturdays.
Yes, Wisconsin began with a shaky start versus NIU. However, the very next week, with as many as 40 players suffering from the flu, Wisconsin won a double-overtime game against a very talented Fresno State team. Last week, despite fumbling the football six times, the Badgers still managed to embarrass Wofford 44-14.
Do the Badgers deserve a spot in the top 25 based on their résumé thus far? No. Did they deserve their No. 9 ranking at this time last year? No, but that doesn't change the fact that the 2008 Badgers had the pressure of the national audience weighing them down as a result of their exaggerated ranking. Since that ranking no longer exists, Wisconsin is now fighting to gain the respect of college football.
How many articles have you read this season dismissing the Big Ten as one of the nation's weaker conferences? I know that I've read a few and even written one too. Couple that insult with the fact that Wisconsin began the season as a favorite to end up in the bottom half of the Big Ten and you have a recipe to stir up feelings of retribution in the Wisconsin locker room.
I'm not saying that Wisconsin will be playing on New Year's Day in southern California, but the Badgers' schedule this season could allow them to make some noise in the Big Ten. Showdowns with Ohio State in Columbus and Michigan in Madison will be very tough games to win, but other than that, no other games on the schedule scream loss.
This year's Wisconsin squad has the unique opportunity to play with a chip on their shoulder. Entering Big Ten play, when Wisconsin scrolls along ESPN's bottom line, there will be no ranking preceding their name. The 2009 Badgers have something to prove, not something to lose.