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Wednesday, December 08, 2021
Garrett Groshek vs. Minnesota

Wisconsin and Minnesota will face off this weekend for both Paul Bunyan's Axe, and the right to play Ohio State in the Big Ten Championship game.

"Nobody Cares, Work Harder:" As UW's underdog status fades with success, players still focused on field

The Wisconsin football program has thrived on an underdog mentality for years. Each season, the first Associated Press poll is released, and Badgers fans are crestfallen, finding their team far lower than anticipated. In 2017, a Wisconsin team fresh off a Big Ten Championship appearance and a victory in the Cotton Bowl found itself ranked ninth. In 2016 they were unranked and in 2015 they opened at No. 20. Both of those teams had won a bowl game against marquee opponents the previous season.

The consistent disrespect that the Badgers have felt over the years is not limited to the preseason rankings. A stigma surrounding the supposed athletic shortcomings of the roster persists to this day, bandied about by lay observers on television and internet message boards. Despite a demonstrated ability to beat teams like USC, LSU, Auburn, Miami and others, Wisconsin is still seen as a team that doesn’t have the size and the speed to keep up with the so-called blue bloods. The Badgers also consistently fall short in industry-generated recruiting rankings, helping to perpetuate this stereotype.

Yet, year after year, this team has quietly, doggedly outworked and outmuscled opponents, finding its way to Indianapolis and to major bowl games. And at long last, the script appears to be flipping.

The team’s decision to make their new motto “Nobody Cares, Work Harder,” is a telling one. In years past, one would have expected a more defiant, indignant philosophy, something about proving doubters wrong or taking the next step. This slogan tells a different story: the unmitigated successes of last year led to higher than usual expectations. It’s time to meet them.

A No. 4 ranking in this year’s A.P. poll, tied for the highest mark the program has achieved this century, shows that the rest of the nation is no longer overlooking the denizens of Camp Randall Stadium. Colin Cowherd called the Badgers’ coaching staff the best in America, while some experts (including beloved ESPN personality Lee Corso) have chosen Wisconsin to not only make the College Football Playoff, but to win the entire thing.

This season is uncharted territory for a program that derives much of its motivation from being ignored, neglected by pundits in the field who instead spend their time fawning over the traditional football powerhouses. No team or journalist is looking past Wisconsin now. The question remains: How will they meet these new pressures and expectations?

It’s up to the coaching staff to keep the team focused and not to take for granted the respect they have finally earned nationwide. Recent off-field distractions, including legal troubles and transfers, provide a test to the resolve and focus of this team. The defense in particular has been drained of many upperclassmen through graduation and the draft and is ravaged by injury. Molding this young but talented group into a formidable unit poses the biggest challenge yet for defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard and this team moving forward.

The offensive stars, too, need to find a way to look past the attention and praise and find a way to keep their chip-on-our-shoulder mentality. Running back Jonathan Taylor is a consensus Heisman contender. The offensive line, widely seen as the best in America, was recently featured in a Sports Illustrated article that doubled as a free advertisement for Red Robin (don’t get me wrong, the Bottomless Steak Fries and Freckled Lemonades were a staple of my own childhood — yet somehow I ended up 7 inches shorter and 200 pounds lighter than those guys). Even occasionally-maligned passer Alex Hornibrook ended up on preseason award watch lists and won the Manning Passing Academy competition over the summer. Listing all the acclaim and accolades the team has received would be a dizzying task; this level of hoopla is a rarity in Madison at this time of year.

Yet despite all of the excitement and attention this team has received, they continue to insist on not caring and working harder. Whether or not they can truly rise above the chatter and prove that they deserve the love is entirely up to them. If they succeed, this could be the beginning of a new era, one in which no talking head on television would have the temerity to doubt the Badgers.

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