Déjà vu. It’s a hit song by pop superstar Olivia Rodrigo, and also French for “already seen.” Fans of the Wisconsin Badgers are probably feeling this sensation after Saturday’s confusing 31-22 loss to Washington State.
Why is this déjà vu for the Badger faithful? Flashback to a year ago when Wisconsin — who started a fresh season ranked No. 19 and coming off a week one win over a meager opponent — entered a week two matchup against the Washington State Cougars. Wisconsin fell 17-14 at home and dropped out of the rankings for the rest of the season after last year’s upset. Fast forward a year and a new coach later, and the Badgers are once again 1-1 and out of the AP Top 25 rankings, courtesy of another defeat to Washington State.
Both games were different. Offensive ineptitude doomed last year’s game, and a painfully slow start on Saturday proved to be too big of a hole for Wisconsin to escape this time. It’s frustrating for Badger fans to be in the same exact position as last year after all the hype about a new era under head coach Luke Fickell.
There is no doubt some warning signs emerged from the first two games of the season. The Badgers beat Buffalo 38-17, but the game was close for large portions of the contest. Quarterback Tanner Mordecai looked sluggish, throwing for only 189 yards and two touchdowns.
In Saturday's matchup against Washington State, an overwhelmed Badger defense ceded 24 points to the Cougars in the first half alone. The Badgers only allowed seven points in the second half but forced zero turnovers while the offense coughed up the ball three times.
The offense isn’t exactly showing itself to be much different from last year, either. Wisconsin brought in new offensive coordinator Phil Longo from North Carolina to install a fast-paced Air Raid offense, but the Badgers so far resemble last year’s plodding, inconsistent unit.
Patience is not a virtue in today’s college football environment. Coaches change jobs with regularity, and players use the transfer portal with frequency.
As much as college football is a “what have you done for me lately” world, Badger fans must exercise patience with Fickell’s new regime. Unless Fickell operated like Deion Sanders at Colorado and changed practically his entire team, immediate results were not as likely to come. It’s worth noting that the Badgers are only 1-1 and have yet to play a Big Ten opponent.
Just in case some Badgers fanatics are already concerned about the program, let’s take a look at some examples of programs with new head coaches. Head coach Nick Saban finished his first year at Alabama with a record of 6-6. He’s won multiple national titles since then.
While it’s unrealistic to expect Wisconsin to win multiple national titles like Alabama, there are other, more recent examples.
The Texas Longhorns are now the No. 4 team in America after beating Alabama last week. Texas went 5-7 in 2021 during head coach Steve Sarkisian’s first year.
The Florida State Seminoles went 3-6 in 2020 and 5-7 in 2021 during head coach Mike Norvell’s first two years. Now they are the No. 3 team in the country.
Once again, that is not to say that the Luke Fickell era will turn out to be a success. He very well might not be. A loss to Washington State is not ideal, but the Cougars are still a solid program with an NFL-quality quarterback in Cameron Ward.
Ultimately, the parallel loss last year is what began the Badgers’ slide last year, leading to the firing of Paul Chryst and a final record of 7-6. Wisconsin has four games to get it together before a clash with No. 6 Ohio State at the end of October — arguably their biggest game of the season.
They start that four game stretch with Georgia Southern. The Eagles are a solid Group of Five team, but Wisconsin needs to win that game at home. The Badgers will then play at Purdue, followed by two home games against Rutgers and Iowa.
Wisconsin could reasonably go into the Ohio State game 5-1 and relegate the Washington State game to distant memory. However, they are also playing three conference opponents, and their record could just as easily have multiple losses.
These upcoming games will determine the tone of the rest of the season. With a weak Big Ten West up for grabs, it would certainly be ideal for Wisconsin to progress on defense and start to see the Air Raid offense come together. It would surely be a disappointment for the program if a loss to Washington State led to another slide into mediocrity like it did last year.
While fans are obviously craving results this season, it is still worth remembering that Fickell had little time to recruit his own class in 2023, like most first year coaches.
The Badgers finished 40th in 247sports’ recruiting rankings last year and are up to 25th for this year. Fickell is mostly working with Paul Chryst’s players, and while the transfer portal can turn around a lot of teams, it might not be an immediate fix for every program.
We will learn a lot about the Badgers 2023 season in the coming weeks. But it may take a while — maybe even a couple years — to see Fickell’s hire pay off.