For the second year in a row, the Wisconsin Badgers football program enters the penultimate week of the season with a meager 5-5 record.
Last year could be explained by the fact the team was in transition following then-head coach Paul Chryst’s dismissal earlier in the season. This year, in new head coach Luke Fickell’s first season, the Badgers are 5-5, coming off their worst stretch of the season with losses to Indiana and Northwestern.
Wisconsin is Indiana’s only Big Ten win of the season, and while Northwestern has put together a decent season this year, Saturday’s effort was not competitive. Wisconsin let the Wildcats walk into Camp Randall Stadium and bully them, plain and simple.
The Wildcats were up 24-3 at halftime, and only a last-second touchdown by Jackson Acker made the score mildly respectable. The Badgers have now failed to defend Camp Randall three games in a row. Their only home wins this year have come against Buffalo, Georgia Southern and Rutgers.
It is quite jarring to look back to 2022 and remember the Badgers beat Northwestern 42-7, completely dominating in every facet of the game. A year later, Wisconsin had their high-profile head coach but underperformed. Northwestern, on the other hand, had to hire defensive coordinator David Braun in July after firing long-time coach Pat Fitzgerald due to a hazing scandal that ended his decades-long tenure. The fact the Wildcats were able to totally flip the script on Wisconsin is a problem.
Despite how deflating the Indiana loss was, it could be excused because Tanner Mordecai, Braelon Allen, Chimere Dike and Chez Mellusi were all out, leaving the Badgers with backups at their most critical positions. With Mordecai back Saturday, the excuses are no longer valid.
However, what was more concerning were comments from team leaders after the game. Safety Hunter Wohler was apoplectic about the team’s effort.
“We come out soft, we come out flat," Wohler said. "We have zero energy on either side of the ball, and we get whooped around the field."
When Fickell was asked if there were players who didn’t want to be there anymore, he said, “We’ll find out this week.”
It is alarming that ten weeks into a highly sought-after new coach’s tenure, there are already concerns about energy, effort and buy-in. At this point, fans are grappling with a difficult question. Is this season a result of a difficult transition that requires patience, or is it cause for concern? The answer is probably a little bit of both.
The Badgers are now 12-11 in the past two seasons. Right now, they are a program mired in mediocrity. However, as distressing as this season has been, it doesn’t always come together in one season. Fickell, as a matter of fact, went 4-8 in his first season at Cincinnati before winning multiple conference championships and taking a Group of Five program to the College Football Playoff.
Despite the disappointing season, Wisconsin has the 24th-best recruiting class in 2024, according to 247sports. That is a marked improvement from the 40th-ranked class they had last year. Fickell does deserve time to bring his own players into the program.
However, the Badgers were still the media’s pick to win the Big Ten West in the preseason. With what looked like a starting lineup full of transfer portal additions and a good nucleus returning, it’s clear Fickell failed to meet expectations.
Considering the only team above .500 in the division is Iowa, Wisconsin blew their last opportunity to make the Big Ten Championship before the conference expands next year. For now, the Badgers have two games left. They sure love bragging about their 21-year streak of appearing in bowl games. Through ups and downs, Wisconsin football could at least say they are consistent. If the Badgers end the year losing to Nebraska and archrival Minnesota — meaning they would not be bowl-eligible — they will have truly hit rock bottom.
To paraphrase Fickell: the Badgers, one way or another, will surely find out what kind of players and competitors they have in the next two weeks.