Early Returns Could be Misleading

To this point, No.6 Wisconsin has rolled through the non-conference season and with its final tune-up against FCS opponent South Dakota on Saturday, the Badgers could be undefeated heading into the conference season for the eighth straight season. Question is: what do we really know about this team because of its schedule?

MADISON - The statistics the sixth-ranked Wisconsin Badgers have put up in their first three contests, as senior defensive back Aaron Henry puts it, are similar to the ones you'd find playing a video game set on low difficulty.

Averaging 45 points, Wisconsin has one of just five offenses in the country averaging at least 230 yards rushing and receiving this season. Quarterback Russell Wilson leads the nation in passing efficiency with a 213.4 rating and is third in completion rate (75.8 percent) among quarterbacks with at least 50 attempts. And the Badgers are coming off a game in which they rolled up 621 yards of total offense in a 49-7 win over Northern Illinois, the sixth-best total in school history.

Throw in the fact that the defense has given up just 24 points in its first three games (17 to UNLV, 0 to Oregon State, 7 to Northern Illinois) and is tied for fourth in the country in scoring defense, and it's no surprise UW has started the season 3-0 for the seventh straight year. Only Alabama can say it has done that.

"The guys in our locker room know how special this group of guys is," Henry said. "When we are playing all together, it's really hard to stop us. I hope (our offense) continues to go out every week and (put up big numbers). Every week we go against them, they are making us better, and it definitely helps us prepare for other opponents."

Coach Bret Bielema and his program have gotten plenty of praise over the first month of the season for yet another stellar start. Wisconsin is 23-0 in regular-season non-conference games under Bielema, and the program has won 31 straight such games dating back to 2003.

It's an impressive streak, but it's one many fans and pundits see an asterisk beside. Since the streak began Sept. 20, 2003, the combined record of Wisconsin's Football Bowl Subdivision non-conference opponents is 88-194 (.314) -- the lowest of any school in the six major conferences. Of the non-conference victories during the streak entering this season, 13 either were non-FBS schools or teams that went on to lose at least 10 games. The last time a regular-season non-conference opponent of Wisconsin's ended the season in the AP top 25 was West Virginia in 2002 -- which finished 25th.

By comparison, No. 2 LSU -- which owns the nation's longest non-conference winning streak at 35 games -- has played and beaten ranked Arizona State, Oregon, North Carolina, Oregon, Oregon State, Virginia Tech and West Virginia and faced just two non-FBS opponents over the same time span.

When Wisconsin hosts South Dakota from the Great West Conference on Saturday, it will mark the sixth straight season the Badgers have played a Football Championship Subdivision school. Wisconsin has won the previous five meetings with FCS schools by an average of 27.2 points.

"What I would love to have is a mixture (of opponents)," Bielema said before the start of the season. "We're always going to have a (former) I-AA opponent, so you're going to have three (other non-conference) teams you're going to play.

"One of those will probably be on the road. I've said this now for three years, my ideal world would be able to play a home-and-home with a high-quality opponent and have (those games) be at neutral sites."

But the ideal and reality are far apart. Over the past few seasons, Bielema has been on the brink of scheduling games with Texas and TCU, only to have the schools back out because the price wasn't right. Recently, athletic director Barry Alvarez fielded a call from Stanford -- currently ranked fifth in the country -- looking to schedule a home-and-home series in 2015 and 2018.

Alvarez wanted to jump at the opportunity, but Wisconsin is already heading to Washington in 2018, and the Wisconsin athletic department's budget is dependent on the football team playing seven home games a season. When Stanford couldn't change its schedule for 2015, the idea was scrapped.

Because schedules are done so far in advance, it's hard to project how good an opponent will be when a game is played. Arizona State was 6-6 last season (including a one-point loss in Madison), but is picked to win the Pacific-12 South Division this season. Oregon State, which has played the toughest non-conference schedule over the same time period with an opponent winning percentage of .758 (185-59), finished second in the Pac-10 in 2008 and 2009 but is just 5-9 since.

And for good measure, Wisconsin beat all those ranked non-conference opponents LSU beat Unfortunately for the Badgers, none were ranked at the time.

Wisconsin isn't alone in having faced weak opponents, however. Of the 11 other Big Ten teams, Ohio State is the only school that didn't schedule an FCS opponent this season, but only three Big Ten schools have played a ranked team and only Minnesota played a ranked team on the road (No.25 USC, although the Trojans were unranked in the coaches' poll).

Still, the benefits of a big non-conference win do pay off. LSU's victory against Oregon in Dallas on opening weekend stamped the Tigers as legitimate national title contenders. In the Big Ten, Illinois' win over No. 18 Arizona State last Saturday has created a buzz around the program not seen since its 2008 Rose Bowl season.

Meanwhile, the buzz around Wisconsin isn't about South Dakota, which is ranked No. 18 in the FCS Sports Network top 25 but about Nebraska and the schools' first meeting as Big Ten members on Oct. 1 in Madison. Next year, the Badgers have a similar run-up to a Big Ten opener at Nebraska with nonconference home games against Northern Iowa, Texas-El Paso and Utah State and a road game at Oregon State on the slate.

Perhaps when the Badgers face Pac-12 foes Arizona State (2013 in Tempe), Washington State (2014 in Pullman and 2015 in Madison) and Washington (2017 in Madison, 2018 in Seattle) and ACC opponent Virginia Tech (2016 in Blacksburg and 2017 in Madison), the critics will finally be silenced -- assuming the timing is finally right.

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