GREEN BAY – Senior cornerback Sojourn Shelton couldn’t memorize the schedule for the University of Wisconsin in 2016, but he had a strong idea who was on it and when. Why? He’s been asked about it over and over again.
LSU, Michigan State, Michigan, Iowa, Northwestern on the road, Ohio State and Nebraska at home, five top 15 teams by mid-October. However someone dices the schedule and presents it to him, Shelton will usually smile and give the same answer.
“You can’t run from the schedule,” Shelton says. “You’ve got to work hard. That’s the type of football and brand that we play at the University of Wisconsin. The schedule is tough from the outside, but as a football player, you can’t do nothing but smile and take advantage of the opportunities.”
In a word, control what you can control and worry about yourself as a team. When Wisconsin takes the field tomorrow against No.5 LSU, the Badgers have it in their control to put themselves in the conversation as a team to be noticed.
And while the games that really matter start at the end of the month, beating the Tigers in front of a pro-Wisconsin crowd is a must win for the perception of the program.
Wisconsin has won at least 10 games five times in the last seven years, going 70-24 (.745) over that span. Highlighted in the span were three consecutive three Big Ten championships and extending its league-leading bowl appearance streak to 14 consecutive seasons. Yet the program is not routinely talked about nationally, at least not outside the Midwest.
Why? Those three Big Ten championships ended with three Rose Bowl losses and only six of those 14 bowl appearances ended with wins, none of them creating much more than a passing blip on the highlight shows.
Throw in the fact that the Badgers were blanked 59-0 in the 2014 conference championship game by an Ohio State team that won the national championship a few weeks later, it’s evident that breaking through the glass ceiling to a higher level has evaded the program.
To their credit, Wisconsin is trying to change the times. The Badgers appear more stable now than two years ago, they are recruiting better and they most certainly are scheduling better.
Wisconsin’s season openers pre-2014 have bordered on dull, parading in a Mid-American, Mountain West or, worse yet, a Football Championship Subdivision team to grab a paycheck and take a beating. Thankfully the creation of the College Football Playoff and the committee taking in a school’s strength of nonconference schedule has pushed programs to go outside their usual comfort zone.
There’s no debating if the Badgers have done that or not, playing No.13 LSU in Houston, No.3 Alabama outside Dallas and the Tigers again here at Lambeau Field. Problem is instead of landmark victories, Wisconsin has ugly defeats – whether by its own mistakes (2014) or simply being inferior (2015).
Perhaps that’s one of the reasons head coach Paul Chryst preached urgency to the group on a weekend trip up to Lambeau in the spring, saying starting out against a premier opponent required everyone to be sharp with their attention to detail from the beginning.
It certainly got the attention of senior outside linebacker and team captain Vince Biegel, who takes his Wisconsin heritage with the utmost seriousness.
“I wanted to be an example for Wisconsin,” Biegel said. “I wanted to play in front of my family, friends and people of Wisconsin. That’s why I committed to Wisconsin.”
While he’s experienced the hype and the buzz around the last two openers, Biegel said he had a hard time initially grasping how much this game means for the program and its fans. He understood it when Wisconsin bused up to Green Bay in April for a spring practice at the Don Hutson Center, a journey through the heartland of the state.
“It made you realize that these are the people we’re playing for,” Biegel said.
But while the pressure and talk mounts from the outside, Biegel believes the pressure on the team settled down during that spring weekend. Staying overnight in the same hotel as they will this weekend, suiting up in the same locker room and getting a closer look at all the facilities, there’s a feeling that the jitters and nerves subsided.
“You just have to simplify it, go back out there and play Wisconsin football,” Biegel said. “More importantly you have to know who you are playing for, that’s the fans and people of Wisconsin.”
After this weekend, the Badgers’ SEC gauntlet is coming to an end. Save BYU on the schedule in 2017 and 2018, Wisconsin’s nonconference schedule is littered with lower-level division 1 schools the next three years, with no clear open dates for the program to schedule another big-time neutral site game.
Playing a premier SEC team in the state on hallowed ground, Wisconsin may not get a chance like this again. They need to win it.