The best team without a national title, Wisconsin football is determined to win its first crown
The Badgers have come excruciatingly close before, but is this the year they put it together?
MADISON, Wis. -- There was a rumor going around at a recent Wisconsin practice that Michael Deiter had chosen the music during the team stretch.
"That was David Edwards' [choice]," Deiter said, referring to the Badgers' preseason All-American right tackle, "but I liked it. Tyler Childers. That is country music. The world needs to hear more of that."
Childers is twangy, old country. Give a listen. Walk into most practices these days and giant speakers are blaring some combination of hip-hop, heavy metal or whatever closely resembles the decibel level in the next opponent's stadium.
Not so at Wisconsin where the season was weeks off and the music was right on.
"I grew up listening to guys like Waylon Jennings, outlaws," said Deiter, an All-Big Ten left tackle. "More powerful lyrics than just driving down a dirt road in a truck. There's more to us."
That last bit might as well define not only Wisconsin but the national championship race. We already know the list of contenders is so narrow that the Badgers -- even coming off a school-record 13-win season -- are considered an outlier.
They'll take it.
"I tell our alums all the time, 'Don't take winning for granted,' athletic director Barry Alvarez said. "You look at the brand names around the country, everybody from Penn State to Southern Cal to Miami -- everybody has taken a dip. We haven't."
Since Alvarez' fourth season as coach 25 years ago in 1993, Wisconsin has averaged 9.2 wins. This decade, it has averaged 10.5 wins. There have been double-digit wins every year but two since 2009. The last without at least 10 wins was 2013. Wisconsin has played in five of the seven Big Ten Championship Games, winning two league titles.
That's dynasty-type stuff. Except that's not immediately what comes to mind when you enter Wisconsin's familiar bubble.
"People can call us 'boring,'" said Alvarez, entering his 15th year as AD, "but we have a chance to compete and beat anybody."
So in this year when the, Wisconsin is a mighty outsider.
Legendary Camp Randall Stadium was hosting the Fifth Quarter during mediocrity. Now, it's a mad house in Madison. The indoor facility isn't quite 100 yards. Alvarez, the man who built the foundation, is nursing a knee replacement.
"It makes me very proud because I know where this program was when I got here," the 71-year-old said with a cane at his side. "I see what we've done with the entire department. If you're not winning at football, you're in trouble."
That's Wisconsin at the moment, perhaps the best team never to win a major. That's a golf analogy Deiter immediately picked u. The Badgers, he agreed, can be compared -- favorably -- to Rickie Fowler.
"Everyone loves him, but there are plenty of people who say he's probably never going to be good enough," Deiter said of Fowler, owner of nine top-10 finishes in majors but no major championships. "The fact that he hasn't [won] yet doesn't change anything about how he approaches his golf game. He's still trying to win majors."
Wisconsin is winning hearts and minds with all those games. The Badgers' No. 4 ranking in the preseason AP Top 25 ties the program's highest at this point before the year begins.
In the last three years, only Urban Meyer has won more overall games in the Big Ten than Wisconsin's Paul Chryst. A two-time Big Ten Coach of the Year, Chryst is 34-7 since coming from Pittsburgh. That was after spending eight years with the Badgers under Alvarez and Bret Bielema, mostly as offensive coordinator.
"Nothing has been done here that hasn't been done before," Chryst said.
Part of that is true for the 52-year-old Madison native. The immediate conjuring of Wisconsin this season once again is its offensive line. Four starters return to what may be the nation's best unit.
Sophomore running back Jonathan Taylor carried for almost 2,000 yards in 2017 and finished sixth in Heisman Trophy voting as a freshman.
There were a promising bunch of receivers until recently. Returning wideouts Quintez Cephus and Danny Davis were suspended amid sexual assault allegations.
If you tried to categorize any of them, though, you'd be wrong. Ten of 11 offensive starters return to a unit that was third in Big Ten scoring. Quarterback Graham Mertz will arrive next year from suburban Kansas City as the No. 7 pro-style signal caller in the country.
"A lot of people see it as, 'Oh, they just run the ball all the time,'" Mertz said. "Russell Wilson just went off. People don't remember that."
If you have tried to write them off before, you put yourself in danger. Wisconsin was the nation's last unbeaten Power Five team in 2017 (12-0). It lost the Big Ten championship game for the second straight season -- this time by six to Ohio State.
And, poof, the Badgers were gone from the national consciousness.
"Our schedule wasn't bad," Deiter said of 2017.
Except that was the chief criticism. Wisconsin didn't play a ranked team (No. 25 Iowa) until the second week of November. It missed Penn State and Michigan State from the West Division.
"When you listen to outside noise, you get opinions that aren't always the most knowledgeable," Deiter added. "We kind of live in a day and age where saying something negative about stuff and causing controversy is a fun way to live life right now.' We think deeper than all stuff."
Remember: There's more to us.
Olive Sagapolu is a 6-foot-2, 342-pound nose tackle from American Samoa who can perform a backflip and has been spotted with the cheerleading squad.
"I wanted to go some place far, some place different," he said. "I felt that it was time for me to grow up. My whole life I spent on the West Coast. This is kind of reaching outside my comfort zone."
This place is about as far outside that zone as a Samoan can get. Sagapolu grew up in Hawaii and California, attending the same school (Santa Ana, California Mater Dei) that has produced two Heisman winners (John Huarte, Matt Leinart).
The connection is amazing. Sagapolu not only found a nearby Polynesian community but extended family members, too. One of them, he says, is married to former Wisconsin nose tackle Lamark Shackelford, a member of Alvarez's first recruiting class in 1990.
"It's the consistency of the message," said defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard. "Whoever has been in charge [says] 'This is who Wisconsin is. We're not going to apologize for it.' We're not going to be what we're not. Some kids are drawn to that. Some kids are not."
In his second year leading the defense, Leonhard is another adored native son. The three-time All-American defensive back for Alvarez was in charge of the unit that finished third nationally in scoring defense last season.
"Jimmy will be a head coach, if he wants to be," Alvarez said.
Leonhard is all of 35. He's four years out of the NFL and running a stifling 3-4 scheme. Oh, and he has to replace seven starters. But he knows the culture.
"Obviously, this spread offense and throwing the ball all over the place, that works at a lot of places," Leonhard said. "This is just kind of what we believe. … We're not trying to beat our head against the wall."
Actually, that's the exact perception of Wisconsin. Chris McIntosh was standing nearby Alavarez at that recent practice. Wisconsin's deputy athletic director is another local. As an All-American tackle in 1999, he helped spring Ron Dayne for the Heisman.
McIntosh is proud of recounting how the offensive line he played on started 247 out of a possible 250 games. That's Wisconsin, too.
"Maybe that's how normal felt," McIntosh said.
The bar, then, was set along ago. This year's heralded offensive line has been on the cover of Sports Illustrated. All the clichés about steak dinners, girth, fat and road-grading have been used up.
The group combines for almost 1,600 pounds.
"I remember as a freshman thinking, 'I don't think I'll ever be that good,'" said Deiter, who is now entering his senior season. "It wasn't something that had to be said at Wisconsin, I don't think. It was something you just kind of felt."
Deiter came off the practice field like he usually does -- a crimson wound above his brow rubbed raw by his helmet. That's Wisconsin, too.
"I can't get it to heal," he confessed. "It just scrapes the first layer right off. We've done all this [media] the last couple of months. However, I would say there are days when I wouldn't mind being in the shadows again."
Tyler Childers would probably agree. The world needs to hear more of that.
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