The 2016 schedule was expected to stagger Paul Chryst’s football team.
Wisconsin opened the season unranked, with questions marks at quarterback, tailback and in the secondary.
Five of the Badgers’ nine Big Ten games were on the road.
Five of Wisconsin’s scheduled foes appeared in the Amway coaches preseason poll:
No. 5 Ohio State, No. 6 LSU, No. 8 Michigan, No. 11 Michigan State and No. 15 Iowa.
Yet the UW coaches and players embraced the challenge and insisted the schedule offered the opportunity to win respect rather than suffer ridicule.
Beginning with a 16-14 victory over LSU in the opener, UW went 3-2 against those foes.
The losses came against Ohio State, by seven in overtime in Madison; and at Michigan, also by seven points. Wisconsin went on to reach the Big Ten title game and finished 10-3 overall and No. 9 in both polls.
The 2017 schedule, which features five Big Ten home games, is expected to comfort UW.
Although the two major preseason polls haven’t been released, UW is expected to be ranked in the top 15 and is the clear favorite in the Big Ten West. UW likely will be favored in all 12 regular-season games and the only team on the Badgers’ schedule certain to be ranked in both preseason polls is Michigan.
How are the UW players approaching such dramatically different expectations?
“It is the same talking point, just flipped,” Chryst said Monday on Day 1 of the Big Ten preseason meetings. “So if you’re going to agree that you can’t worry about what is being said (last year), you can’t all of a sudden start reading it and say this is right. They know better. We’ve got to make sure they don’t.”
Redshirt senior linebacker Jack Cichy, linebacker, redshirt senior tight end Troy Fumagalli and redshirt junior linebacker T.J. Edwards joined Chryst at the meetings.
All three players acknowledged expectations outside the program will be different this season but insisted that will have no effect on those inside the program.
“I just think any team can beat any team in the Big Ten,” said Fumagalli, two of the team’s five captains. “I think our guys are smart enough to not fall into that trap and just take it one game at a time and everything will work out.”
Cichy, another captain, stressed the players won’t hesitate to police themselves in the weight room and on the practice field.
“We’re going to call each other out in camp,” he said. “We’re going to call each other out in practice if we see someone not working as hard.
“It is going to be a different narrative than last year. We’ve already heard it.”
Edwards, fully recovered from off-season surgery on his left foot, addressed the ’17 schedule with little emotion.
“Every year is going to be the same, to be honest with you,” he said. “You’re obviously going to have different guys and a different team. But the schedule and the toughness or whatever people want to call it … it’s all very hard games. The teams we play, if you don’t come out ready to play they will beat you. It is no surprise to us that people will be saying things like that, but it’s something we don’t listen to in the locker room.”
UW opens the season Sept. 1 against visiting Utah State, which finished 3-9 last season. The Big Ten crossover games in ’16 were Michigan, Ohio State and Michigan State, with two on the road. This season those games are Michigan, Maryland and Indiana, with only the Indiana game on the road.
Asked if he would choose the role of underdog or favorite if given the opportunity, Cichy chose the former.
“It is easier to have a chip on your shoulder – always,” he said. “I don’t think anyone would debate that. Everyone loves being the underdog. But if you’re not the underdog you’ve got to work hard to put that chip back on your shoulder and let everyone know you’re not going to go quietly.”
Cichy won’t be able to help UW on the field in 2017 after a season ending injury. All that means, however, is that his fellow linebackers know they must fill the void once more.
Edwards, Orr and Connelly, who returned to practice today after being held out because of hamstring injury, are the top players on the inside. Redshirt freshman Mike Maskalunas, sophomore Griffin Grady and junior Arrington Farrar are working to find a spot in Bob Bostad’s rotation