Paul Chryst’s players have refused to back down from challenges or lofty expectations.
Since Chryst took over the Wisconsin program before the 2015 season, they have embraced such moments with an air of confidence that has been palpable.
Chryst’s first season ended with an underdog UW team rallying late to beat USC in the Holiday Bowl, 23-21, to finish with a 10-3 record and 21st in both major polls.
Chryst’s second season in 2016 started with an unranked UW team stunning #6 LSU at Lambeau Field in the opener. It ended with a 24-16 Cotton Bowl victory over unbeaten Western Michigan to finish the season 11-3 and ninth in both polls.
Last year, Chryst’s third season, ended with UW overcoming an early double-digit deficit to beat Miami, 34-24, on its home field in the Orange Bowl to finish 13-1, #6 in the coaches’ poll and #7 in The AP poll.
A seven-point loss to Penn State in the 2016 Big Ten title game kept UW from the Rose Bowl. A six-point loss to Ohio State in the 2017 Big Ten title game denied UW a berth in the College Football Playoff.
Despite the loss of seven starters from a top-flight defense, the goal for 2018 is obvious.
A national title.
“We have all the talent in the world,” redshirt sophomore center Tyler Biadasz said. “I firmly believe that. I’ve seen it in all these workouts. We have a great team and I think we all are on the right page and our goal is to win a national championship. I think we can do that. We were one play away from being in the playoff last year. It’s tough.”
Despite the personnel losses on defense, UW is expected to win the Big Ten West Division title for the third consecutive season. With the entire offensive line back and proven playmakers at quarterback, wide receiver and tailback and potential at tight end, UW opens the season at #7 in the Amway Coaches Poll.
UW’s Big Ten schedule includes five road games: Iowa, Michigan, Northwestern, Penn State and Purdue. All potential land mines.
Chryst’s players are eager to begin the journey they hope takes them to Indianapolis for the Big Ten title game and then to the playoffs and Santa Clara, California for the National Championship.
They’ll address the goal if asked but they don’t plan to advertise their aspirations.
“We don’t need to talk about it too much,” said redshirt junior quarterback Alex Hornibrook. “Everybody on this team – we all know where we want to be and we know what we can do. We’re a confident group. I don’t think it’s something you need to be talking about all the time because that’s not really going to do anything. You’ve got to put it into action. So we’re focusing on this practice, focusing on the weight room, making sure you’re giving 100% every time. That is the stuff that will get you there.”
The rise of the program under Chryst, whose record in three seasons is 34-7, and whether UW can take the next step and qualify for the playoffs after falling one possession short in 2017.
Perhaps the top question facing UW since the opening of camp on August 2nd is whether the defensive staff can replace the seven departed starters, two on the line, both outside linebackers and three in the secondary.
UW’s defense has remained outstanding despite changing coordinators in 2016, Justin Wilcox from departed Dave Aranda and 2017, Jim Leonhard taking over for departed Justin Wilcox.
UW led the nation in scoring defense under Aranda in 2015 at 13.7 points per game, finished fourth under Wilcox in 2016 at 15.6 ppg and third under Leonard last season at 13.9 ppg.
Yet this is the largest personnel turnover on defense UW has endured since Chryst took over.
UW had six defensive starters back in 2015 and 2016 and seven last season.
Edwards, a three-year starter at inside linebacker, insists the unit will not suffer a significant drop-off this season.
“My thing is that we do this every year,” Edwards said. “We miss guys and people are wondering how we’re going to be able to replace them.”
Edwards pointed out that UW was able to move on after outside linebackers Joe Schobert, T.J. Watt and Vince Biegel left the program. Now replacements must be found for Garret Dooley and Leon Jacobs.
Replacing starting cornerbacks Nick Nelson and Derrick Tindal and safety Natrell Jamerson won’t be a picnic, either, though Leonhard had to replace three starters when he joined the staff in 2016.
“In the secondary, we’re going to need a lot of youth to play,” Edwards said, “but they are guys who are not scared to play. And that is what I love about them. They compete every single day.”
Replacing three senior linemen and overcoming the season-ending Achilles’ injury suffered by Garrett Rand could be the staff’s most daunting task.
Chryst’s three UW teams (2015, 2016, 2017) have won in a variety of ways. The Badgers overcame injuries and inexperience on the offensive line in 2015; the players ignored off-field chatter about a daunting schedule in 2016, and embraced talk about a possible run at a playoff berth last season.
Their unwavering ability to embrace every challenge has been a key to the team’s success.
The 2018 season should present another opportunity.
“Certainly this group has earned the right to have high expectations,” Chryst said. “That is the beauty of the journey that is the season. How does this group handle the adversity that is going to come? You’ve got to go through it. It is each step along the way. It is summer. It is fall camp. And then once you get into the season it is not even week to week, it is day to day. Since I’ve been here there have been narratives to every season. And none of it matters. It is what they do with the days and the opportunities that we have. I like this group.”