On New Year's Day 1963, Wisconsin played perhaps its most famous football game ever. The Badgers lost in the Rose Bowl that day, the first-ever postseason matchup of the top two teams in the AP poll, but their valiant comeback effort capped a season in which they came closer than ever to winning a national championship. Trailing 42-14 early in the fourth quarter against No. 1 USC, the No. 2 Badgers, led by quarterback Ron Vander Kelen and his 401 yards, battled back and got as close as five points before time ran out as darkness set in. After the comeback attempt, there was no shame in coming up a little short against the champs. The season marked Wisconsin's third top-10 finish in five years and fifth in 12 years.
Little did anyone know how fleeting the glory would be, that a comeback that came up short would be the climax of a golden age, that it would take decades for the Badgers to taste anything near comparable success.
From 1963-92, a period of 30 seasons the Badgers' win percentage was .381, according to Stassen, with a 119-196-9 record that included more winless seasons (two) than appearances in the final AP poll (zero). The Badgers did not quite plummet to the depths of Kansas State or Northwestern in those years -- coach Dave McClain did go to three bowls in the early '80s -- but for a long period of time, Wisconsin was much more likely to win four games in a season than to have any sort of relevance in the Big Ten race. Five years after that memorable Rose Bowl, the Badgers embarked on back-to-back winless seasons under John Coatta after botching a chance to hire Bo Schembechler, setting the tone for the next quarter-century of frustration.
The lackluster results made any subsequent success Wisconsin had a surprise. It stands in stark contrast to Wisconsin's position in the college football world today. Now, current college football players know only of a time in which Wisconsin has been among the most consistently competitive football teams in the country.
Entering the 2017 season, in fact, one of the safest statements anyone can make is that Wisconsin is going to be very good, a high-floor preseason top-25 team you don't have to think twice about ranking and picking in the top third of the Big Ten. That this statement seems so obvious is something that should not be taken for granted; it is something that deserves to be appreciated every year that it proves to be true because of what has happened in Wisconsin's past.
Since Barry Alvarez achieved his breakthrough season with an unexpected run to the Rose Bowl in 1993, Wisconsin has been credited with at least a share of six Big Ten championships, leading to six Rose Bowls. It has finished in the AP top 25 15 times and the AP top 10 seven times. It has gone to 22 bowl games in 24 years and won at least 10 games 11 times. It has often done this with a distinctive identity, bulldozing opponents with massive maulers on the offensive line, competent quarterbacking and prolific running backs, including 2,000-yard seasons by two individuals (Melvin Gordon once, Ron Dayne twice).
Rarely is Wisconsin among the most exciting teams to watch, beyond a few individual players like the breathtaking big-play running of Gordon. What Wisconsin manages to accomplish can be described as relentless competence, something that is deserving of praise.
Beyond a two-year detour under Gary Andersen -- which was not long enough to truly change the long-term trajectory of the program, although the offensive line is still recovering from a brief alteration in style, as detailed by Bucky's 5th Quarter -- Wisconsin, with Alvarez still influencing the program as athletic director, stays in its lane, eschewing national trends in college football to continue doing what it does best. In bringing former quarterback and assistant Paul Chryst as head coach, the Badgers showed again that they know exactly who they are and what they want to be, avoiding the identity crises that plague so many other programs (like division rival Nebraska). The physicality of the offense is still working its way back to where Chryst would like it to be, but the end-of-season results make it look like nothing has changed.
Alvarez deserves all the credit in the world for building that identity and jumpstarting an aimless program. While his presence is still felt, he passed the baton to Bret Bielema, who won 73.9 percent of his games and went to three straight Rose Bowls. Bielema left for Arkansas, and despite some hiccups and endless assistant coach turnover, the Badgers have gone 41-13 in four seasons under Andersen and Chryst. The 2015 team had uncharacteristic struggles in the run game and didn't secure impressive wins, but it still finished 10-3 and beat USC in the Holiday Bowl. The Badgers subsequently opened last season unranked, then beat LSU in the opener, played exceptional defense and lost only to top-10 Michigan, Ohio State and Penn State teams by one touchdown each before winning the Cotton Bowl.
The Big Ten West deservedly absorbs criticism compared to the Big Ten East, and the unfortunate truth for Wisconsin is that, even if it is the king of the West, it does not have the long-term ceiling of Ohio State, Michigan and Penn State, three more historically strong programs equipped to recruit more effectively. Still, while Michigan and Penn State especially have gone through ups and downs, Wisconsin has shown that it can compete at a high level on a yearly basis by identifying system fits, finding diamonds in the rough and outpacing rivals in player development. Thus, here the Badgers are, 10th in winning percentage in the past 10 years despite not signing a single top-30 recruiting class, according to the 247Sports composite rankings. (When Sports on Earth researched recruiting underachievers and overachievers in 2015, Wisconsin was, predictably, the second-biggest overachiever behind Kansas State.)
What will Wisconsin be in 2017? It doesn't require a whole lot of thought. Those responsible for preseason prognostications can agonize over whether Notre Dame, Oregon and UCLA will bounce back, and how quickly Tom Herman can fix Texas, and whether Auburn and Georgia can become playoff contenders. Wisconsin? Its success varies, sure, but the Badgers have played in four of six Big Ten title games, and it can never feel like a bad idea to place them atop the Big Ten West. At minimum, they will go to a respectable bowl, hover around the top 25 and, Cardale Jones debacle aside, avoid embarrassing losses (since 2010, they've lost only twice by more than 10 points, both to eventual national champions).
They're on their third defensive coordinator in three years, former star safety Jim Leonhard. They lost two first-round picks in tackle Ryan Ramczyk and linebacker T.J. Watt. They lost another star in linebacker Vince Biegel and key players like cornerback Sojourn Shelton and leading rushers Corey Clement and Dare Ogunbowale. But Bradrick Shaw, Pitt transfer Chris James and Taiwan Deal are poised to emerge at running back. Jazz Peavy and Troy Fumagalli are excellent receiving options. Alex Hornibrook is growing to the prototypical solid Wisconsin quarterback. The offensive line is growing, a youthful unit that will likely develop into the physical line everybody expects. The defense will be fine, led by what remains an excellent group of linebackers. The Badgers host Iowa and Michigan and don't have to play Ohio State and Penn State.
They probably cannot win a national championship, but they're also not going to collapse.
Historically, Wisconsin knows that golden eras can disappear overnight. But despite the coaching carousel in recent years, Badgers faithful can rest easy knowing that a level of consistency has been achieved that seems almost unassailable. There are down years, relatively speaking, but they do not compare to the decades of dark years that still aren't that far in the past. The Badgers may have recruiting disadvantages, but they have fewer worries from year to year than most other college football teams.
Context matters, and for a program like Wisconsin, there is enviable comfort in consistency.