To be the best, you’ve got to beat the best. All this week, across every Power 5 league, we’re looking at what it takes to reach the top.
In the Big Ten, Michigan State stands at the pinnacle. The Spartans are 36-5 the past three seasons with two conference titles, a trio of top-10 national finishes and a berth in the College Football Playoff to cap last season. Coach Mark Dantonio’s teams have won with grit and good fortune, with offense and defense and special teams, with continuity on the coaching staff and thorough development in the program.
Realistically, not every team in the Big Ten is ready to challenge for a spot at the top. For those in position to make the next move, we’re ready to break it down, continuing today with the Wisconsin Badgers.
How they can catch Michigan State: Hey, Wisconsin doesn't need to take a backseat to many teams in the Big Ten. The Badgers have won double-digit games in five of the past seven seasons, averaging exactly 10 wins in that span, and have played in three of the first five Big Ten title games. Even as coaches come and go in Madison, Wisconsin remains an annual league title contender. The 2015 team managed another 10-win campaign despite a below-average (by their lofty standards) offensive line and running game. Second-year coach Paul Chryst has worked on improving the depth up front, and running back Corey Clement can't be as unlucky in 2016 as he was a year ago. Despite the loss of star defensive coordinator Dave Aranda to LSU, the Badgers should still be strong on that side of the ball under new leader Justin Wilcox, with linebacker Vince Biegel and cornerback Sojourn Shelton returning as seniors. And playing in the West Division should give the Badgers an easier path to Indianapolis, where they would have a one-game shot at the Big Ten championship.
What’s standing in their way: In 2016, it's the schedule. Wisconsin will actually play Michigan State for the first time since 2012 -- how we've missed that entertaining series -- but they'll have to travel to East Lansing. That's the Badgers' Big Ten opener, and it's also the beginning of a brutal stretch that also includes a road trip to Michigan, a home game vs. Ohio State and games at Iowa and against Nebraska in a six-week span. Wisconsin got some soft crossover schedules in the first two years of the East-West division alignment, but it's payback time in 2016. Throw in the opener against LSU at Lambeau Field, and the Badgers will be lucky simply to survive the first eight games of the season.
X-factor: Quarterback. Joel Stave finished with 31 wins, the most in school history, but had a complicated relationship with Badgers fans because of his inconsistency. Chryst is known as a top-flight developer of quarterbacks and oversaw some of the most potent offenses in program history during his time as offensive coordinator. This offseason brings a quarterback battle between senior Bart Houston and redshirt freshman Alex Hornibrook. Can Chryst's tutelage help either of them surpass the performance of Stave and give Wisconsin a strong passing game to balance out its rushing attack? In order to get past the titans on their schedule, the Badgers will probably need that to happen.