Despite some recent success, Wisconsin continues to search for more national respect. This year’s team might have the talent to help earn it.
The seventh-ranked Badgers look to start building on a successful 2006 when they open up at home against Washington State on Saturday.
Wisconsin finished 12-1 last season, setting a school record for wins and tying Michigan - the only team to beat them - for second place in the Big Ten. The Badgers also beat Arkansas 17-14 in the Capital One Bowl for their second straight bowl victory.
Wisconsin is 31-7 the last three seasons and has the most victories of any Big Ten school during that span.
The Badgers, though, know there’s more work to be done to pull out of the shadows cast by perennial national powers Ohio State and Michigan.
“At Wisconsin, we have to play with a little chip on our shoulders,” said Brad Bielema, named 2006 Big Ten Coach of the Year in his first season. “We have to go with a little different attitude, maybe more so than others, just because people don’t know the level of success we’ve had.”
On Saturday, the Badgers, picked to finish second behind Michigan by Big Ten coaches and media, will play with their highest ranking since starting 2000 at No. 4. The high preseason number is due to an offense led by sophomore running back P.J. Hill and an experienced defense that ranked second in the nation in points allowed at 12.1 per contest last season.
The 5-foot-11, 227-pound Hill rushed for 1,569 yards and 15 yards as a redshirt freshman in 2006. He underwent offseason shoulder surgery and also came back much lighter than the 242 pounds he played at last year.
“I’m still going to be a physical back, that’s just in me,” Hill said. “I like being physical. I’m just going to be smart about the contact that I make.”
While Hill will be running behind an offensive line that looks largely the same as the 2006 version, the Badgers suffered a big loss in All-American left tackle Joe Thomas, the third overall pick by Cleveland in the NFL draft. Gabe Carimi, a 6-8, 292-pound freshman, is slated to fill his spot.
If there’s a concern for the Badgers, it could be at quarterback, where fifth-year senior Tyler Donovan edged out junior Allan Evridge - a transfer from Kansas State - for the starting nod.
Donovan was 37-for-58 for 564 yards and four touchdowns in seven games last season. He led Wisconsin to victories over Iowa and Buffalo while starter John Stocco was injured.
Seven defensive starters return, led by cornerback Jack Ikegwuonu, linebacker DeAndre Levy and defensive end Matt Shaughnessy. Last season’s unit topped the conference in points allowed, passing defense (138.3 yards per game) and total defense (253.1).
“I think we can be just as good if not better,” Ikegwuonu said. “We have a lot of athletes on this team. If we can take the right approach, we can exceed a lot of expectations for this year.”
Wisconsin looks to extend its overall winning streak to 10 games and tries to win its 10th consecutive season opener and eighth straight home opener.
Washington State, meanwhile, will try to win its first season opener against a top 10 team. The Cougars are 0-5 in those situations and 19-25-2 overall when starting the season on the road.
Improving either of those records might be tough for Washington State, which lost its final three games of 2006 to finish 6-6 and fall short of a winning season for the third straight year.
“We don’t dwell on last season. We use that for motivation,” senior quarterback Alex Brink said. “Now, it’s up to us to take the reins.”
Despite Brink and receiver Michael Bumpus returning from an offense that was second in the conference with 259.8 passing yards per game, Washington State was picked to finish eighth in the Pac-10 preseason media poll.
Brink completed 60.9 percent of his passes for 2,899 yards with 19 touchdowns with 10 interceptions last season, and has started 28 straight games since his freshman year. Bumpus caught a team-high 60 passes and needs 52 to become the school’s all-time receptions leader.
While the offense has potential, the defense is a question mark due to an inexperienced secondary. The Cougars allowed a league-worst 243.1 passing yards in 2006.
Wisconsin beat Washington State 35-26 on Sept. 25, 1976 at home in the only meeting between the schools.