With three games left in 2011, Wisconsin has a reasonable shot at getting to the Big Ten title game, and the Rose Bowl. Certainly those were the least of the expectations most people held of the Badgers before the season started.
But let’s say Ohio State wins out, and all of a sudden Wisconsin is playing in the Gator Bowl. Would the season become a failure? Would all the hope for a football renaissance be washed away?
By most accounts, yes. If the Badgers can’t get to Pasadena with the most dynamic quarterback and effective offense in its recent history, it would suggest a failure of sorts. Russell Wilson only has one chance with this team. With the guaranteed drop-off that comes with a Joe Brennan, Jon Budmayr, or a true freshman at quarterback, plus a defense that’s only graduating more seniors, things are definitely getting worse before they get better.
And yet, 2011 will not be a failure no matter how far this team goes. In fact, it’s already a success. Not if you define success as a national championship, Heisman trophy, or maybe even a BCS bowl. But you don’t have to define it as “trying your best” either.
The key definition of success here is exposure. Before the season even started, Wilson put Wisconsin in the national spotlight by choosing UW-Madison over Auburn, the defending champs. Then, the Badgers opened the season on the first night of college football action in front of a national audience, and did exactly what they should to a subpar opponent. A few weeks later, it was College Gameday on Bascom Hill, and another nationally televised beatdown of Nebraska.
Then, ESPN featured Wisconsin in their Depth Chart series, with a behind-the-scenes look at Wilson and the QB battle, but also a general look at the whole program. America watched as offensive coordinator/guru Paul Chryst threw in a huge tobacco chew dip before imparting his wisdom on the quarterbacks. Brett Bielema also got some face time, and so did the Badgers locker room, team attitude, and the Madison game day experience. By the end of the hour, it was almost a direct recruiting pitch—Budmayr, Wilson, and even third string QB Nate Tice were espousing the virtues of the school and the football team.
Then, of course, there was the exposure of losing another College Gameday nationally televised contest, on a last-second Hail Mary. But nonetheless, Wisconsin has been exposed to a national audience this year like never before. If last year’s Rose Bowl trip has helped Bielema, Chryst and company recruit such a talented class for 2012, then what will this year’s exposure accomplish? It’s hard to say exactly, but it’s not hard to predict that it will be positive. It could definitely pave the way for even more talent and speed from exotic lands like New Jersey and Florida—lands whose young football talent hadn’t really thought of Wisconsin or seen what it can do until this year.
And on another level, the exposure this year works to give Wisconsin a general national consciousness, be it in the minds of fans, AP voters, other coaches, media analysts, etc. This, along with the message to possible recruits, is why the athletic department jumped on that Thursday night season opener before the first day of classes without really discussing it with the school administration, and why Bielema accepted the ESPN cameras into his locker room. It’s all been a concerted effort for exposure.
None of this eradicates the extreme disappointment that would come from a trip anywhere than Pasadena during bowl season. But, it should mitigate it. Wisconsin is still a program on the rise, with a good future ahead of it. The team’s efforts this year will not go wasted, regardless of what happens in the next few months. It may not be as sweet as the Rose Bowl, but this year’s squad has already won a general victory in terms of exposure.