Badger fans would be well advised to put in a full day of work around the house this Saturday. Seal that driveway, clean out the garage, pull those weeds in the garden, whatever you can do to build up your end of the favor bank so you can devote the next three Saturdays to watching football. Allan Evridge, P.J. Hill and their teammates might have the day off, but it's in your best interest to keep your nose to the grindstone.
That's because starting next week, the Badgers will begin a string of three Big Ten games that will prove whether or not this year's team is for real.
Originally, Wisconsin was supposed to take on perennial powerhouse Virginia Tech on Saturday. But head coach Bret Bielema thought playing the Hokies followed by Michigan, Ohio State and Penn State would make for an unnecessarily rough stretch of games. So he opted to drop Tech from the schedule, making this a bye week, and added Division I-AA Cal Poly on Nov. 22.
That's not a fair trade for fans expected to pay full freight to see these non-conference cupcakes. But even the most cynical must admit that Bielema's plan for the season has worked out pretty well so far. Wins at home over Akron (38-17) and Marshall (51-14) and on the road against Fresno State (13-10) have the Badgers at 3-0 and ranked eighth in the nation in all major polls.
Now all Wisconsin needs to do to move into the top five is to beat the three most storied programs in the conference over the next three weeks.
With this week off, Bielema hopes to accomplish three things, which he outlined in his press conference on Monday: "Getting better, getting a jump on Michigan and also getting healthy."
Michigan also has a bye on Saturday, but is in a surly mood after starting the season 1-2. Under new head coach Rich Rodriguez, the Wolverines are learning a new spread-option offense, which isn't clicking yet. This is a great time to be playing the Wolverines on the road, as their traditionally sedate fans are even less enthused by the team's performance thus far in 2008.
The marquee game of the season will be the Oct. 4 night game at Camp Randall against Ohio State. The Buckeyes were thumped Saturday by USC, 35-3, and are currently missing the services of running back Chris "Beanie" Wells, a preseason favorite for the Heisman Trophy. Wells ran for 169 yards on 21 carries against Wisconsin last year in Columbus, but is nursing an injured foot.
The final game of the crucial three-week stretch comes on Oct. 11, when Penn State comes to town. The Nittany Lions are hard to gauge so far this year, averaging about 55 points a game, but against weak competition. Badger fans might remember 2002, when Joe Paterno brought his team to Madison and beat an undefeated Wisconsin team which went on to lose six of its last eight games of the season.
But Bielema is optimistic. He likes the attitude his team exhibited on the road last week at Fresno State. There, in front of a fired-up crowd, the Badgers beat a ranked non-conference opponent on the road for the first time since 1958. (Most years they don't play any.)
"They embraced the environment that we had there," he says. "That was a great college and football game day environment. And obviously, the reception that we got out there on the field, it was great to see them smile and take that and use it as energy and as power within."
It was also great to see senior tight end Travis Beckum, a preseason All-American, back in uniform after suffering a hamstring injury that kept him out of the first two games. Beckum, who led the Badgers in receptions last year with 75 for 982 yards, caught six passes for 106 yards and scored a touchdown against Michigan in Camp Randall.
The Badgers will need Beckum's best to win these next three games. (His primary role may be as a decoy, drawing coverage away from Wisconsin's squad of young wide receivers or spreading out the defense so tailback P.J. Hill can find room to operate.)