College football: Wisconsin must deal with high preseason expectations this year
CHICAGO -- At this time last year, many were already sentencing the University of Wisconsin football team to a mediocre season.
The schedule was too difficult and the loss of starters too many to stay in the conversation for a Big Ten Conference championship, much less the College Football Playoff picture.
As the Badgers ignored predictions on their way to a 10-3 record and Big Ten West Division title, they must do the same now that the perception has turned.
UW enters this season as an overwhelming choice to return to Indianapolis, and handicappers could realistically have it favored in all 12 games on the schedule.
"It's the same talking points, just flipped," UW coach Paul Chryst said Monday at Big Ten Media Days. "If last year the messaging doesn't mean anything, if you choose to ignore it because they're incorrect, then you can't all of a sudden flip it this year and buy in to it. A lot of our guys live that, know that. You still want to keep making sure none of the outside talk matters, good or bad. It's what we do and how we approach it.
"What's great about this season is you have to go play it, and all the talk doesn't really matter."
Under Chryst, the Badgers have consistently conveyed that their success has much more to do with themselves rather than their opponents.
Four of UW's first six opponents last season -- LSU, Michigan State, Michigan and Ohio State -- were ranked in the top 12 of The Associated Press' preseason poll. The unranked Badgers beat two of those four teams, played the other two close and ripped off six straight wins to end the regular season.
The marquee non-conference game on this year's schedule shifts from LSU to BYU for a UW team expected to at least crack the top 15 when the poll is released in August, while Big Ten East Division powers Ohio State and Michigan State fall off the schedule in favor of Maryland and Indiana.
"We understand that, at the end of the day, it's going to come down to how well we're playing, not necessarily about who we're playing against," UW tight end Troy Fumagalli said. "I think the battle's within."
UW's company line of ignoring outside noise isn't as easy as it sounds, though, and its players admit as much.
Inside linebacker Jack Cichy believes the players can even funnel the hype into a healthy urgency, saying it can increase the expectations for themselves and could help hold each other accountable throughout fall camp and the lead-up to the season.
It could also result in added pressure, but that isn't something Cichy sees as a problem for a team with 15 returning starters.
"Most of the guys we have coming back might feel pressure, but I don't think they're ever overwhelmed by pressure," Cichy said. "Most of us are pretty even-keeled. We've been in some big moments. We've had success and we've had failure in big moments, and that's kind of what will help us and has helped us grow into the veterans we are today."
Many viewed the Badgers as a team with nothing to lose when they defeated LSU to begin last season. Internally, it was quite the opposite. UW had big goals for itself last year, too, and losing four games in the first half of the season would have blown those to pieces.
The public now shares an optimistic outlook with the Badgers this season, but that likely won't force them into shying away from pressure.
"At the end of the day, we knew last year that if we lose these games, we're not going to be where we want to be at all," UW inside linebacker T.J. Edwards said. "That's the same mindset you have to take this year. It doesn't matter who you're playing. It's about how you attack each week."
This article is written by Jason Galloway from The Wisconsin State Journal and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.