Hype. Pressure. Expectations.
Three words that have made talented teams crumble.
Yet, for Wisconsin football head coach Bret Bielema and the 2010 Badgers, those words are here to stay.
“I realize this year we have a number of high expectations that are on our radar,” Bielema said at UW’s media day. “And our kids have embraced that and really bought into the mentality of the only way we can even guarantee any success in our first game or the last game of the year, whenever it may be, is just do our work today.”
As the Badgers’ season-opening date in the desert with UNLV draws closer, the outlook for the 2010 campaign becomes increasingly clearer. Survive the easy non-conference portion of the schedule, go toe-to-toe with Ohio State and Iowa and return to national prominence. Earn a bowl berth beyond the Champ Sports Bowl, and potentially, reach the Rose Bowl for the first time since 2000.
That’s the hype, the pressure, the expectation surrounding this year’s Badger squad. After a 2009 season that was largely characterized as a pleasant surprise, this year is supposed to be the year UW takes the next step.
“We are definitely trying to go to a Rose Bowl,” cornerback Devin Smith said. “We try to have that 1-0 mentality carry us to our goal.”
So why such high expectations? To begin, the Badgers return a total of 18 starters from last season — 10 on offense, six on defense and two on special teams that should result in a solidly deep roster. On the offensive side of the ball, redshirt senior Scott Tolzien (211 completions, 2,705 yards, 16 TDs, 11 INTs) returns to man the quarterback position, a spot he won only at the very end of last year’s fall camp.
Combined with breakout years from his top receiver, junior Nick Toon and junior running back John Clay, Tolzien’s 2009 season has fueled most of the hype surrounding this year’s Badger offense.
“They’re very high,” Tolzien said of current expectations. “Every year, we set the bar like that just because we’ve worked our tail off in the offseason. I think, before anything, you’ve got to have the confidence as a team. If you don’t have the confidence, certainly you’re either not working hard or you’re not having the right mindset.”
For the defense, that mindset will largely be focused on stopping the run. Always a staple of Wisconsin football, the Badgers were the best in the Big Ten in stopping the run last year, and this year the priority will remain the same.
“I expect, I don’t give numbers, but I expect our defense to be one of the best in the country,” defensive lineman J.J. Watt said. “That’s what Wisconsin defense should strive for and that’s what we’re going to strive for, is being one of the best defenses in the country.”
With depth along the defensive line, a solid linebacker corps and a veteran secondary, Watt’s version of Wisconsin defense looks to be an attainable goal. However, “looks to be” remains different from “will be,” and there is always the chance of not living up to the hype, pressure or expectations.
Just two years ago, the Badgers began the season ranked No. 12 in the USA Today poll. Yet, by the end of the season, UW was 7-6 (only 3-5 in the Big Ten) and had suffered a 42-13 thrashing at the hands of Florida State in the Champs Sports Bowl.
“Guys’ minds weren’t in the right places,” safety Jay Valai said. “We want to just focus on one game at a time. We gotta stop looking forward to the big games.”
Even in 2007, Wisconsin started No. 7, only to slide out of the Top 25 by mid-October after consecutive losses to Illinois and Penn State. Ultimately, the Badgers finished at No. 21, still falling to Tennessee 21-17 in the Outback Bowl.
So what, in the eyes of this year’s Wisconsin team, separates them from those 2007 and 2008 letdowns?
“I can tell you right now that the team that we have has great chemistry, and that’s one of the biggest differences I see,” Watt said. “This team here, we play for each other, we want to win for each other and we work every day for each other. The biggest thing we focus on is that brotherhood and the chemistry that we have, and that’s what’s going to carry through this year.”
To avoid individual players doing their own thing, as Clay put it, that brotherhood and chemistry Watt alluded to will have to be more than the company line, more than the go-to media quote. Rather, it will have to be something closer to what Valai has in mind - a mentality.
“Mentality - not looking ahead, not starting feeling ourselves, just staying grounded and grinding and grinding and playing Wisconsin football,” Valai said. “I’ll take these guys versus any team in the country. These are my boys, and we work hard and we grind. I think the number one thing is just our mentality, first and foremost.”
As players such as Tolzien are quick to explain, the Badgers haven’t even played their first game yet. All the preseason hype, pressure and expectations mean nothing if the end result is not satisfactory.
“Our job as players and coaches is to ignore that,” Tolzien said. “That’s preseason stuff. We haven’t proven a darn thing yet.”