Ben Smidt

TAMPA, Fla. — With Wisconsin’s 24-21 New Year’s Day loss to Georgia in the Outback Bowl, an accomplished senior class made its exit from college football on a bittersweet note.

On the surface, a 9-3 season — which included an undefeated home campaign (6-0) — would make for a pretty remarkable year.

But the circumstances in which Wisconsin dropped its three losses have some Badger backers wondering what might have been.

Rewind three games and a little over two months.

Wisconsin, fresh off a 38-14 drubbing of Minnesota and subsequent reclamation of the Paul Bunyan Axe, held a 9-0 record and a No. 4 ranking in both major polls.

Many people in Badgerland were not only talking about a Rose Bowl berth, but a legitimate shot at the national championship.

But those hopes soon faded.

After a pair of blowout road losses to close out the regular season, the Badgers found themselves instead playing the Georgia Bulldogs in the Outback Bowl.

Although Wisconsin fought valiantly to come back against its formidable Southeastern Conference foe, UW ultimately fell three points shy, sending a deep and accomplished senior class out on a sour note.

“To end your career on three losses is never good,” UW senior free safety Jim Leonhard said. “Obviously you’ve got to think about those nine wins that came before that, but it’s going to be real tough to put that behind us.”

All told, Wisconsin is set to lose seven defensive starters and five offensive starters from its roster.

Defensively, the Badgers will need to fill the voids left by Leonhard, strong safety Robert Brooks, cornerback Scott Starks, defensive ends Jonathan Welsh and Erasmus James, and tackles Jason Jefferson and Anttaj Hawthorne.

James, the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year, and his senior mates along Wisconsin’s front four made up one of the best defensive lines in college football. And with Starks and Co. giving the Badgers solid coverage in the secondary, UW’s defense ranked as one of the best in the country throughout much of the season.

On the offensive side of the ball, the Badgers will have to do without the services of tailback Anthony Davis, wide receiver Darrin Charles, right tackle Morgan Davis and guards Dan Buenning and Jonathan Clinkscale. Tight end Tony Paciotti will also be lost to graduation.

Anthony Davis, when healthy, provided the Badgers with a shifty, hard-nosed runner and made his exit from college football with the school’s second-highest career rushing total. Buenning, a team captain, along with Morgan Davis and Clinkscale, added experience and leadership to the solid lineage of Wisconsin offensive linemen.

As for coach Brian Murphy’s special-teams unit, the Badgers are set to lose four of their most integral players — place kicker Mike Allen, long snapper Matt Katula, punt-coverage gunner Starks and punt returner Leonhard, who holds the Big Ten record for career punt-return yardage.

The Badgers will be doing some serious rebuilding on every facet of the team.

But now that their collegiate careers have come to a close, how will the Wisconsin seniors be remembered?

Individually, Leonhard, James and Anthony Davis cemented their names in the school’s annals with records, awards and the like.

But what about the 2004 senior class as a whole? Will Leonhard and Co. be better remembered for their string of nine straight wins and top-20 ranking in the season’s final polls, or their three-game skid to close out the regular season?

Unfortunately for them, some will likely remember the latter.

“That’s just the way people are — they’re going to remember the beginning and the end,” Leonhard said. “We started out well, but we didn’t finish out strong. It’s going to be hard for us to be remembered that way, with these three losses, but we all know what we’ve been through and all the memories that we had. We had a great season.”

And with Leonhard and his senior mates bidding adieu to the cardinal and white, the Badger coaching staff will have its hands full duplicating that great season in 2005.