We have reached the final installment in our countdown of the best football teams to take the field at the University of Wisconsin during our lifetime (1997-2019).
From the Jonathan Taylor-led 2019 squad, to Russell Wilson’s 2011 team to the back-to-back Rose Bowl winning teams of the late nineties, all this talk of Badgers’ success has come to this. One team left to be named. The best Badgers football team since 1997.
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The 2017 Badgers are in some ways overlooked, which is strange for a team who has the school-record for wins at 13 and is our number one pick for this list.
People might not remember this team like they should for a variety of reasons.
An Orange Bowl victory over the University of Miami feels less memorable than a Rose Bowl appearance win, for one. Another reason is the quarterback play.
Alex Hornibrook was the quarterback, and because his Badgers career ended on such a sour note and his subsequent transfer to Florida State in 2018, it’s easy to forget he was the guy in 2017.
Still, Hornibrook’s play in 2017 was a double-edged sword of sorts. His 25 touchdown passes exceeded expectations for a Wisconsin quarterback, especially when considering how efficient their passing plays were that season, with 8.3 yards per pass attempt. Hornibrook even finished third in the Big Ten that year in passer efficiency. But Hornibrook still threw 15 interceptions, trailing only Nebraska’s Tanner Lee for most interceptions thrown that year in the Big Ten.
Quintez Cephus and Troy Fumagalli barely eclipsed 500 yards receiving to lead the team. For as high-powered as this offense was at 33.8 points per game, it’s difficult to understand the lack of yards Wisconsin produced through the air. Typical of the Badgers, however, much of the success came from Jonathan Taylor’s tremendous work as well as an elite defense that provided some short field for the offense to work with.
Taylor, just a freshman at the time, carried the ball 300 times for just under 2000 yards and 13 touchdowns. Taylor was running behind a historic offensive line in 2017 led by the trio of Beau Benzschawel, Michael Deiter and David Edwards. Six Badgers, including these aforementioned four, plus linebacker T.J. Edwards and tight end Fumagalli, earned at least one All-American team honors between the five different media outlets who make these teams.
T.J. Edwards led a defense that only surrendered 13.9 points per game. Edwards piled up 53 solo tackles, 11 tackles for loss, two sacks and four interceptions during the 2017 campaign. His efforts were aided by Ryan Connelly (team-high 58 solo tackles), Leon Jacobs, Alec James and Andrew Van Ginkel (team-high 6.5 sacks each), Garret Dooley and Chris Orr. The Badgers finished first in the Big Ten in both scoring defense and total defense.
One of the key reasons this Badgers squad takes the top spot on this list is because of the strength of the Big Ten. The conference has improved tremendously throughout this decade and has reached the point where it rivals the SEC in terms of quality and depth.
In 2017, five Big Ten teams finished with double-digit wins and a place within the AP top 20. Eight of the 14 teams finished with a winning record. This base quality in the Big Ten served up a challenging quest for the Badgers. Throughout their 12-game regular season, the Badgers were hardly in any danger, going 12-0 with only two single-digit margins of victory.
The Badgers reached a no. 3 ranking before falling to no. 8 to Ohio State in a riveting Big Ten Championship game, 27-21. The defense tried to keep the Badgers’ College Football Playoff hopes alive, but the lackluster offense could not get it done late in the game and Ohio State’s field goal to go up six with just over five minutes left sealed the game.
Hornibrook and Taylor showed up in the Orange bowl, however, playing a near perfect game against a touted, turnover-oriented Miami Hurricane defense.
The 2017 Badgers finished with a simple rating score of 22.61 — the best in school history, according to Sports Reference. This was also the best score given to any college football team in 2017. This stat takes point differential and strength of schedule into account.
If it weren’t for such a nail-biting loss to Ohio State in the Big Ten Championship, we could be talking about the best Badgers football team of all time, let alone since 1997. Alas, the Badgers continue to hunt for their first playoff opportunity in 2020 and beyond.
This 2017 team is the best of the Paul Chryst era so far, but with the program continuing to trend up and dominate the recruiting landscape, we could be talking about a different Badgers team in the near future.