Before the season began, it looked like 2016 could be Wisconsin's worst year since going 5-7 in 2001. The Badgers had a new starter at quarterback, no established star at running back—Corey Clement is fine, but no Melvin Gordon—and perhaps the most brutal schedule in college football, including games against LSU, at Michigan State, at Michigan, against Nebraska, against Ohio State, and at Iowa.
Sure enough, however, Wisconsin opened the season with a win against LSU and is now 2-0 in those marquee games after dominating Michigan State, 30-6, on Saturday. The reward? Going to Michigan next week. The Wolverines are considerably better than either LSU or Michigan State, but the Badgers are on an absolute roll.
How did this happen? Well, Wisconsin has outperformed in two of its supposed weak spots coming into the season. First, at quarterback: senior Bart Houston did not appear to be a significant step up from Joel Stave, who led a ho-hum Wisconsin offense last season, and in the first three games, that rang true. Houston struggled against LSU, despite the win, and he played poorly in a near-loss to Georgia State just last week.
In a surprising move, coach Paul Chryst replaced Houston with freshman Alex Hornibrook for the MSU game, and Hornibrook proved to be more serviceable, if not spectacular, finishing 16-for-26 for 195 yards, a touchdown and an interception in his first career start. This offense won't dominate college football, but it's better than anyone could have reasonably expected.
But the real reason for the Badgers' shocking climb to 4-0 has been the defense. Despite losing star defensive coordinator Dave Aranda (to LSU, no less) and a number of talented players in the back seven, Wisconsin's defense has proven to be among the best in the country. The offense was not impressive against LSU, but it didn't matter, as the defense shut down the Tigers' rhythm and star running back Leonard Fournette. It was even better against MSU, holding quarterback Tyler O'Connor to miserable 47 percent completion and three interceptions.
The defense's raw numbers aren't outstanding, at just over five yards per play, due to the strength of opponents, but it has stepped up in big games, and as more teams come (closer) to matching the difficulty of Wisconsin's schedule, the Badgers' defense should rank among the nation's best.
As much as the Michigan State and LSU wins should be rewarded, though, it's also worth considering that neither of those teams is as good as we thought. Michigan State got credit for lighting up a Notre Dame defense that just gave up 38 points to Duke. Other than that, the Spartans' offense has looked pretty bad, which is what many predicted going into the season. LSU, meanwhile, just lost to Auburn (and just fired their head coach Les Miles).
The truest test for Wisconsin comes this week against Michigan. The Badgers are clearly contenders for the Big Ten West title, but if they want to compete on the national stage, they'll need to beat two current top-five teams. Defeat Michigan, and there's no doubting Wisconsin.