One of the things Barry Alvarez brought along when he made the journey from Notre Dame to the University of Wisconsin football program 30-plus years ago was a theory on how the best teams are constructed.
It was a belief he shared with Lou Holtz, his former boss with the Fighting Irish. If you’ve followed the Badgers long enough, you’ve probably heard it and perhaps even applied it to previous UW outfits as a litmus test of sorts.
Here was Alvarez explaining it back in 2003:
“To really be an outstanding (team), you don’t need a whole team full of great players,” Alvarez said. “I felt, and I’ve said that, if you have five great ones and no negatives on your team, then you have a chance to be a great team.”
Eighteen years later, the program Alvarez built enters a critical stretch of games starting Saturday with a matchup between the No. 18 Badgers (1-1) and No. 12 Notre Dame (3-0) at Soldier Field in Chicago. A visit from No. 19 Michigan is on deck when UW resumes Big Ten play next week.
UW has lost six consecutive games to ranked opponents dating to late in the 2019 season, including a 16-10 decision to Penn State at Camp Randall Stadium three weeks ago. Some natives are getting restless.
The Badgers were the preseason pick to win the Big Ten West Division and perhaps give Ohio State a good run for its money in the conference title game.
Were those unrealistic expectations? If you buy into the Alvarez five-great-players theory, the answer is yes.
Truth is, it’s really hard to find “five great ones” on this 2021 roster. There’s plenty of good — maybe even really good — but little in the way of truly elite players.
Let’s pause here to acknowledge that defining greatness is subjective. Teams don’t need five All-Americans to be outstanding. Heck, Alvarez in that 2003 news conference pointed out that he put right tackle Mark Tauscher, who didn’t even earn first-team All-Big Ten in 1999, in the great category on a team that won a Rose Bowl.
UW coach Paul Chryst enters the third game of his seventh season and has had one team that can be considered great. His 2017 group ran the table during the regular season, lost a tight game to Ohio State in the Big Ten title game and beat Miami in the Orange Bowl for its program-record 13th victory of the season.
That team was littered with outstanding performers. Seven players — right guard Beau Benzschawel, left tackle Michael Deiter, safety D’Cota Dixon, linebacker T.J. Edwards, tight end Troy Fumagalli, cornerback Nick Nelson and tailback Jonathan Taylor — were first-team All-Big Ten picks. Edwards and Benzschawel were All-Americans. Another offensive lineman, right tackle David Edwards, was named to an All-American team.
There’s not nearly that amount of high-end talent on the roster four years later.
Lindy’s annual preseason college football magazine included preseason rankings for the top players at each position nationally. The only UW players who made the list were tight end Jake Ferguson (No. 3), inside linebacker Jack Sanborn (No. 11) and quarterback Graham Mertz (No. 20).
Compare that to the Badgers’ next opponent: Notre Dame had the No. 1 safety (Kyle Hamilton), No. 4 center (Jarrett Patterson), No. 5 running back (Kyren Williams) and No. 5 tight end (Michael Mayer).
UW’s 10 best players — and again, this is subjective — are Ferguson, Sanborn, nose tackle Keaanu Benton, inside linebacker Leo Chenal, defensive end Matt Henningsen, outside linebacker Nick Herbig, right tackle Logan Bruss, wide receiver Danny Davis, cornerback Faion Hicks and pick-your-tailback between Chez Mellusi and Jalen Berger.
Two observations: First, you could argue five of the Badgers’ top six players are defenders. There’s a reason that side of the ball is performing much better than the offense.
Plus, notice the absence of players at premier positions. There’s no left tackle or playmaking safety on the list. The best tailback, cornerback and wide receiver fall somewhere in the 8-to-10 range.
This is where Alvarez would point out that some of this talk is premature. After all, he says he never judged players’ greatness until after the season was complete.
“Guys can get lost in the shuffle just by doing their job,” Alvarez said in 2003, using Tauscher as an example. “You don’t worry about them, but you don’t think about them as being great until you ... sit back and take a look at the whole picture and see what they’ve accomplished.”
There’s a long way to go in this season and plenty of time remaining for players to make the jump from good to great. Sanborn and Ferguson already are among the best players at their respective positions in the Big Ten, but will any players step up to join them in that elite category?
Here are five to consider:
1. Chenal: It’s impossible to know how big of a jump Chenal has made from being a first-time starter as a sophomore until now because he missed the first two games of the season after testing positive for COVID-19. Chenal is expected to make his season debut against Notre Dame and could improve an already sound UW defense in two areas: pass rush and turnover creation.
2. Benton: Readers of Open Jim, my weekly mailbag that appears online every Wednesday, will know that Benton’s name came up a lot leading into the season. I’ve said that he’s poised for a breakout campaign and should be more disruptive in the opponent’s backfield this season. Benton has one tackle for loss through two games, but opponents haven’t exactly been running the ball at the Badgers.
3. Hicks: He has 29 career starts and only one interception. Hicks is solid, but he hardly can be considered a lock-down cornerback. UW needs more playmaking production from a player with this much experience.
4. Davis: Not mentioned above among the top players on the 2017 team was Quintez Cephus, who led the team in touchdown receptions (six) and nearly led it in receiving yards (501) despite missing five games due to injury. Having a big-play threat at receiver is a game-changer for an offense, and UW needs Davis to step into that role. Of course, it’s hard for a receiver to be great if his quarterback is struggling. Which brings us to …
5. Mertz: That 2017 team didn’t have a great quarterback, but Alex Hornibrook was third in the Big Ten in passing efficiency (148.6) and finished the season with 25 touchdown passes. Asking for greatness from a player who hasn’t even been average is a lot to ask. I get it. UW just needs Mertz to be much better than he has been through two games.
One thing that sometimes gets lost in the Alvarez theory is that part about having no negatives. Quarterback play has been a negative so far and UW’s offensive line play hasn’t exactly been a positive, either. The Badgers need to show significant improvement at both of those positions.
There’s a long way to go in a 2021 season that began with high hopes. But it would appear UW’s potential is limited unless some individual greatness emerges in a hurry.