Pardon No. 8 Wisconsin if in the course of preparing for Monday’s noon kickoff for the Cotton Bowl at AT&T Stadium it didn’t feel a little like Groundhog Day.
The game with No. 15 Western Michigan, an unbeaten Group-of-Five upstart from the mid-major Mid-American Conference with something to prove against the big boys, feels more than a little like the Badgers’ Rose Bowl appearance in 2011 against a TCU team … from a mid-major with something to prove.
There are many differences, not the least of which is the fact no one from today’s Badgers was a part of the program then, including coach Paul Chryst. With a victory over the undefeated Badgers, then top-five TCU had a shot at a national title.
None of that exists in this game that, truthfully, is not the sexiest matchup in the Cotton Bowl’s 81 years, especially considering the national championship storylines here the past two seasons.
Our team had to understand that they’re humble enough to know that anybody on our schedule could beat us if we’re not at our best. But we’re confident enough to know that we can beat anybody on our schedule or anybody we play if we do play at our best.
Western Michigan coach P.J. Fleck
Unless, you’re the side that is fighting with that most basic of human motivation: belonging.
It is likely why the College Football Playoff game between the top-ranked Group of Five member and a Power Five team has been worth watching among the New Year’s Six bowl games. In 2015, Houston beat Florida State in a close game at the Peach Bowl, and Boise State held off Arizona on the last play of the game in the 2014 Fiesta Bowl.
“I think we’ll always be an underdog,” said Western Michigan coach P.J. Fleck, whose team was the first in the MAC to go undefeated in the regular season since Marshall. “We talk about a crack on our shoulder, not a chip. We talked all year about being humble and confident and having a wonderful balance of two of those, both of them.
“Our team had to understand that they’re humble enough to know that anybody on our schedule could beat us if we’re not at our best. But we’re confident enough to know that we can beat anybody on our schedule or anybody we play if we do play at our best.”
I think you don’t go undefeated in a season without being a really good team and not just good players and good coaching, but I think Western has got something going that grabbed the attention of our players early in the preparation.
Wisconsin coach Paul Chryst
Wisconsin (10-3), the coach said, is the best team on the schedule this year. Western Michigan has defeated two Big Ten opponents this season, but neither Northwestern or Illinois were of Wisconsin’s size, speed and seasoning.
The Broncos are confident they can play with the Badgers or anyone else, for that matter, at the skill positions, particularly with QB Zach Terrell and running backs Jarvion Franklin and Jamauri Bogan, and senior All-America receiver Corey Davis. The question that will need to be answered is how Western Michigan’s undersized offensive front stands up to Wisconsin’s big and good front seven. That’s generally the most basic difference between the haves and have-nots of college football.
It’s the “elephant in the room,” Fleck said, including in his analysis Wisconsin’s big offensive front.
Aiding the Broncos’ might be the Badgers’ daydreaming.
Wisconsin could have been playing for the biggest prize if not for blowing a big lead against Penn State in the Big Ten Championship Game.
While Western Michigan will no doubt be inspired by what it can gain, Wisconsin, which hasn’t named a starting quarterback for Monday between freshman Alex Hornibrook and senior Bart Houston, could be playing with the hangover of what it lost last month.
“We’re going to need to play well, obviously,” Chryst said. “I think you don’t go undefeated in a season without being a really good team and not just good players and good coaching, but I think Western has got something going that grabbed the attention of our players early in the preparation.”
Wisconsin vs. Western Michigan
Noon Monday, ESPN