I am a long-time admirer of the Badgers. I love their style of play, I’m impressed by the way they’ve overachieved and I appreciate both their persistence in challenging the Ohio State Buckeyes’ iron grip on the Big Ten and the reliable manner in which they dash the dreams of the Michigan Wolverines.
Now that all that nice stuff is out of the way, it’s time to get real. Sports media writ large and even Notre Dame’s own beat seem to think of Wisconsin as the favorite in this game. This is all fine in August when we haven’t seen the teams play and it’s based entirely on perception, and it’s certainly totally fine and to be expected for Wisconsin fans and Big Ten boosters to expect a win in this one. But let’s be honest about what level of threat Wisconsin poses.
The Badgers are a good team. They are not a great team. They are not the Alabama Crimson Tide or the Clemson Tigers or the Georgia Bulldogs. This is not a game where Notre Dame has to overcome a big talent gap or match a degree of speed/strength/scheme they haven’t seen before.
On the contrary: looking purely at the the talent on the field, the Irish have a pretty big edge over the Badgers. This is not arrogance or complacency or homerism talking. It is a fact that can be easily verified by consulting practically any metric one can think of that measures such things. Consider:
Notre Dame: 12
Notre Dame: 14
Wisconsin: Not ranked
NFL Draft Picks (last 5 years):*
Notre Dame: 27 (7th nationally)
Wisconsin: 19 (18th nationally)
*Yes, I know these players aren’t on the team now. It’s still a useful proxy for the level of talent consistently brought in by each program and their success in developing said talent.
None of this should be interpreted as me saying the Badgers can’t win this game. It would be far from the first time Wisconsin defeated an opponent with more talent on its roster (lol Michigan). They are a program that excels at doing more with less, getting the absolute most out of their players and creating teams that are more than the sum of their parts. They deserve to be commended for this, and they are absolutely one of the most dangerous teams the Irish will see this year.
It is, however, important to note the talent differential between the two teams, because it makes the Badgers rather different from most of the teams that have been able to beat Notre Dame in the past few years. Where the Irish have fallen short in recent seasons, it has typically not been against teams that had less talent but outschemed them. On the contrary, these losses have nearly always been in games where the opposing team had massive talent advantages that Brian Kelly and co. either couldn’t or didn’t scheme around. Losses to Alabama, Clemson, and Georgia - who together account for the majority of Irish defeats in the past four seasons - come to mind. Practically the only teams that have been able to beat the Irish in recent years have done so by athletically overwhelming them; that won’t be the case here.
So while I believe the Badgers will mount a strong challenge in this game, I also have no reason to believe the Irish won’t be able to overcome that challenge. The Irish have the athletes throughout their defense - even in the secondary - to defend Wisconsin’s offensive attack, and Marcus Freeman will be more than up to the task of scheming to get those athletes in the right matchups. I don’t believe the Badgers have a running back as good as Kyren Williams. I don’t believe they have a single player who is as fast as Chris Tyree or Braden Lenzy. I absolutely do not believe they have a receiving threat as good as Michael Mayer, or a defender who can cover him.
Moreover, the physical, grinding style of play that the Badgers have distilled down to a science, and which has allowed them to punch above their weight for so long, is one at which the Irish have also excelled in recent years. These are two quite similar teams that play a similar style, but one is doing it with a lot more weapons.
Basically, provided the Irish prepare appropriately, make the right adjustments and execute their game plan, there is no reason they should not win this game. I am more afraid of the Cincinnati Bearcats than Wisconsin. I am more afraid of the North Carolina Tar Heels. I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I am more afraid of the USC Trojans.
Wisconsin is a good team. Notre Dame fans who have had the relative pleasure of watching the last four years of Irish football, seen the progress the program has made, and believed in it should no longer be struck with fear at the prospect of playing a good team. The Irish have spent the past several seasons earning the right to be confident about matchups like this; don’t let anyone tell you differently.