After that depressing thought, let’s take a look at UW’s good history — you know, challenging and quality non-conference opponents that people can get jazzed about. Yes, I just said jazzed, and you’ll know why in a minute.
Here are the contenders:
Coming off a 7-5 season, Dave McClain’s bunch had high hopes in 1982. It also had a big challenge to start the season, playing two top 15 opponents in a row. After losing 20-9 to Michigan to open the season, UW traveled to the Rose Bowl to take on UCLA. Things didn’t get better in Week 2, as No. 14 UCLA dropped the Badgers 51-26.
That was just the beginning for UCLA though, as they went on to a 10-1-1 season and beat Michigan in the Rose Bowl to finish the season No. 5 in the country. Yet, this was a team who ended up the lowest on the SRS scale out of the best opponents UW has ever faced, with the SRS rating of 21.66.
UCLA featured names like Tom Ramsey (QB), Cormac Carney (WR) and Jojo Townsell (WR) to name a few.
If anything that should give you a glimpse of just how good past opponents were throughout the history of Badgers football.
Notre Dame, 1924
Welcome to a theme for UW’s best non-conference opponents, as Notre Dame is about to feature heavily on the list. It should, considering it is the most common non-conference opponent that is still playing college football — a fact that should be shocking to most fans of today’s Badger football team.
However, Notre Dame has pretty much always been good to great and this 1924 team was no exception. Eight of the 10 UND opponents finished with a touchdown or less, in what may be one of the best defensive performances by any college football team in history.
Wisconsin was one of those teams, as Notre Dame beat UW 38-3 at Camp Randall Stadium.
That result shouldn’t be too shocking, as Wisconsin finished the season 2-3-3. It also shouldn’t be surprising with names like Harry Stuhldreher and Jim Crowley taking over on offense.
Wisconsin has a nasty history of taking on really good UCLA teams, both in non-conference and bowl game appearances. The 1952 UCLA team may actually be the best of them all, featuring a top notch offense and defense.
Arguably, this is also one of the best matchups ever in Wisconsin football history, as it was two top 10 opponents going at it this season. It was No. 8 UCLA going to No. 10 Wisconsin, unfortunately, it was also a 20-7 result for the visitors.
Quarterback Paul Cameron, a legend in his day led the way in this matchup and led his team all the way to a crucial last week matchup against arch-rival USC. The Trojans won it and that meant it prevented UCLA from a Rose Bowl appearance. UCLA finished the season No. 6 in the final poll and with an SRS rating of 23.88.
Miami (FL), 1988
For most of the Badger fanbase alive today, this game probably seems like a very distant memory. Considering this game also came in the god-awful Don Morton era, it’s likely also blocked from a lot of peoples memories too.
Wisconsin actually had a home-and-home series against the Hurricanes at the height of the power of the program. The matchup showed just how quickly the Badgers went downhill after the passing of Dave McClain, with Miami (FL) winning 23-3 (and it wasn’t even that close).
This wasn’t a team featuring a lot of NFL greats like a few in the past, but Steve Walsh at quarterback and Cleveland Gary as a dual threat runner and pass catcher was difficult for opponents to deal with. When it was all said and done, the Hurricanes ended the season as the No. 2 team in the country and arguably one of the top two or three teams UW played against ever based on that.
Still, this was a team that won a lot more on defense than it did on offense, as it had an SRS rating of 24.08 on the season. That number was second of 105 schools playing DI-A football at the time.
Notre Dame, 1944
Perhaps this is the most curious of teams included on this list, as no real star (at least that anyone following along today would have an immediate clue about) were on this squad. Quarterback Frank Dancewicz did finish sixth in the Heisman voting the next season, but wasn’t amazing in 1944.
Yet, this team may have been one of the most cohesive groups Wisconsin played during the WWII era of college football. Notre Dame finished with an SRS rating of 24.70 and had an 8-2 record on the year, finishing No. 9 in the final AP voting of the season.
The Fighting Irish beat Wisconsin 28-13, but UW could hold its head high as its 13 points were the third highest total allowed to an opponent all season long. It wasn’t like ND played a slouch schedule for its day and age either, finishing the season having played five ranked teams and with the 5th best strength of schedule for the season.
If there is an award for the closest game on this list, congrats the 1973 game between Nebraska and Wisconsin gets that award. UW only lost to then No. 2 Nebraska by a score of 20-13. Slow clap for playing well anyone?
Considering this was a team that went 4-7 overall in year four of the John Jardine era, perhaps a moral victory was a good thing. UW was part of the formula that got the Huskers the No. 1 overall strength of schedule and the 5th-best SRS score of the 1973 season, where it rated at 25.89.
Running back Tony Davis was the star for that team, along with All-American defensive lineman John Dutton. He’d go on to be a first round NFL draft pick in 1974, going No. 5 overall to the Baltimore Colts.
As we’re getting closer and closer to the top spot, it’s clear that UW has really had some difficult opponents back in the day.
I was shocked to see any Cal team on this list, especially with Wisconsin having another opponent with a C at the beginning to think about (Colorado in the mid-1990’s ICYWW). However, the 1949 Cal Golden Bears team was one of the best to possibly ever visit Camp Randall.
Yep, Wisconsin fans were actually treated to a good opponent in non-conference play. Cal went from No. 10 in the first AP poll of that season to No. 3 by the end of the year and Wisconsin was part of it, losing 35-20 to the Golden Bears.
Cal’s SRS that season was 27.00, and it shouldn’t be surprising when you see Cal held eight of its 11 opponents to two touchdowns or less. This team was also the last Cal team to make it to the Rose Bowl.
Notre Dame, 1964
Trying to figure out the top three on this list was almost impossible, because the Badgers lost to three of the all-time great teams in college football history. Included on that list is the 1964 Notre Dame Fighting Irish. Few knew it before the game, but after Wisconsin lost 31-7 to Ara Parseghian’s first Irish team it was off to the races for ND.
It would take a few more weeks, but Notre Dame would eventually jump to No. 1 in the AP rankings and spent four weeks at the top. Had it not been a season-ending 20-17 loss to rival USC we’d be talking about a rare feat — Wisconsin playing a national champion in its non-conference schedule.
Wisconsin got beat badly by the eventual Heisman Trophy winner, quarterback John Huarte and an offense that was one of the best in Irish history. Wide receiver Jack Snow was a major recipient of that, picking up 60 receptions for a staggering 1,114 yards and nine of the 16 touchdown passes Huarte threw that season.
However, there are two teams UW faced hat impress me more.
Simply put, Wisconsin had no chance against a Naval Academy team that was undefeated (including a tie against No. 2 Notre Dame) as it came to Camp Randall. Dick Dunden, an All-American end that season, led the way for a team packed with talent that finished behind only national champion Army and runner-up Alabama that season.
Just how good was this team in the WWII era? Try eight straight games with allowing just one touchdown or less.
This Navy team, which Wisconsin played to end the portion of the season before annual clash with Army, went in to that game with the knowledge they could set up an all-Military academy matchup for the national title.
Army went on to defeat Navy 32-13 on Dec. 1, 1945 in perhaps the most hyped game in college football history to that point. With war happening, national identity and military feelings were at a high and the two football teams also happened to be really good too.
Navy may have lost that final contest to arch-rival Army, but it can be argued this was the best team to ever come to Camp Randall Stadium, EVER.
Best Non-Conference Opponent in Badgers History: Notre Dame, 1943
As much as one could argue about the 1945 Navy team, there is but one answer to the trivia question of which national championship team played Wisconsin at Camp Randall in non-conference play, and that answer is the 1943 Notre Dame Fighting Irish.
It’s also hard to argue UW has ever faced a better team, conference or non-conference than this one. UW lost 50-0 to the Irish in Week 4 of the season, and it could’ve been way worse. Notre Dame allowed just 18 points to Western Conference (the previous name of the Big Ten Conference) opponents in 4 games, scoring 157 while mowing down nearly half of the conference.
There was but one blip on the radar, a 19-14 loss to the Great Lakes Navy team (a team made up of naval boot camp recruits) to end the 1943 season. It didn’t matter much, as Notre Dame went wire-to-wire as the No. 1 team in the country.
With names like Heisman Trophy winning quarterback Angelo Bertelli and running back Creighton Miller on the roster, this team was bound for glory. It was also the first title for famed coach Frank Leahy and the fourth for Notre Dame in its history.
Just how much more dominant was this team than any UW has faced in non-conference play? Its 34.77 SRS rating is nearly six points higher than the next closest team in that rating category.
While there were other teams in consideration, one thing became clear in this exercise — Wisconsin used to play some awesome opponents, but man have things been terrible since Barry Alvarez arrived on campus. In fact, the Badgers haven’t hosted a great team at Camp Randall in non-conference play since I was all of nine months old (No. 14 UCLA in 1982). In fact, in over 100 non-conference games overall (home and away) since 1981, the Badgers have played less than 10 percent of those games against a ranked opponent and haven’t hosted a ranked team since playing No. 19 Fresno State way back in 2001.
Playing games against the likes of LSU and Alabama are nice pieces to have on the resume, fans deserve more while paying to attend games at Camp Randall Stadium. They also deserve more from the Big Ten, which will be remedied next season as things rotate for the East division opponents played.
One has to wonder what it would’ve been like to see the Badgers program at the heights it is at now playing a schedule like UW did back in the 1940’s and 60’s. Hopefully fans will get to be treated to more intriguing matchups sooner rather than later.