PASADENA, CA - JANUARY 01:  Interim head coach Barry Alvarez looks on in the first half against the Stanford Cardinal in the 99th Rose Bowl Game Presented by Vizio on January 1, 2013 at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California.  (Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)

Who were Wisconsin’s best and worst non-conference football opponents ever?

It’s the offseason, and that means countless hours of pouring over history and finding crazy stats for you, the loyal Wisconsin Badgers fan and MTB reader.

One of the most maddening talking points in past offseason’s has been the utter lack of anything exciting on the Badgers non-conference schedule. Sure, Arizona State, Oregon State and a few others have visited the venerable grounds of Camp Randall. But, up until last year when was the last time anyone was excited about a non-conference game that didn’t involve a mouth-watering trip to Honolulu in November or December?

The utter lack of difficult opponents period was clearly getting on the nerves of fans just a few short years ago. AD Barry Alvarez attempted to solve that with a two-game neutral site series with LSU and a one-off game at AT&T Stadium in Dallas, Texas against Alabama.

No doubt it is a start, but with none of those schools visiting Camp Randall, many fans who can’t afford those lavish trips over bowl game travels around the holidays are still left with paying for crappy games.

This season UW plays cupcakes like Hawaii, Miami (OH) and Troy — jump up, jump up and get…disappointed!

It also sparked us to do our history and try to give some perspective on things. So we’ve dug in to the way back machine and looked at the non-conference history of the Wisconsin Badgers.

The difficult process was finding a way to look at the non-conference opponents and break them down. Here is how we came up with our criteria:

  •  SRS ratings: Thank you to the folks over at Sports-Reference.com for coming up with a historical way to at least gauge what teams were like in a specific season. The basic gist is “The rating is denominated in points above/below average, where zero is average, although it should be noted that margin of victory has been assigned a lower bound of 7 points and an upper bound of 24 points”.
  • Basically, they take points scored versus points given up and give it all value…or you can read more in depth if you need that explanation.
  • NO FCS TEAMS — Sorry, the rankings of these teams are even more arbitrary than the FBS version, and frankly the SRS system doesn’t recognize them as individual teams. So, those opponents are out the door.

With all of that out of the way…just which teams were in the running for the “worst non-conference opponent in Badgers history?”

Out of the 235 qualified non-conference games (that also weren’t bowl games), the Badgers have played 110 games against teams that finished the season with a negative SRS rating. Of those 110 games, sadly the worst of the worst have nearly all come since Barry Alvarez took over the program. In fact all but two of the worst 10 SRS rated non-conference opponents have come since 1990.

Needless to say some have been embarrassingly bad, but there are 10 that take the cake and here they are:

Hawaii, 1996

The Warriors (as they were known after being named the Rainbow Warriors and now named that again), were downright awful in 1996 under head coach Fred Vonappen. Hawaii had a SRS rating of -16.71 and finished the season 105th of 111 teams in that category.

No player rushed for over 394 yards, while quarterback Glenn Freitas passed for just 1,157 yards and had just eight touchdown passes to 12 interceptions. In fact, adding Freitas’ rushing totals, he still had fewer TDs than interceptions on the season.

This Hawaii team was bad, and Wisconsin crushed them 59-10 to end the regular season.

Buffalo, 2006

It may be a bit unfair to call this team terrible, because it was the first year of the Turner Gill era and Gill’s teams went on to be the best Buffalo has ever had at the FBS level. Still, this team wasn’t very good, ranking 116th of 119 teams in the SRS ratings.

This was a team with some future stars though, as running back James Starks went on to put up 704 yards in his first season at the school. He’d go on to run for over 1,000 yards in both of the next two seasons at Buffalo. Beyond that, there really wasn’t a bright spot on the roster in 2006.

As for the game against UW, the Badgers beat down the Bulls in a 34-3 victory. The Badgers allowed just 154 total yards to Buffalo and racked up 436 total yards of their own, including 308 yards through the air. Quarterback Tyler Donovan had a field day, going 16 of 26 for 308 yards and two touchdowns.

Temple, 2005

Playing a team that goes 0 for 11 on the season should tell you all you need to know. However, this team was downright pitiful in 2005. Just how bad? Try quarterback Mike McGann completing just 48.8 percent of his passes and throwing just three touchdowns to 13…yes, THIRTEEN interceptions.

Wisconsin dispatched Temple 65-0 for the only blanking Temple got that season. The Owls had just five games in which they scored in double figures, if you needed any more proof of how bad this team was. However, it wasn’t the worst in FBS football according to the SRS rating, with its -17.06 ranking just 112th of 119 teams.

It may be hard to believe, but there were worst teams on UW’s schedule and even more recently than Temple too.

Western Michigan, 1963

Finally, an opponent not from the Barry Alvarez era at UW, huh? While a MAC opponent being on this list may not be surprising, it may be a bit unfair to put the Broncos on it as this was just WMU’s second season of what would become FBS football. Still, a 2-7 season and an SRS rating of -17.69 gets them on the list.

It was especially troubling for fans of the program after seeing it go 5-4 in the debut season, even more so knowing all of the two wins it had came in conference play alone. Wisconsin took the Broncos to the woodshed in a 41-0 victory for the No. 7 ranked Badgers.

Quarterback Ken Barnhill was a complete disaster in this matchup and on the season. He managed to complete just 38.8 percent of his passes and had just one passing touchdown to 10 interceptions on the season. He may take the cake as the worst single quarterback the Badgers have ever faced honestly.

UNLV, 2011

Sept. 1, 2011 may go down as one of the most memorable moments in recent Badger history, and that’s because it was the debut contest for quarterback Russell Wilson. Most weren’t sure what to make of the North Carolina State transfer, but he led UW to a comfortable 51-17 victory at Camp Randall Stadium and the rest was history-making from the QB.

UNLV was also not very good, but Wilson carved them up for 255 yards passing on just 10 completions (13 attempts) and added 62 yards rushing and three total touchdowns in the winning effort that day.

The Rebels would finish the season with an SRS rating of -17.72 and were 114th of 120 FBS teams in that category. UNLV would give up 40-plus points in seven of the 12 games it played that season, including 50-plus points in three games.

Not a good look in a second season for a head coach, yet Bobby Hauck got another three years to prove he wasn’t going to turn UNLV in to a winning program at all.

Northern Illinois, 2007

It would only be natural to see one game against Northern Illinois make this list, as NIU is the second-most played non-conference opponent that still sports a football team (the top is Notre Dame believe it or not). Of the 13 contests against the Huskies, the 2007 version was easily the worst UW has ever seen.

Northern Illinois finished the season just 2-10 and were the last placed team in the SRS ratings that year, coming in at a paltry -18.11. For comparisons sake, Iowa, a fellow Big Ten team won just 16-3 over NIU and UW would go on to crush them 44-3 in game No. 8 of the season.

Just how bad were NIU? The Huskies mustered up all of 99 total yards and finished the day with -13 yards rushing to UW’s 331. Talk about U-G-L-Y…

Yet, NIU’s 2007 season and that game wasn’t even close to the cream of the crop of the worst UW has seen across from it on the field.

UMass, 2013

Having covered this team online since 2011, I can simply say this is the single worst team I’ve seen the Badgers play in person — and I’m including FCS teams that have come to slaughter at UW (although the Austin Peay team of 2010 may also be up there).

Wisconsin took down the Minutemen 45-0 and it could’ve been a lot worse had Gary Andersen wanted to make a real statement in his debut. The Badgers used Melvin Gordon and James White to perfection, with the duo both going over 140 yards and debutant running back Corey Clement needed just 16 carries to get over the 100-yard mark in his first game as a Badger.

UMass went on to average just over 11 points per game and finished the season as one of just four UW opponents to ever have a minus-20 or worse SRS rating. Let’s just say this game was brutal to take in if you cared about learning anything positive or negative about your football team. About the only thing we all found out was that Corey Clement was probably going to be a star running back one day.

UCF, 2004

The Golden Knights (as they were known in 2004) hadn’t been in FBS football for a decade yet when they came to Camp Randall, yet they had yet to also suffer an 0-for season as well. That all changed in 2004, as UCF were blanked and finished the season 0-11.

Who knew that a horrid beginning to the George O’Leary era would go on to see the Knights become a power school able to move all the way from the MAC to what is now the American Athletic Conference and a potential target for Big 12 expansion (should it ever happen).

As for that game in 2004, No. 21 Wisconsin took down UCF 34-6 in the season opener. UW’s defense dominated, allowing just 53 yards rushing and 230 yards overall compared to 400 total yards for the Badgers offense.

It was the UCF defense that did this team in more than anything, as QB Steven Moffett was at least serviceable enough to win one game (64.2 comp. rate, 1,721 yards and nine touchdowns to 10 INTs). So was running back Alex Haynes, who rushed for 854 yards and five touchdowns on the year.

However, UCF went winless and put up a SRS rating of -21.60, which ranked them 118th of 120 teams in FBS football that season. Pretty brutal indeed.

Marquette, 1956

Wisconsin and Marquette were once an annual football, not just basketball, rival of sorts. I say that because can you really call a team you went 32-4 against in all of your history a rival?

Just three short seasons later the Golden Avalanche, as the football team was known, were no longer. However, the 1956 edition of this team was easily the worst it every put out and one could argue it was also the worst Wisconsin ever faced. That’s saying a lot considering Wisconsin wasn’t exactly a great football team either.

UW won the game 41-0 in Week 2 of the 1956 season and it was just one of three games that season where Marquette was blanked. In fact, Marquette would go on score one touchdown or less in five of nine games that year.

Oh, and then there is this whole thing where the team threw for just three touchdowns, while also averaging 128.2 yards per game. If you can’t throw the football, you better be running it well and Marquette was awful at both during the 1956 season.

Worst Non-Conference Opponent in Badgers History: Ball State, 1999

As bad as the other nine teams were, there’s one team that easily takes the cake. That team is the 1999 Ball State Cardinals. While three other teams were in the minus-20 category, no team was as bad in the HISTORY of non-conference opponents than Ball State was, coming in at -23.79 in SRS rating.

Ball State has been one of the most consistent teams in the history of MAC football, with winning season more than the norm. However, since 1975 this team had one no-win season and it just so happened to be the same year Wisconsin took the Cardinals on — 1999.

Wisconsin won the game 50-10 and it was the largest loss that season for Ball State. Considering what UW did the rest of the season, doing that against lowly Ball State shouldn’t be too surprising.

now on to the best of UW’s non-conference opponents….

Andrew Coppens

About Andrew Coppens

Andy is a member of the Football Writers Association of America (FWAA). He is the Managing Editor of MadTownBadger and associate editor of Bloguin's World Cup site, 32flags.com as well as Publisher of Big Ten site talking10.com

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