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Is Wisconsin football on the verge of a collapse?

Before the season started, I went through several of the best seasons in Wisconsin football history based on various criteria. I’d love to encourage you to read those, but you’ll see a handful of overly-optimistic takes about the season.

Actually, nevermind. Go dig ‘em up and send them to @OldTakesExposed. That’s how you know you’ve made it.

After being eliminated form the Big Ten Championship Game two weeks to go, this season clearly won’t be considered one of the best in Badger history. That got me thinking—is this the beginning of something terrible?

And yes, there will be charts.

Is Wisconsin trending downward?

There is a huge difference between asking if Wisconsin is crashing or if it is heading into a crash (that’s the next section), and I will start off with the easy one.

Let’s take a look at Wisconsin’s 20-year moving average win percentage. If you’re unfamiliar with moving averages, check out Investopedia, which describes it quite nicely. They key thing to remember is that moving averages expose trends that already exist and they are not predictive (unless the moving averages cross, which we will cover later). Also, keep in mind that since the moving average is in winning percentage, it is harder to increase the moving average when it moves closer to 100 percent.

I picked the 20-year moving average because it is generally resistant to short-term fluctuation. When the 20-year moving averages, well, move, it indicates a tangible, long-term shift in performance. I could pick the five or 10-year moving averages, but those would be overly-sensitive to blips in the radar (ah hem, Gary Andersen).

In the graph below, the blue line is the winning percentage each year and the red line is the moving average. One thing to look for is obviously which way the red line goes, but also where the data lies in comparison to the moving average. Is the team over-performing the moving average, indicating growth? Or is the moving average in the middle of the data? Or worse, is the data below the moving average (indicating a downturn)?


The moving average indicates four historical periods in Wisconsin football:

  1. Declining from 1910–50 after a strong start
  2. Trending upward from 1951–64
  3. Trending downward from 1965–90
  4. Trending upward from 1991–2017

The moving average indicates that Wisconsin is not crashing and it has generally stagnated since 2010.

Let’s keep in mind that the moving average is just a tick above 70 percent right now. That means, all things considered, Wisconsin is an 8–4/9–3 program according to the 20-year moving average.

Another thing to watch is the 10-year and 20-year moving averages together, which is the next chart.


Notice how, when the 10 and 20-year moving averages cross over, that can indicate a trend change. For example, the 20-year moving average is dipping slightly in 2018 like it did in the mid-’60s. However, notice how the 10-year crossed below the 20-year in 1965, which preceded a long drought for the Badgers.

The good news is the 10 and 20-year moving averages haven’t crossed over since the mid-’90s, which provides no indication of a downturn. Of course, it also does not provide indication of the absence of a downturn.

Don’t fret too much about UW’s 20-year moving average stabilizing at 71 percent. I know it seems low, but keep in mind Alabama’s 20-year moving average is currently at 75 percent. However ‘Bama is amazingly trending upward significantly from that mark while UW is holding steady.


What indicators would alert us to a crash?

The sky isn’t falling, but it might. So what signs would tell us that another dark age might be coming for UW?

1. Wisconsin’s 10 and 20-year moving averages cross

I mentioned this in the previous section, but the crossing of the moving averages can give some indication of a crash. Let’s take a look at other programs that have crashed recently and what their moving averages looked like. If Wisconsin sees some of these patterns in the 10 and 20-year moving averages, panic.


Notice how violently the 10-year moving average crossed over in the early 2000’s for Nebraska, which signaled a steep downturn.


In contrast with Nebraska, notice how gently the 10-year moving average crosses over here for Florida, which indicated a less severe downturn.

We could go through a million of these, but the key for this indicator isn’t just that the moving averages cross, it’s how violently they cross.

2. Wisconsin starts setting new lows (seven losses in a season)

Since 2005, Wisconsin has won 10+ games in nine seasons while winning less than 10 games only four times. From 1892 to 2004, it won 10+ games only three times! Sure, that is a wildly misleading statistic, as they play more games now, but there is a new pattern for UW. If Wisconsin starts struggling over the next few years to hit the 10-win mark and it starts matching its previous worst seasons (see chart), it might warrant some concern.

Wisconsin’s Worst Seasons Since…

Season Losses
Season Losses
2018 4+
2013 4
2012 6
2001 7
1990 10

As it stands, Wisconsin is tied at a five-year low. Five-year lows happen and you can expect to overcome them in five years. However, if Wisconsin starts dipping into that seven-loss mark, then “worst season in 20ish years” could signal a shift in the program.

If Wisconsin loses seven in a season, panic. Unfortunately, that panic could come this season, as UW has a nonzero chance of losing its last four games of the season.

3. Sudden coaching change

On Halloween, Jon wrote a story arguing that Paul Chryst is the right person to lead UW, and he ended by warning us about how certain programs fell significantly because of coaching changes. Bo Pelini was a .700 coach at Nebraska and the Huskers have yet to hit that mark since firing him. Similar stories are out there for Texas’s Mack Brown and Tennessee’s Phillip Fulmer.

Now, Wisconsin is probably not the school to fire Paul Chryst for a handful of four-loss seasons. However, Wisconsin has been sent to the bottom of the barrel thanks to a sudden coaching change.

The Dave McClain years at Wisconsin weren’t great, but UW began to put some talent on the field in the early ‘80s. However, after McClain unexpectedly passed away, Wisconsin crumbled until the Barry Alvarez renaissance.

Keep eating your green, leafy vegetables, Paul.

4. Walk-on program falters

As analytics improve, the barrier to becoming recognized by major programs is decreasing. I don’t know if this could happen, but if Wisconsin’s hidden walk-on gems are easier for other schools to find, one major cornerstone of the program could crumble.

5. Wisconsin loses to Minnesota

Remember what I said about Wisconsin’s record since 2005? Well, Wisconsin hasn’t lost to Minnesota since then (since 2003 to be exact). Further, Wisconsin’s historical trends are associated with its performance vs. Minnesota.

Wisconsin’s Historical Trends and Success vs. Minnesota

Era Trend Record Against Minnesota Winning % Against Minnesota
Era Trend Record Against Minnesota Winning % Against Minnesota
1910-1950 Down 18-37-5 34.17%
1951-1964 Up 8-4-3 63.33%
1965-1990 Down 11-15 42.31%
1991-2017 Up 33-4 89.19%

Could you say this about any team? Yes and no. The Big Ten isn’t big enough for two burrowing animals, and if Minnesota decides it wants to beat Wisconsin, that would signal a downturn more strongly than a series of losses to Penn State or Michigan.

6. Football (at Wisconsin or otherwise) becomes less popular

I think we take it for granted that football is going to be loved forever. But if people, for any reason, decide to stop watching (particularly those with disposable income), Wisconsin may not have the infrastructure of Ohio State or Michigan to sustain success if football goes bearish.

In conclusion

Wisconsin is historically vulnerable to having long stretches of downward trends, and it is frankly due to go into a long drought. However, being “due” doesn’t mean anything is more likely to happen; it is simply that Wisconsin is prone to fall off.

Sustained success is difficult for Wisconsin football, and while I do not see evidence of the program crashing, disaster might be lurking around the corner.



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