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Wisconsin coach on ‘quality teams,’ omits Illinois, Northwestern football

TEMPE AZ - SEPTEMBER 14:  Head coach Gary Andersen WisconsBadgers watches from sidelines during college football game against ArizonState

TEMPE, AZ - SEPTEMBER 14: Head coach Gary Andersen of the Wisconsin Badgers watches from the sidelines during the college football game against the Arizona State Sun Devils at Sun Devil Stadium on September 14, 2013 in Tempe, Arizona. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

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Updated: June 19, 2014 8:49AM



MADISON, Wis. — Gary Andersen sat in his office and laid out the reasons the Big Ten’s newly formed West division deserves to be looked upon with the same respect being accorded the football-power-filled East, which boasts Ohio State, Penn State and both Michigan schools.

“Let’s just talk about it. Let’s go head to head,” began Andersen, Wisconsin’s second-year coach. “Nebraska’s with us. Wisconsin’s on our side, obviously. Now you’ve got Iowa, now you’ve got Minnesota; those teams are playing with anybody in the conference week in and week out.

“So there are quality teams on both sides.”

Sure, fine, why not? Yada yada.

But did you see what Andersen did there?

If you’ve gotten your redrawn Big Ten divisions down, then you know darn well two of the ­programs Andersen left out of his argument. That’s right: Northwestern and Illinois.

Are they really twin cabooses, the worst of the West? Surely not. Well, maybe not.

Geez, hopefully not.

They were a combined 2-14 in conference play — NU’s lone victory coming against the Illini — last season, so the football skies over Evanston and Champaign might be described as gray and foreboding. Then again, the awful season was an anomaly for Pat Fitzgerald’s Wildcats. And Tim Beckman’s ­Illini, well, they have an ounce of promise in them, too.

“I’ve gotten to know them, Fitz and Tim, both good guys,” Andersen said. “They seem to do things the right way.”

But the “right” way and the Wisconsin way aren’t necessarily one and the same. The Wisconsin way involves Big Ten titles and Rose Bowls — Andersen’s predecessors, Bret Bielema and Barry Alvarez, combined for six of each. It also involves January bowl games; there have been eight of those for the Badgers in the last 10 years.

You know what else the Wisconsin way involves? Unfortunately, beating the heck out of Northwestern and Illinois. The last victory for either over the Badgers came in 2009. UW is 5-0 against the Wildcats and Illini since then, with all five victories coming by double digits —by an unsightly average of 25.6 points.

Combined score of Northwestern’s utterly miserable last two ­outings against Wisconsin? Swallow hard on this reality: 105-29.

While Indiana and expansion newcomers Maryland and Rutgers tangle with Ohio State and Michigan State in the East, NU and Illinois will have their own tall task if they’re ever going to ­ascend to the top of the West. That will mean outplaying Indiana, Minnesota, Iowa and even Nebraska — no small task.

But what it really boils down to is slaying the dragon of the West, Wisconsin — more often, anyway, than either school has since current athletic director Alvarez arrived here in 1990 and began building a sustainable football power.

The view from Andersen’s lofty perch is mighty nice.

“The ability to be able to go out and recruit and not necessarily have to sell a program, but be able to show a program, that’s different for me,” Andersen said.

“This is the biggest stage. ­Every person in this program, I hope, looks at themselves and says they have the opportunity to play in some special games, championship games. [I] could coach in the biggest game in college football at some point. How could you not think about that?”

One wonders if Fitzgerald or Beckman ever finds himself thinking about that.

Email: sgreenberg@suntimes.com

Twitter: @slgreenberg



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