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The 2020 season was like getting a sweater at Christmas for the University of Wisconsin football team.

It was better than nothing, and the team appreciated the chance to play at all after the season looked to be lost. But it wasn't what the Badgers wanted, and it was memorable for the wrong reasons. Before they put it in the back of the closet and forget about it, the Badgers have to do something with their 4-3 season.

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They have to own it.

“People are making excuses for last year for us,” senior linebacker Jack Sanborn said. “As a team, I mean, those games happened. Those games, we went out there, we got beat. And that's just another thing that we’ll learn from.

“Look at it, learn from it and use that to then go into this year and have a better year. I think with the coaching staff that we have, the players that we have, the talent is there and everything. I think that we have a great shot. It just matters what we do in between the lines.”

UW has a list of convenient sources to choose from when examining its issues from a year ago. The COVID-19 outbreak that hit the team after its first game infected key players like quarterback Graham Mertz and multiple coaches, injuries to top receivers Danny Davis and Kendric Pryor limited the passing game and limited practice time hurt a program built on development rather than rolling out a roster full of top-end talent.

But other issues — namely inefficient red-zone offense and a lack of turnover creation from an otherwise strong defense — cost them chances at wins against Indiana and Iowa. For all the things that were out of their control a year ago, the Badgers’ missed opportunities on the field are what they’re focused on correcting as they open training camp this week.

“One thing I've seen was guys coming together, guys putting in the extra work,” senior cornerback Faion Hicks said. “Even after doing workouts, whether it’s film or going on the field and doing something extra with a technique. And this is for every position. That's actually my first time ever seeing anything like that since I’ve been here. … So that kind of made me realize this team is going to be different.”

A number of outlets, including Athlon Sports, Cleveland.com’s media poll and ESPN, have picked the Badgers to win the Big Ten Conference’s West Division and earn a spot in the league’s title game. If that comes to pass, it would continue the program’s recent run of up-and-down seasons.

After going undefeated in the regular season and winning the Orange Bowl in 2017, the Badgers went 8-5 in 2018. They followed that with 2019’s 10-4 campaign that included a Big Ten West title and a Rose Bowl berth.

If the offense can stay healthy, senior tight end Jake Ferguson believes the struggles of 2020 won’t carry over.

“It feels like we have all the right pieces in the right places right now, and I’m excited,” he said. “It feels like everybody's bought in, it's a good locker room, it's a tight-knit group. And I mean, it just feels good to be almost back to normal, getting back to it.

“I think that's what's also getting a lot of guys excited. Making them want to work every day, making them want to come in every day and just give it everything they’ve got. I think that's going to be really special. And hopefully that builds onto this season and helps us in those first games.”

At Big Ten Media Days, UW coach Paul Chryst described how one of the lessons of last season was to appreciate playing the game and the time the team spent together.

That time was significantly decreased as the team tried to limit in-person contact to combat the virus. Even customary team meals the night before games were nixed and players connecting with family members after games was barred. UW’s locker room was also split between multiple sites to avoid too much congregation.

Some COVID issues could arise this season, but it doesn’t appear likely they’ll be as widespread as they got to be last season.

As the new season nears, Hicks said the simple fact of the Badgers being able to face challenges together — as opposed to the on-your-own feeling of 2020 — will make a difference.

“Now that we do have the opportunity (to be together), let's take advantage of this,” Hicks said.

“We realize how much it can be taken away from us and how big that can be. I see guys taking advantage of the opportunity to just be in a stadium. We couldn’t even work out together, you know? … You can see guys just happy to be with each other. That team camaraderie is kind of building. It’s amazing.”


This article originally ran on madison.com.

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