Last January, there was very little reason to think of USC or TCU as College Football Playoff contenders.

Neither program had even held its first practice of a new coaching regime. USC was coming off its worst season since 1991. TCU had run off the coach who had been the face of the program since 2001.

Though fans of both programs had plenty of reason to be optimistic about new coaches Lincoln Riley and Sonny Dykes, only the borderline delusional could have envisioned either team as a College Football Playoff contender in 2022.

Yet that’s what happened.

USC was in the Playoff picture until losing to Utah in the Pac-12 championship game. TCU notably beat Big Ten champion Michigan in the CFP semifinal before its pants fell off against Georgia in front of a nationwide audience on Monday night. Both wildly exceeded what seemed possible prior to those disappointing endings.

The game has changed.

In the old days — like, 4 years ago — you didn’t expect program turnarounds to take root until Year 3. Maybe Year 2 if the previous coach recruited well enough but was just a doofus when it came to calling plays.

When looking across the national landscape, there is 1 program clearly positioned to make the same leap in 2023 that USC and TCU did this season.


The Badgers are in many ways a hybrid of where the Horned Frogs and Trojans found themselves last offseason.

How Wisconsin is like 2022 TCU

It’s a bit reductive to compare Gary Patterson to Paul Chryst. Patterson’s more accurate comp is Barry Alvarez — the coach who came in and changed everything about the face of the program.

In Patterson’s tenure, TCU built such a strong brand that the Horned Frogs hopped all the way from Conference-USA to the Mountain West to the Big 12 in the course of a decade. TCU’s rapid ascent is arguably without parallel in modern college history.

However, there is definitely something Patterson shares in common with Chryst. Though both coaches had great success, something just wasn’t right at the end.

Patterson, who won 69.6% of his games at TCU, had 2 losing seasons in his final 3. He resigned 8 games into 2021 with a 3-5 record.

Chryst, who won 72% of his games at Wisconsin, never had a losing season. But the Badgers fell well short of expectations and potential in his final 2 years. He was fired after Wisconsin started 2-3 for the second straight season.

In both instances, outsiders might wonder what each program was thinking by making a change. But sometimes it is simply a matter of breathing fresh air into something that is successful but stale.

How Wisconsin is like 2022 USC

Since the advent of the College Football Playoff in 2014, no coach who reached the CFP ever left his school for another college program.

Urban Meyer, Chris Petersen and Mark Dantonio all retired from their posts. (Though in Meyer’s case, as always, it was “retirement.”)

Ed Orgeron spontaneously combusted at LSU. It wasn’t until last year, when Brian Kelly left Notre Dame for LSU and Lincoln Riley left Oklahoma for USC, that this changed.

Proven Playoff coaches are now on the move. And Wisconsin is the latest beneficiary, pulling in Luke Fickell 2 years after he led Cincinatti to an unlikely Playoff run.

Riley turned USC from 4-8 a year ago to 11-3 in his first season. Kelly boosted LSU from 6-7 to 10-4. Good coaching matters. And the 7-6 team that Fickell inherits is in better condition than what Riley, Kelly or Dykes found upon their arrivals. Wisconsin is still riding a 20-year bowl streak.

What Wisconsin has in common with both teams

The Badgers share 1 massively important commonality with the 2022 Trojans — the new coach is bringing in a hand-picked quarterback that fits his offense.

Riley brought Caleb Williams with him from Oklahoma, and Williams went and won the Heisman Trophy.

Fickell and new offensive coordinator Phil Longo have a hand-picked quarterback, though he hasn’t played for either coach. But he has played for Dykes and Riley.

Tanner Mordecai has back-to-back seasons passing for more than 3,500 yards and 30 touchdowns at SMU following his transfer from Oklahoma. Dykes coached at SMU before moving from Dallas to Fort Worth for the TCU job.

Thus, Mordecai is perfect hybrid of Dykes and Riley’s offensive systems, quite literally personified.

How Wisconsin differs from both teams

USC went all-in on the transfer portal last offseason. Riley brought in a whopping 20 transfers, resulting in 247 Sports’ top-ranked transfer class.

TCU was slightly choosier, sprinkling in 14 transfers. But they rated as the nation’s No. 13 transfer class. (It should be noted these things don’t guarantee success — Nebraska was the No. 7 transfer class, and Miami ranked 12th.)

Fickell has done a good job addressing Wisconsin’s needs so far, adding Oklahoma backup QB Nick Evers in addition to Mordecai. The Badgers also signed Michigan State transfer defensive end Jeff Pietrowski. But Wisconsin’s transfer class currently rates just 28th nationally with 8 players arriving.

Of course, that’s also a partial reflection of how much more Wisconsin already has in the cupboard than TCU or USC did a year ago. The Badgers don’t have to act quite as aggressively.

A favorable, but not soft, schedule

Scheduling is sometimes half the battle when it comes to putting together a special season. And in that regard, fortune could smile upon Wisconsin in 2023.

There is a nonconference test at Washington State. Going to the West Coast is never easy, and the Cougars beat Wisconsin at Camp Randall last year. But things get pretty favorable thereafter.

Most important, Wisconsin misses Michigan and Penn State in East crossover games. The Badgers get Rutgers and Indiana. And though Wisconsin has to play Ohio State again, at least it’s in Madison.

Iowa and Nebraska could be tests next season, but both are at home. A road trip to Illinois — which is wedged between the Iowa and Ohio State games — might be the only thing capable of preventing the Oct. 28 game between the Badgers and Buckeyes from being a top-10 showdown.

And even if Wisconsin loses that game, it’s plausible the Badgers will be able to reach the Big Ten championship game at 11-1. An 11-1 team playing for the Big Ten title is always going to be part of the Playoff conversation.

Should that be the expectation for Luke Fickell in his first season at Wisconsin? Absolutely not. Hiccups are much more likely that perfection or anything close to it.

But Wisconsin fans shouldn’t be afraid to dream big. As USC and TCU showed this season, a rebuild doesn’t have to be a multi-year project. And when you’re building on a foundation as solid as Wisconsin’s, the chances of success could be high.