Since the B1G separated its teams into East and West divisions for the 2014 season, Wisconsin has risen to a position where anything less than a spot in the conference championship game is a disappointment. The program failed to reach its minimum goal in 2021, and fans have to blame somebody. Much of their wrath is being aimed at head coach Paul Chryst.

If you polled every Badgers supporter, the majority would argue Chryst should not be fired — and it wouldn’t be close. But irrationality can be a fun part of being a fan. Chryst will not be fired, and he is nowhere near any sort of hot seat discussion as we look ahead to the 2022 season.

But he will be criticized until Wisconsin reaches the B1G title game again, and rightfully so, because the Badgers should be preparing for Michigan this week instead of waiting to find out their bowl destination. However, he has been a very successful hire for Wisconsin, and there’s a good chance he will continue to hold his dream job as long as he wants.

Reasons to be optimistic

Had Wisconsin finished the job and ended the 2021 regular season on an 8-game winning streak with a win over Minnesota on Saturday, Chryst would’ve been applauded for one of the best coaching jobs in his 7 years leading the Badgers. But it didn’t, and he wasn’t.

Still, it’s impossible to ignore the winning culture that has continued under Chryst when you look at some of the top programs in the country struggling despite having far better resources than Wisconsin will ever have. Just looking at the 2021 season, USC and Florida State do not have 10 wins combined, Texas lost 6 games in a row, LSU needed a last-minute touchdown to reach a bowl game and Florida allowed 42 points to Samford before halftime.

Those programs have players far more talented on their roster than the Badgers do, but they have clear cultural issues that Wisconsin does not have. Things could’ve gotten really ugly after a 1-3 start to the season, but Wisconsin’s players continued to buy in and never quit on the season, which happens in many locker rooms across the country every fall. Teams often take on the personality of the head coach, and Chryst’s not-too-high, not-too-low demeanor was a benefit, because players fought till the very end.

When analyzing the outlook going forward, it’s hard to ignore Wisconsin’s recent recruiting success. The Badgers finished the highest they’ve ever been in the 247Sports class rankings for 3 consecutive years. Wisconsin certainly won’t do that for a 4th year in a row with a smaller class size, but the Badgers are in the mix for 4 uncommitted 4-star prospects with the Early Signing Period just weeks away.

Finally, Chryst brings a great level of stability to the program. He is in a spot where he wants to be, and Wisconsin does not want to bring in anybody else if it doesn’t have to. That combination makes it a whole lot easier to sell Badgers football to recruits.

It wasn’t too long ago that Wisconsin started to be looked at as a not-so-good job, with 3 head coaches within a little more than 2 years. When coaches continue to move in and out, that’s when recruiting classes suffer and players start leaving, especially now with immediate eligibility for transfers. As they left for worse jobs, Bret Bielema criticized Wisconsin for its assistant coach pay, and Gary Andersen was not pleased with admission standards.

Andersen’s sudden exit was incredibly fortunate considering he was going away from everything that had made Wisconsin successful, and his next head coaching jobs have been total failures. Chryst came in at the perfect time and got the Badgers back on track.

Room for questioning

This comparison was going to be inevitable all season long, but Jack Coan clearly had a better season at Notre Dame than Graham Mertz did at Wisconsin. We may never get the full story of what the conversations were between the coaching staff and Coan during and after the 2020 season, but whatever the discussions were, it seems highly likely Chryst did not guarantee him the starting quarterback job for 2021.

Chryst was likely ready to turn over the offense to his prized recruit with Mertz, and while it’s impossible to know how Coan would’ve performed in this version of Wisconsin’s offense, that was a mistake. Coan was put in a bad position where he could’ve spent his final college season as a backup to Mertz, but he has Notre Dame in position to potentially sneak into the College Football Playoff as he guided the Irish to an 11-1 record, completing 67.6% of his passes for 2,641 yards with 20 touchdowns and 5 interceptions. Meanwhile, Wisconsin went 8-4 despite having an elite-level defense as Mertz completed 58.7% of his throws for 1,821 yards with 9 touchdowns and 10 interceptions.

In the 4 losses, Wisconsin’s passing game was atrocious as Mertz completed 52.7% of his passes and threw for just 2 touchdowns while turning the ball over 9 times (7 INTs, 2 fumbles lost). Coan had the benefit of playing with an NFL-caliber wide receiver in Quintez Cephus in his lone year as the Badgers’ full-time starter, but it’s tough to say he still wouldn’t have put up better numbers for Wisconsin than Mertz in 2021.

Wisconsin’s offensive line was an issue early on in the season as the running game struggled to get going and Mertz wasn’t being protected. Throughout the first few games, the Badgers tried different lineman combinations, which was strange and probably delayed the unit’s ability to settle into a rhythm. Eventually, the coaching staff settled on using a set 5 for the most part, and the group played much better, though it took longer than expected.

Chryst has not been more criticized than he was late in the fourth quarter against Minnesota in a bizarre sequence of events. Facing a 4th-and-1 with less than 5 minutes to go trailing by 10 points, Wisconsin brought out the punt team. After a false start on the punt, the Badgers were backed up 5 yards before Chryst put the offense back on the field and wasted a timeout.

Wisconsin ended up converting the 4th-down play, but the whole situation made no sense with the Badgers trailing by 2 possessions. Chryst’s explanation after the game did not clear things up, and he certainly opened himself up to a ton of deserved criticism because he made an embarrassing mistake in the most disappointing loss of the season.

Had Wisconsin pulled off a miracle comeback, that would’ve largely been forgotten just like a questionable decision in a win over Army earlier in the season was. The Badgers could’ve gone for 2 to make it a two-touchdown lead, but Chryst decided to go with an extra point for a 13-point advantage to make it a 20-7 game before Army scored quickly to cut the lead down to 6. Had the Black Knights recovered an onside kick and scored a touchdown, they would’ve won with an extra point. It didn’t make sense at the time, and Chryst’s postgame explanation made even less sense.

Fortunately for Chryst, the Badgers hung on to win that game, and he avoided the criticism he eventually received in a brutal loss in the regular season finale.

All of that gives fans fodder for venting, but it doesn’t erase 7 years of program stability. Paul Chryst’s job security remains as solid at Wisconsin’s defense.