By OnMilwaukee Staff Writers   Published Sep 17, 2006 at 5:14 AM
Bret Bielema has some mighty big shoes to fill now that he has taken control of the University of Wisconsin football team.

During Barry Alvarez’s 16-year tenure as head coach, the Badgers emerged from the wilderness to win three Rose Bowl and Big Ten Championships, while putting Wisconsin back on the national map.

While Bielema will be expected to carry on that legacy, here’s hoping he will distance himself from his predecessor in one very important way.

It’s time to ditch the doormats that annually dot Bucky’s non-conference schedule. A quick glace at some of the recent opponents have produced more hyphens that victories and Wisconsin would be well served by moving its program away from the guarantee games.

While San Diego State and Bowling Green aren’t exactly USC or Ohio State, they’re a step up from Western Illinois (a Division I-AA school) and Buffalo, which will come to Camp Randall in the season finale.

Many of these teams agree to play teams like Wisconsin because the guaranteed payday fills a pretty big hole in athletic department budgets. But, as Northwestern learned the hard way by way of a loss at home to New Hampshire, the outcome is hardly written in stone.

Playing one team to open the season is understandable; no sense in beating your team up while you’re trying to figure out who’s who and where they will play. But there is a statute of limitations.  Alvarez often said the Big Ten schedule was hard enough, but you have to think that the back-to-back, nationally-televised butt-kickings administered by Colorado in 1994 and ‘95 may have left a sour note in his mouth.

Bielema, however, cannot be intimidated. Wisconsin has been on the cusp of national prominence for the past decade, but thanks to the lack of a blue-chip quarterback and an unthinkable loss at Cincinnati have never really been in the national championship hunt.

Look at the Badgers’ last two trips to Pasadena. More than one observer questioned Wisconsin’s credentials due to a less than stellar non-conference schedule. If the Badgers ever expect to compete for a national championship, they need to leave the directional schools and perennial doormats alone.

Nobody is expecting a matchup along the lines of last week’s Ohio State-Texas showdown. But it shouldn’t be too much of a stretch to try and play similar, not-quite-upper-echelon-teams from other BCS conferences.

The Big Ten gets enough criticism as it is for teams often missing the top opponents in the conference due to the 11-team scheduling rotation, so it’s even more important for teams like Wisconsin -- who will always play second fiddle to Michigan and Ohio State -- to help their own causes.

A game with Kansas State -- which is similar to Wisconsin in many ways, and is Bielema’s former employer -- would be a solid step in the right direction. There are plenty of other programs that,  like Wisconsin, aren’t the cream of the crop in their leagues, but certainly would garner more respect than Temple, which received several hundred thousand dollars to get pummeled, 65-0, last season at Camp Randall. And while it’s improbable at best, why not pursue that school in South Bend for a game?

To Wisconsin’s credit, Washington State, Oregon State, and Arizona State grace the schedule in the next six seasons.  The Badgers are also expected to face Virginia Tech.  Akron, Marshall, and the Citadel are on the schedule, too. But there needs to be a bigger name in there somewhere.

This isn’t 1994. Fans aren’t just looking to finally root for a winner in Madison anymore. The novelty of going to a bowl game has lost its luster, especially when just about any team with a .500 record can advance to post-season play.

If Bielema and the Badgers really want to move the program to the next level, it’s time to start playing some quality non-conference competition.