A.J. Taylor-refocus this spring

Wisconsin wide receiver A.J. Taylor races down the sidelines before Minnesota defensive back Kiondre Thomas knocked him out of bounds in the third quarter of the Golden Gophers' 37-15 win over the Badgers on Saturday, Nov. 24, 2018, at Camp Randall Stadium in Madison. 

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Members of the University of Wisconsin football team spent last July and August deflecting a barrage of questions about accomplishments they had yet to achieve.

The Badgers entered the season ranked No. 4 in the country, with many in the media picking them to win the Big Ten Championship and secure a coveted College Football Playoff berth.

Players responded to the hype by saying all the right things - vowing to ignore what anyone else thought of their team while still maintaining confidence in their ability to reach their highest goals. UW's entire offseason mantra, after all, stated, "Nobody cares. Work harder," a reminder that the Badgers' record-breaking, 13-win season in 2017 didn't hold any power when it came to 2018.

"We say it all the time, but it's different saying it and actually doing it," wide receiver A.J. Taylor said following the Badgers' spring practice Saturday. "... We're not listening to any expectations this year. I think that kind of got in guys' heads."

This spring's much different than the last as UW regroups from a massively disappointing 8-5 campaign.

The Badgers' CFP hopes were dashed as early as Week 3, when massive underdog BYU shocked UW at Camp Randall, and the season reached a new low as Minnesota stole Paul Bunyan's Axe back with a 37-15 thrashing in Madison on Nov. 24.

That final loss likely stung the most. It marked the Golden Gophers' biggest victory at Camp Randall in 82 years and the first time they retook possession of the Axe since 2003.

The Axe's trophy case in UW's locker room isn't empty this spring, though. In its place sits a photo of Minnesota ceremonially chopping down the goal posts after that win.

"Every time you walk by that, it just kind of hits you," Badgers tight end Jake Ferguson said. "It kind of pisses me off, but I think that's a good thing that we have that. ... We don't have the Axe. I think that's really getting people fired up and more locked in."

Ferguson also said the team took a more serious attitude heading into this spring.

"A lot less goofing around in the weight room," he said. "Everybody's holding each other accountable."

While many early rankings still slot the Badgers in the top 15 for the upcoming season, UW won't be on the College Football Playoff radar this August.

The Badgers nearly finished fourth in the Big Ten West division last year, much less in the country. They may relish an opportunity to enter this season in a more familiar position - on the outside looking in among the national conversations.

The less noise, the easier it is to ignore.

"There were expectations for the O-line, for the offense, for the receivers, everybody. The defense had expectations," Taylor said. "It's a lot easier (this year) because there's not a lot of people talking about you. We've kind of got to earn our spot again, earn some respect."

This article originally ran on madison.com.

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