What everybody believes this summer, non-obvious division.
Written off to mediocrity after four years of (appropriately enough) mediocrity to open the decade, Wisconsin has three straight nine-win seasons and two straight January wins over SEC favorites, shed Barry Alvarez to unexpectedly thrive under kid coach Bret Bielema and gets back more starters (16) than any other team in the top half of the Big Ten.
The Sporting News:
College Football News:
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Note the Badgers are far from consensus conference favorites, a distinction they share with slightly more adored Michigan, but even the guy who foresees UW in the Champs Sports Bowl thinks this team will be fundamentally better on some level than the perceived overachiever whose record it may or may not match.
Ay, we come quickly to the rub: are these assessments of a savage predator or of an opportunistic scavenger of the weak? The grade school protagonist in Calvin and Hobbes once turned a colander into a thinking cap to answer the same question about tyrannosaurs, and concluded, "I say tyrannosaurs were predators, because it would be so bogus if they just ate things that were already dead."
With Wisconsin, too, that would be so bogus. But the Badgers didn't play Ohio State, faced four bottom-rung mid-majors outside of the conference (headed by far by 4-8 Bowling Green), caught Penn State, Iowa, Purdue and Minnesota - a quartet that failed to beat any .500 team aside from one another in the regular season - in down years and finished with negative rushing yards in its only successful attempt to snare big game, in the <strike>Citrus</strike> Capital One Bowl. Its only other effort on that level was a not-very-close knockout at Michigan. That was also, before they entered the bowl game two-point underdogs, the only game the Badgers weren't favored to win after a string of unranked prey that was usually, in essence, already dead. Or at least fatally wounded. Is that laudable competence that carries across the summer, or quasi-flukey good fortune destined to crumble with the addition of OSU and considerably more bite expected from Penn State, Iowa and would-be snipers of the middle class?
Consider the loss of Joe Thomas, the most well-regarded offensive lineman in the country, and especially of Jon Stocco. Lindy's is confident the quarterback "rarely matters" to Wisconsin, but that's easy to say after three years of the quiet Stocco, poster child of within-the-offense worker bees who end their careers 30-7 as a starter with a TD-INT ratio better than 2:1. His predecessors, Brooks Bollinger and Jim Sorgi, were 27-23 in four years with Anthony Davis' steady production backing them up. There is a chance career backup Tyler Donovan or Allan Evridge - a sub-50 percent passer and 1-5 as a starter at Kansas State in 2005 - will demonstrate the same efficiency and knack for not blowing the legs off stupendous defensive efforts, but players of Stocco's ilk usually only gain from the march of time...
The same could also be said of Wisconsin's line, now a hulking, veteran unit unanimously considered one of the two or three best in the conference, but which was among the league's worst, statistically: only one Big Ten team (Indiana) averaged fewer yards per carry, and despite the presence of Thomas and the most pass-averse offense in the conference, only Illinois allowed as many sacks.
The fan who drinks like a champion deserves nothing less on the field.
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The former trend changes dramatically in the case of P.J. Hill, who averaged a legit five yards a pop on the season and rolled up 148 on Penn State's stout front seven. Yet the attempts to run against Michigan (27 carries, 12 yards) and Arkansas (28 carries, minus-5 yards) were futile, and will submarine any January bowl hopes if the defense fails to turn in a repeat of its brilliance - the '06 D was, in yardage and scoring, nearly twice the defense its much younger predecessor had been in '05, an improvement so vast in one swoop it reeks of unsustainability.
At the same time, though, the littany of noob quarterbacks on the schedule this fall - Jake Christensen, Brian Hoyer, Adam Weber, Todd Boeckman - is not in any way more promising than the youths who met their maker in the top-ranked Badger secondary last year. There is no formidable passer, in fact (depending on the development of Juice Williams and Anthony Morelli, both below average in survival mode as first-year starters in Madison), until the fateful date with Michigan in November. By which time the fearsome hunter will have emerged against Iowa, Penn State and Ohio State, or will be scavenging for fourth place scraps.