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A Reasonably Anticipatory Assessment of: Wisconsin

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A too-soon look at next fall, sans the inevitable injuries, suspensions and other pratfalls of the long offseason.
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What’s Changed. As you can tell from the huge number of returning starters, very, very little. Typically, the prospects to do much on offense outside of a punishing running game, if necessary, are slim and circumstantial, at best. The Badgers have gotten by with limited, within-the-offense types at quarterback for years, and figure after just one year with Tyler Donovan to make do with another in a long line of managers, be it Allan Evridge or wholly inexperienced Dustin Sherer. Neither stands out: Evridge barely played as a backup last year and completed less than 50 percent of his passes as a part-time starter at Kansas State in 2005 – in his last four starts at KSU, he completed a dreadful 43 of 107 (40 percent) and threw four picks to one touchdown; the Wildcats only recovered when he was pulled after starting 2 of 10 in the finale against Missouri – and Sherer’s only career completion was to an Indiana defensive back in mop-up duty in ‘06. Tight end Travis Beckum is probably the most dynamic receiver in the Big Ten and a grenade to defensive gameplans, but his success, too, starts up front: he’s most lethal off play-action and won’t save a mediocre passer if defenses aren’t overly focused on the run.

What’s the Same. Outside of Ohio State (and maybe Michigan State, depending on the circumstances), Wisconsin’s is the only other offense in the Big Ten now that Michigan, Minnesota and possibly Penn State have gone spread still willing to define itself almost entirely by way of a conventional, straight-ahead running game. It’s already the most consistently run-oriented team in the conference on an annual basis:

The least you should know about Wisconsin...
2007 Record • Past Five Years
2007: 9-4 (5-3 Big Ten; 4th)
2003-07: 47-17 (27-13 Big Ten)
Five-Year Recruiting Rankings*-
2004-08: 39 • 33 • 42 • 34 • 41
Returning Starters, Roughly
19 (10 Offense, 9 Defense)
Best Player
Travis Beckum came to Madison as a linebacker but has been their go-to receiver instead: he has seven 100-yard efforts in two years since moving to tight end, including four of last year’s most crucial games, against Michigan State, Illinois, Ohio State and Michigan. He could have been the first tight end off the board in April and definitely will be next year if he improves his blocking just a little.
Alright, Coach Bretmeister
Three reminders that, as a coach, Bret Bielema is more like your older brother than your dad. One: he’s been romantically connected to Erin Andrews. Two: he’s a longtime fan of a not-terrible band that’s been culturally relevant at some point in the last decade-and-a-half, but not so relevant that I’ve ever heard of them. And three, he has a tattoo, of a rival school's logo, no less, and you can go to hell if you don’t like it. But at heart, he’s all coach, bro:

 

"My house, as sad as it may seem, is set up for recruiting purposes more than anything," he said.
It has all the essentials, video games, home theater and the "closing room," where charm precedes the dotted-line signature.

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"Recruiting," eh? Looking for a "signature," on "the dotted line"? In the "Closing Room"? Is that what the kids are calling it these days?

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* According to Rivals.

This is good and right, since Wisconsin is synonymous with a) an unrivaled cow population, and b) manly iso runs. The Badgers’ streak of 1,000-yard rushers stands at 14 in 15 years, carried on the last two years by P.J. Hill and potentially extended this year, if not by Hill, then by impressive backups Zach Brown and Lance Smith – Brown plowed through Michigan for 108 yards and the far more generous turnstiles of Minnesota for 250 in Hill’s place at the end of the regular season. If depth isn’t intimidating, maybe sheer size will do the trick: the three returning starters on the line, Eric Vandenheuvel, Andy Kemp and Craig Urbik, all weigh in upwards of 320 pounds, in front of 250-pound fullback Chris Pressley; listed at a very stingy 225 apiece, Hill and hyped redshirt freshman John Clay are thicker, not quicker. UW has led the conference in time of possession two years in a row and should be bringing the beef with even more rugged enthusiasm than usual.

Data Does Not Compute. Before last season, Brian Cook at MGoBlog came up with some startling numbers re: Bret Bielema and defense, namely that Bret Bielema’s defense always kicks ass. As D-coordinator at Kansas State, his defenses finished in the top ten nationally in scoring and total defense every year from 2000-03. Upon Bielema’s hop north in 2004, the Wildcat D immediately tanked and Bill Snyder went into retirement; meanwhile, the Badger defense suddenly went from very mediocre every year from 2000-03 to rockin’ upon Bielema’s arrival in 2004, finising in the top ten in, yes, both scoring and total defense. After a bizarre collapse in 2005, the Badgers were right back in 2006 in the top five in both scoring and total D. Six elite units in seven years at two different schools, neither of which approached the same numbers before/after his departure/arrival, is a trend. An impressive trend.

But last year defied that trend, mainly because of one ghastly stretch in October, when Michigan State, Illinois and Penn State easily went over 200 yards each on the ground, with sky high per-carry averages, and scored nine touchdowns altogether; Ohio State added 211 and three touchdowns a few weeks later, most of it after Wisconsin had come from behind to take the lead in the fourth quarter, and the Buckeyes decided to get serious. Michigan State’s Javon Ringer had over 140 yards on just ten carries; Rashard Mendenhall and Juice Williams combined for 267; Rodney Kinlaw and Evan Royster had 184 in Penn State’s romp; and Beanie Wells had his way with 173 and a couple long touchdown runs that put UW under. The streak was only interrupted by catching Michigan with both Chad Henne and Mike Hart on the sideline. The Badgers were below average by Big Ten standards in every major defensive category, and on the awesome:eh scale, Bielema’s units here are now only batting .500.


Bielema’s secret: It’s all in the lean. Who says playing the Wii instead of sleeping doesn’t pay off?
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But: the defense rebounded dramatically off its last bad season, and if there’s a candidate for bouncing back, it must be the unit with nine starters back. That includes a much more athletic set of linebackers than you usually see from the Badgers, who were 1-2-3 on the team in tackles; a pass rusher (Matt Shaughnessy) pro scouts seem to like; and the leading interceptor in the conference (Shane Carter, who grabbed seven – though five of them were against UNLV, The Citadel, and Minnesota). If two-time all-Big Ten corner Jack Ikegwuonu hadn’t left for a disappointing slide in the draft, I suspect everyone would be scratching their chins with intrigue and projections of grand recovery. As it is, the two best players are gone (Ikegwuonu and run-stuffing tackle Nick Hayden), and my confidence in such a volatile group went with them until proven otherwise.

Overly Optimistic Depression-Inducing Post-Spring Chatter. Increasing the skepticism about the defense’s return to form was the absence of half of it with injuries in the spring: both starting corners, both starting tackles and one starting end didn’t practice at all. And then the other starting end got the worst of it – Shaughnessy’s broken fibula still might keep him out for part of the fall; reports sound optimistic but uncertain. Dude had 18 tackles for loss last year, eleven of them in the last five games (only one in that dominating stretch was a sack, so there is no redundancy: he was in the backfield a lot). Apparently the injury was an ugly one on-site, according to linebacker DeAndre Levy: "When I seen it my stomach dropped." Not as far as it will drop if converted linebacker O’Brien Schofield has to fill in for the team’s defensive MVP through September.

As for quarterback: unsettled, and not because Evridge and Sherer both blew the coaches away. Evridge competed with Tyler Donovan for the job last year and should have every advantage, but he only split time with Sherer and neither of them showed any separation. They’re going to duke it out into the fall, until one emerges, like a butterfly, or is chosen basically at random, like a lobster. I’m betting lobster.

Wisconsin on You Tube. In the rousing sis-boom-ba fashion, Wisconsin students enthusiastically lead a traditional Big Ten chant during Illinois’ trip to Camp-Randall last October. Listen closely (unless you’re at work, in which case turn it down and listen extremely closely):

See Also: Badgers through the years, backed by Tom Petty. ... Brian Butch drunk in high school, or, you know, something like that. ... UWPD officers chase a Krispy Kreme truck. ... And the most fun tradition in football, until the Song Girls get more, uh, fan friendly: get on your feet and jump around.

Best-Case: Quite obviously, the only thing keeping the Badgers out of the top ten is the radioactive question mark at quarterback, but they run into this problem every couple years or so, and consistently – think Brooks Bollinger, Jim Sorgi, John Stocco, Tyler Donovan – find a way to integrate an underwhelming but heady passer into a functional system. It’s like the Texas Tech of wiry, unimposing white guys. Despite new projections of doom with every change, the system QB has not kept Wisconsin from winning New Year’s Day bowls, and if Evridge is in that tradition, you won’t find a weakness anywhere else. The schedule presents four stiff tests: at Michigan and against Ohio State, Penn State and Illinois at home. If they win three of those – especially if one of them is against the Buckeyes, a night game in Madison – and avoid a snake in the grass (Fresno State, Iowa, Michigan State), there’s every reason this bunch ought to have its sights focused on its first Rose Bowl in a decade. I want to say it’s a darkhorse mythical championship snake in the grass itself, but there is virtually no way to realistically guess the defense will be that improved, or that Evridge will be good enough to provide enough balance in the offense.

Worst-Case: The defense showed enough chinks that a frustrating quarterback situation could ruin everything. In that case, three of the four big conference games could just as easily turn up losses as wins, as could one of the aforementioned snakes – Michigan State’s offensive outburst in Madison last year makes it a serious candidate at home. With this team’s experience, off four straight January bowls in Florida, 8-4 and Christmas in San Antonio shouldn’t sound very appetizing.

Non-Binding Forecast: ... or Bust. Both the preceding "ceiling" and "floor" are the highest for Wisconsin in years, and the sum of the parts correspondingly rivals 1999 and 2000 as the best-looking on-paper accumulation here since the program’s postwar heyday. Aside from the ‘99 Rose Bowl season, though, high expectations haven’t worked out so well:


Preseason rankings courtesy Stassen's preseason consensus.
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This year’s consensus on the Badgers, so far, is mixed, from just outside the top ten (11th by Athlon) to just outside the top 20 (21st by Phil Steele), but they look like a very strong BCS at-large candidate to me. This is entirely dependent on Evridge, who’s in position to sink the whole ship. Given the consistent emphasis on taking the game out of the quarterback’s hands, though, and the deep well of talent and experience in the running game, the offense should still be able to control the vast majority of games. I think this is the second-best team in the Big Ten, a ten-game winner, and if not a BCS team, then one that’s likely to be incensed with the snub.