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A bottom-to-top assessment of the F.B.S. landscape heading into the 2012 season.

Need to Know

A Year Later, Wisconsin’s Woes Resurface

Bret Bielema’s options are growing thin. This time a year ago, Wisconsin was poised to enter the fall with Jon Budmayr, a sophomore, as its starting quarterback. If that had come to pass, Budmayr would have been the Badgers’ first sophomore to start at quarterback since John Stocco did so in 2004. Of course, those plans changed once Russell Wilson opted to finish his college career in Madison. Budmayr would eventually miss the entire 2011 with nerve issues in his right elbow – his throwing arm – which in turn left redshirt freshman Joe Brennan as Wisconsin’s primary backup. In short, Wilson’s transfer did more than just help the Badgers return to the Rose Bowl: Wilson delayed Wisconsin’s quarterback concerns for one calendar year.

Now they’ve resurfaced, and the news isn’t good. First, injuries: Budmayr’s elbow issues have continued. He underwent surgery in September, officially ending his season, and has not recovered to the point where he can participate in spring drills. While he’s far from out of the race to replace Wilson, missing another series of practices isn’t good for Budmayr’s cause.

Incoming freshman Bart Houston, who chose the Badgers over offers from Colorado, Utah, U.C.L.A. and Iowa, will be sidelined at least through fall camp following his upcoming shoulder surgery. While Houston would have needed to put on a show to earn the starting nod as a true freshman, it’s nearly impossible to see him do anything other than redshirt after missing fall drills.

In the best-case scenario, Houston is healthy enough to participate in practice by late August. Even then, Houston won’t have taken enough snaps to justify making him the starter. In fact, Bielema would be wise to simply throw a redshirt on Houston and slow-play his recovery, knowing that there’s little good that could come of playing a raw, untested rookie during the heart of Big Ten play.

Then there’s oft-injured Curt Phillips, who tore his A.C.L. twice in the span of eight months in 2010 – first in March, then again in November, just after he had returned to the practice field. It’s hard to gauge whether Phillips will ever regain the sort of mobility that distanced him from the Wilson-free competition a year ago; for now, Wisconsin is taking a wait-and-see approach.

The only scholarship quarterback still standing is Brennan, who completed 6 of his 15 attempts as a reserve a season ago. Only one returning player threw a touchdown pass last fall – that would be Montee Ball, who will be occupied with other duties. For now, the Badgers have no choice but to go forward with Brennan as the starting quarterback.

Until another option pops up. Obviously, Wisconsin’s injuries at the position increases the appeal of another A.C.C. transfer, Danny O’Brien, who is still evaluating his options after announcing his decision to leave Maryland following his redshirt sophomore season. O’Brien’s appeal is simple: Wisconsin has a huge hole to fill at quarterback, for starters, and the in-house alternatives are dropping like flies.

Wisconsin’s appeal is also simple. The Badgers can guarantee immediate playing time; South Florida, for example, which has been listed as one of O’Brien’s potential landing spots, already has B.J. Daniels, a three-year starter at quarterback. Wisconsin can also offer the opportunity to play in the Big Ten, and has as quarterback-friendly a system in college football.

But for Bielema and the Badgers, bringing in an O’Brien has its drawbacks. One potential sticking point is that unlike Wilson, O’Brien still has two years of eligibility on his clock. Basically, O’Brien isn’t a mere rental – not to say that Wilson was a mere anything, just that Wisconsin knew it wasn’t getting into a long-term relationship. Of course, the Badgers would love to have Wilson back in 2012.

The question: Does Bielema believe in Budmayr’s ability to lead Wisconsin to another Rose Bowl? What about Brennan? If so, taking in an O’Brien would effectively end Budmayr’s career in Madison; he would hold a clipboard for two years – this assumes O’Brien grabs and holds onto the starting role – and would only play in 2014 should he be able to land a medical redshirt. If Wisconsin thinks Budmayr is capable of playing at an all-conference level, bringing in O’Brien may make him, at most, a one-year starter.

Not that Wisconsin has any other option. Unless more rest and recuperation is all he needs – and not being familiar with his sort of nerve issues, that may be just what the doctor ordered – Budmayr can’t be viewed as a potential difference maker in 2012. In all likelihood, knee injuries are going to define Phillips’ career. I’d be shocked if Houston plays a down as a true freshman.

It’s Brennan, bust or O’Brien. With that in mind, Wisconsin might not have any choice but to put all its chips on the table and go after Maryland’s former starter. All Bielema would need to do is convince O’Brien that Wisconsin’s a better place to be than, say, Vanderbilt, South Florida or Penn State.

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