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The Countdown

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

The Countdown

No. 11: Wisconsin

Here comes Wisconsin — seriously, here come the Badgers. Look out. These are some big boys. The 16 offensive linemen tilt the scale at a combined 5,150 pounds, and those aren’t real pounds; those are listed pounds, and a little fudging on weight here and there is the only thing offensive linemen share with female celebrities. The defensive line puts forth another five 300-pound specimens, which makes them lightweights compared to an offensive front with only one member coming in under 300 pounds. The lone exception is a true freshman, so give him time. The bulk belies the speed and athleticism lying elsewhere, at quarterback, running back, receiver and in the secondary. It’s there that Wisconsin separates itself from competition that can be big or quick but rarely both, and rarer still at the same time.

Conference
Big Ten, Leaders

Location
Madison, Wisc.

Nickname
Badgers

Returning starters
10 (4 offense, 6 defense)

Last year’s ranking
No. 14

2010 record
(11-2, 7-1)

Last year’s
re-ranking

No. 8

2011 schedule

  • Sept. 1
    U.N.L.V.
  • Sept. 10
    Oregon St.
  • Sept. 17
    N.I.U. (in Chicago)
  • Sept. 24
    South Dakota
  • Oct. 1
    Nebraska
  • Oct. 15
    Indiana
  • Oct. 22
    at Michigan St.
  • Oct. 29
    at Ohio St.
  • Nov. 5
    Purdue
  • Nov. 12
    at Minnesota
  • Nov. 19
    at Illinois
  • Nov. 26
    Penn St.

Last year’s prediction

The Badgers are a very viable contender in the Big Ten, a team certainly capable of upsetting Ohio State and Iowa en route to the program’s first Rose Bowl trip since 2000.  If the defense comes together, this team will be the best of the Bielema era. Yes, better even than his first team, back in 2006, which went a surprising 12-1. There’s reason to think Wisconsin will be better on this side of the ball: the strong performance in last year’s bowl win was good to see, and the secondary will benefit from the addition of Chris Ash to the coaching staff. Obviously, the Badgers are ready for a Rose Bowl run. I think they’ll fall just short, but a 10-2 regular season is very, very much a possibility. I hate to harp on it, but if the defense takes a step forward, the Badgers might be the class of the Big Ten.

2010 recap

In a nutshell Any concerns regarding this defense were unfounded. Well, in my defense, there was a basis for concern heading into the year. But it turned out that Wisconsin could play a little defense after all: 24th nationally in scoring defense, 20th in total defense and 26th against the pass, the Badgers did more than enough, along with this offense, to clinch the program’s fourth Rose Bowl berth since 1994. Yeah, the defense was fine. The offense was absolutely superb, pounding teams into submission on the ground and throwing the ball with pinpoint accuracy through the air. The Badgers overran several teams like a barbarian horde: rival Minnesota never had a chance, nor did Purdue; Indiana should have stayed home; Michigan thought it could score enough to keep pace, but alas; and Northwestern was humiliated. It’s therefore a shame that the year began and ended in unfortunate fashion. Many discounted U.W. for allowing also-rans like San Jose State and Arizona State to hang around in September, and the final image from 2010 is T.C.U. batting down the would-be tying two-point conversion with no time remaining to clinch a 21-19 win in Pasadena. In between, few teams did it better than the Badgers.

High point Seven straight wins to end the regular season. The biggest was an emotional 31-18 over Ohio State on Oct. 18, which allowed the Badgers to tie the Buckeyes and Michigan State atop the final Big Ten standings. The B.C.S. did the rest. You could say the offense really hit its stride over the last three games heading into the Rose Bowl, averaging 67.0 points per game in wins over Indiana, Michigan and Northwestern.

Low point Losing to T.C.U. hurt, but the Badgers could have earned a spot in the national title game had they not slipped up against the Spartans to open Big Ten play. You couldn’t fault many for thinking U.W. was a pretender at that point, seeing that there was little impressive about the 4-0 mark in non-conference play. Then 4-1, the Badgers rolled off seven straight victories to head to Pasadena at 11-1.

Tidbit Wisconsin averaged 45.2 points per game during Big Ten play, the second-highest mark in conference history. The Badgers’ high-water mark came in an 83-20 win over Indiana, which made a 70-point outburst against Northwestern two weeks later seem pedestrian in comparison. U.W. scored at least 31 points in seven of its eight Big Ten games, falling short of that total only in the loss to Michigan State. Penn State holds the record with 48.1 points per game in 1994; the Nittany Lions were less explosive but more consistent, never scoring more than 63 points but never less than 31 points.

Tidbit (analysis edition) Wisconsin was one of the six teams to end 2010 ranked in the top 25 nationally in both total offense and total defense. The other five teams? T.C.U., Boise State, Ohio State, Alabama and Stanford. The sextet’s combined record? Try 70-8. Play good defense, play good offense, win games. Analysis!

Former players in the N.F.L.

32 WR Isaac Anderson (Washington), TE Travis Beckum (New York Giants), RB Michael Bennett (Oakland), CB Niles Brinkley (Pittsburgh), OT Gabe Carimi (Chicago), LB Jonathan Casillas (New Orleans), RB John Clay (Pittsburgh), TE Owen Daniels (Houston), WR Lee Evans (Baltimore), WR David Gilreath (Indianapolis), TE Garrett Graham (Houston), DT Nick Hayden (Carolina), RB P.J. Hill (New Orleans), WR Paul Hubbard (Buffalo), LS Matt Katula (New England), TE Lance Kendricks (St. Louis), S Jim Leonhard (New York Jets), LB DeAndre Levy (Detroit), S Chris Maragos (San Francisco), OG John Moffitt (Seattle), C Bill Nagy (Dallas), TE Jason Pociask (Dallas), FB Chris Pressley (Cincinnati), C Donovan Raiola (Washington), LB O’Brien Schofield (Arizona), DE Matt Shaughnessy (Oakland), DE Jeff Stehle (Washington), OT Joe Thomas (Cleveland), QB Scott Tolzien (San Diego), OT Kraig Urbik (Buffalo), OT Eric Vanden Heuvel (Baltimore), DE J.J. Watt (Houston).

Arbitrary top five list

Writers with Wisconsin ties, with notable work
1. Thornton Wilder, “Our Town.”
2. Edna Ferber, “So Big.”
3. Ron Kovic, “Born on the Fourth of July.”
4. John Toland, “The Rising Sun.”
5. Tyler Dennett, “John Hay.”

Coaching

Bret Bielema (Iowa ’92), 49-16 after five seasons with the Badgers. Prior to taking over in 2006, Bielema served two years as Wisconsin’s defensive coordinator while Barry Alvarez concluded his sterling 16-year career in Madison; over this time, it was acknowledged that Bielema would be the program’s next head coach when Alvarez chose to step down. He at first excelled at maintaining – if not building upon – the success of his predecessor, winning 21 games over his first two seasons. Bielema and the Badgers won a school-record 12 games in 2006, making him only the third first-year coach in F.B.S. history to record 12 victories. Bielema followed that by taking Wisconsin to a fourth consecutive New Year’s Day bowl game in 2007 — the previous two came under Alvarez — joining the 1994-95 and 1998-2000 Badgers in participating in back-to-back January bowl games. That streak ended in 2008, when Wisconsin failed to live up to its preseason billing with a 7-6 finish, but the last two teams have been Bielema’s best yet. Before going to Madison in 2004, Bielema spent two seasons at Kansas State, helping the Wildcats post back-to-back 11-win seasons and win a Big 12 title in 2003. Bielema also served as an assistant at Iowa for eight seasons, the last six as the linebackers coach. Six of the last eight Bielema-coached teams – either as a head coach or assistant – have played in a January bowl game, including the 2003 Wildcats, who made a B.C.S. appearance after their conference title. He has compiled a 90-28 mark both as an assistant and head coach over the last eight seasons. Again, last year’s team was his best. This year’s team might be just as good.

Tidbit (coaching edition) There are a few new members of Bielema’s staff. Dave Doeren’s departure to Northern Illinois left Wisconsin in need of a new defensive coordinator, a gap Bielema filled with the tandem of second-year defensive backs coach Chris Ash, who did an outstanding job in 2010, and defensive line coach Charlie Partridge. The new running backs coach is Thomas Hammock, a former U.W. graduate assistant who spent the last four seasons at Minnesota. Former Buffalo Bills assistant DeMontie Cross will be the special teams coordinator and safeties coach. Finally, the Badgers got a good one in new linebackers coach Dave Huxtable, who was the U.C.F. defensive coordinator for the last three years. Of course, Wisconsin also returns offensive coordinator Paul Chryst and offensive line coach Bob Bostad.

Players to watch

Don’t compare Russell Wilson to Jeremiah Masoli, the former Oregon quarterback who failed to live up to expectations in his lone season under Houston Nutt at Mississippi. The difference between the pair are broad, distinct and meaningful: Wilson is a battle-tested, experienced, proven commodity; Masoli had experience but fit Oregon’s system to the letter, not what Mississippi attempted to achieve a year ago. Wilson is a pro-style quarterback moving into a decidedly pro-style system; the Rebels weren’t Oregon, it’s safe to say. Wilson was — and would have been again — the best quarterback in the A.C.C.; Masoli was a good one, but it’s clear that he was largely a product of Chip Kelly’s system.

So be excited about Wilson’s decision to transfer into U.W. instead of heading to Auburn, which was purported to be his other finalist. Why wouldn’t he have opted for the Badgers? A similar offense, one of the nation’s best backfields, talent at receiver, an always-strong offensive line and an offensive coaching staff that matches up with any team in the country. In hindsight, the decision shouldn’t have taken Wilson long at all. What he brings to the Badgers, simply, is experience at a position sorely lacking in this quantity prior to his arrival. Before Wilson’s entered the fold, U.W. was going to move forward with sophomore Jon Budmayr, who made 10 attempts in mop-up duties in 2010.

From a potential weakness to a position of strength. Wilson was a starter from day one at N.C. State, throwing for a remarkable 17 touchdowns against a single interception as a freshman and remaining one of the most productive quarterbacks in the country as a sophomore and junior. N.C. State coach Tom O’Brien showed Wilson the door when he again took time away from the program to pursue his baseball career; O’Brien’s loss has been Wisconsin’s gain. There’s always a learning curve for any new addition, and U.W. did say that the offense would not change in the least to accommodate Wilson’s arrival. So it may take Wilson some time to learn the system, even if it doesn’t differ all that much from that ran at N.C. State. But he’s a senior, not a freshman, and the answer to Wisconsin’s prayers under center. I’m not a huge fan of the N.C.A.A. loophole allowing graduated seniors to switch schools without accruing a redshirt season; here’s guessing the Badgers love the rule.

You don’t replace a pair of all-conference linemen, unless you’re Wisconsin. If you’re Wisconsin, you replace two standout linemen with such ease that maybe — and this sounds strange to say — this year’s line will be better than last. Is that even possible? Only at Wisconsin. Junior Peter Konz, back at center, brings a line-best 20 career starts into 2011. He’s flanked on the right side by senior Kevin Zeitler, one of the nation’s best, and on the left by sophomore Travis Frederick, who started twice as a freshman but took a redshirt last fall in an effort to create some separation. The Badgers are locked in at left tackle in junior Ricky Wagner, who moves over from the strong side, where he started nine games in 2010, to replace Gabe Carimi. It says much about this line that the biggest question mark is senior right tackle Josh Oglesby, who has all-conference talent but remains unable to stay healthy. If Oglesby again succumbs to injuries, U.W. will replace him with redshirt freshman Rob Havenstein.

There’s an embarrassment of riches in the backfield. The running game is paced by the offensive line, but give some credit to junior Montee Ball (996 yards, 18 touchdowns) and sophomore James White (1,052 yards and 14 scores) for taking advantage of the wealth of opportunities. Is there a better one-two combination in the country? Ball and White are certainly in the conversation, and the case could be made that there was no more dangerous combination over the final three games of the regular season. And the duo will again lead the way in 2011, with the only drawback being that neither will be a legitimate Heisman candidate, thanks to the other. Oh, the horror. Then there’s freshman Melvin Gordon, who will be the team’s third back. Three Badgers had at least 156 carries last fall, so the opportunity is there for Gordon to make an impact.

Wisconsin needs a big year from senior end Louis Nzegwu (46 tackles, 7.5 for loss, 3 sacks) as it looks to recoup the production lost along with J.J. Watt, who accounted for roughly a third of the team’s tackles for loss and sacks a year ago. In Nzegwu’s corner is supreme athletic ability, which the former running back has in spades. What he lacks is technique, pass rush moves which could help him take full advantage of his physical gifts. It’s key that he takes a step forward as a senior.

One area where Ash will differ from his predecessor is in his aggressiveness: Wisconsin is going to dial up the blitz quite a bit more, which should help the Badgers supplant Watt’s lost production. But in a perfect world U.W. would continue to get consistent pressure just with the front four; not many teams can, but all good defenses are able to get into the backfield without adding an fifth pass rusher. There are three leading candidates to join Nzegwu in the starting lineup on the opposite end, with junior David Gilbert (21 tackles, 1.5 sacks) currently atop the depth chart. But look for plenty of junior Brendan Kelly, should he remain healthy, and sophomore Pat Muldoon in the rotation at end.

I hate to keep harping on Watt, but here’s one positive note: he’s really the only primary contributor not back from last year’s line. Yeah, he did most of the damage, but there’s reason to believe U.W. can survive his departure. There’s solid depth inside, where senior Patrick Butrym (28 tackles, 2.5 for loss) and sophomores Ethan Hemer and Jordan Kohout return to the starting lineup — Butrym started all 13 games, while the sophomore due split time alongside the senior. The Badgers are also high on a third sophomore, Beau Allen, who will round out the interior rotation.

The linebacker corps now has a healthy Chris Borland to work with, albeit at a new position. After a star turn as a freshman — when he made 54 tackles (10.5 for loss) and 5.5 sacks — Borland missed nearly all of last season with a shoulder injury. That same setback kept him out of spring drills, but he’s ready to go in 2011, now in the middle instead of outside linebacker. In essence, Borland’s return gives the Badgers two returning starters, not one: the other is junior Mike Taylor (58 tackles, 8 for loss, 2 interceptions), who is also back to 100 percent after being slowed by a knee injury last fall. Wisconsin will go with experience on the other side, opting for senior Kevin Claxton (24 tackles, 2 for loss) over sophomore Ethan Armstrong. I know the Badgers have to replace a pair of productive starters, but I think the linebacker corps could be stronger in 2011. Much depends on Borland’s health and his transition to the middle.

One drawback of a potentially blitz-heavy defensive scheme is that it puts added pressure on the secondary, an area of slight concern for the Badgers in 2011. One position remains completely unsettled — or undecided, at least: U.W. has yet to make a decision at strong safety between junior Shelton Johnson and sophomore Dezman Southward, though it seems like Johnson has a leg up in the competition. For now, strong safety is the biggest question mark on the team. Things settle down greatly from there.

Antonio Fenelus (team-best four interceptions) really took to Ash’s more physically demanding style of coverage, as things seemed to click for the senior cornerback down the stretch last fall. The same could be said of senior free safety Aaron Henry (58 tackles, 2 interceptions); it took him some time to grow familiar with his new position after spending his first two years at cornerback, but Henry was greatly improved in October and November. After starting all of 2009 but stepping back into a secondary role last fall — and not playing well at all against T.C.U. — senior Devin Smith (30 tackles, 1 interception) moves back into the starting lineup at cornerback alongside Fenelus. Junior Marcus Cromartie, who played sparingly in 2010, will get the call when the Badgers go with three cornerbacks.

Position battle(s) to watch

Wide receivers The only returning starter from last year’s passing game — quarterback, receivers, tight end — is senior Nick Toon, who has struggled through a constant battle with injuries but is one of the Big Ten’s best when healthy. Injuries hampered Toon again in 2010, limiting him to nine games; over those nine games, Toon made 36 receptions for 459 yards and 3 scores — all three totals good for second on the team. It’s even more vital that the senior remain healthy in 2011, as the receiver corps is the one spot on this offense that demands help from underclassmen. And unproven underclassmen, which is a bit of concern. Toon will be joined in the starting lineup by sophomore Jared Abbrederis (20 receptions for 289 yards and 3 scores), who earned a significant amount of time as a freshman thanks to injuries to Toon and the since-departed David Gilreath. It’s a very nice starting pair — potentially great should Toon remain healthy — but how the depth chart will shake out from there is anyone’s guess. One player who has seemingly taken advantage of the opportunity is sophomore Jeff Duckworth, who along with true freshman Kenzel Doe holds the top reserve roles behind the two starters. No matter how you cut it, U.W. is going to be relying on unproven targets to round out the receiver corps. Duckworth’s handful of snaps last fall ranks him among the most experienced of this second grouping, which is a concern. Among those fighting for snaps are sophomore Manasseh Garner, redshirt freshmen Chris Hammond and Isaiah Williams and fresh arrivals A.J. Jordan, Fred Willis and Jordan Fredrick. The Badgers will turn to sophomore Jacob Pederson as the new receiving tight end, with senior Jake Byrne doing the dirty work in the running game.

Game(s) to watch

There won’t be a true road game until Oct. 22, when the Badgers land Michigan State in East Lansing, looking for revenge after last year’s defeat. That date is the first of two marquee road games, prefacing a trip to Columbus to take on the depleted Buckeyes. The other two contenders come to Madison: Nebraska on Oct. 1 — that’s going to be special — and Penn State on Nov. 26.

Season breakdown & prediction

In a nutshell I love Wisconsin’s mentality between the white lines: here’s what we’re going to do, we won’t try anything funny, now step up, dig your toes in the grass and stop it. And more often than not, the Badgers prove too hard for opponents to handle, as was the case for the wide majority of 2010. There’s precious little reason to think Wisconsin can’t taste similar success this fall. Wilson has a step learning curve but the brains and physical gifts to excel once he gets his feet wet — and he’ll have ample opportunity to learn the offense in September. The running game can more than carry the load in the meantime, thanks to a pair of all-conference backs and another sterling offensive front. All told, I like the Badgers to take home the Leaders division, in large part because of the team’s talent and coaching but also, it must be said, because of Ohio State’s projected slight decline. Are the Badgers national title contenders? You have to say yes, but I hesitate to place Wisconsin in the select group of five or six teams that stand atop the rest of the country. In a perfect world, U.W. would have more experience at receiver; would have more consistent pass rushers along the defensive line, though the blitz will help; have fewer injury concerns at linebacker; and not have any question marks whatsoever in the secondary. Those issues exist, and they’re the reason why I don’t have the Badgers atop the Big Ten, let alone in the upper echelon of the country. Not to detract from the team at large, as the Badgers are terrific, but this is what separates the great from the excellent. Still, another double-digit win season should be the baseline for success.

Dream season Perfect through the regular season, Wisconsin wins a rematch against Nebraska in the Big Ten title game and earns a shot at playing for the national championship.

Nightmare season Wilson struggles adapting to his new team, the offensive line is stymied by injuries, the defensive front seven provides a paltry pass rush and the secondary takes a step back after playing well in 2010. All that comes to pass: the Badgers go 8-4.

In case you were wondering

Where do Wisconsin fans congregate? Wisconsin fans gather at Badger Nation and Badger Blitz to follow recruiting and gang up on the odd Iowa and Minnesota fan courageous enough to venture on the message boards and talk trash. Another option is Buckyville.com, Wisconsin’s lone independent fan site, to the best of my knowledge. For a blog’s view, check out Badger Beat. As always, let me know if I missed anyone.

Word Count

Through 110 (110!) teams 347,434.

Up Next

Who is No. 10? Tomorrow’s university is the lone land-grant institution playing football on the F.B.S. level in a state that was the birthplace of two U.S. Presidents.

You can also follow Paul Myerberg and Pre-Snap Read on Twitter.

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Comments

  1. bfahey says:

    Let’s see if I can atone for my premature Wisconsin guess. #9 is Texas A&M, I believe.

  2. Andrew Griffith says:

    Gotta be aTm.

  3. CCC says:

    Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University

  4. calmer than you are says:

    I think Virginia is the birthplace of quite a few more than two Presidents. I’m going with A&M at #10.

  5. CCC says:

    I’m wrong. bfahey and Andrew Griffith are right. Texas Agricultural and Mechanical.

  6. CCC says:

    Nice burn, “calmer than you are.”

  7. IsaacTM says:

    Gotta be Texas A&M. The two U.S. Presidents were pretty obvious: George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush.

  8. manicblue says:

    re: bfahey

    You’re guessing #9 without a clue ? … gutsy move.

  9. Hokieshibe says:

    Try VT

  10. schedule nit says:

    Nebraska is my guess, just because they are the only game in town and two presidents seems like a low number for Virginia.

  11. Burnt Orange says:

    A&M tomorrow – Ike and LBJ were born in Texas. Bush and Bush were born back East.

    On the Badgers, bringing in a one year fix at qb seems so out of character for this program. Bad karma.

  12. Ryan says:

    Can’t be Nebraska, as we can only claim one president – Gerald Ford

  13. bfahey says:

    I need to stop commenting on this blog after midnight.

  14. Dan says:

    Texas is the birthplace of 2 presidents so is North Carolina and Vermont. So it is aTm or NC state since both are land grant colleges. I think NC state has already been covered so aTm it must be.

  15. DMK says:

    IsaacTM voted Republican! They tricked you. George W. was born at Yale. Literally.

  16. George says:

    Last 10 schools with my personal rankings (I am sure Paul’s will be different). Remember these are the remaining schools.

    10. Texas A&M
    9. Virgina Tech
    8. Florida State
    7. Nebraska
    6. Oklahoma
    5. Oregon
    4. LSU
    3. Boise State
    2. Alabama
    1. Stanford

  17. Hokieshibe says:

    George – the only one I’d really argue with is Stanford being that high… I know they keep Luck, but they lost 3 guys off the OL and the TE (plus a couple recievers), and 3/4s of their secondary. Not to mention the fact that they lost Harbaugh…

    My top 10 –
    10. Texas A&M
    9. Virginia Tech
    8. Nebraska
    7. Stanford
    6. Florida State
    5. LSU
    4. Boise St
    3. Alabama
    2. Oregon
    1. Oklahoma

  18. Andrew Griffith says:

    My top 10:
    10. Texas A&M
    9. VT
    8. Stanford
    7. Florida State
    6. Nebraska
    5. LSU
    4. Boise St.
    3. Oregon
    2. Alabama
    1. Oklahoma

  19. Wes says:

    Sigh… it is Texas A&M, but the two presidents are Lyndon Johnson and Dwight Eisenhower; both Bushes were born in Yankee-land.

  20. CarlBugeater says:

    I agree on aTm.
    My top ten as follows:
    10. aTm
    9. Fsu
    8. Boise St
    7. Stanford
    6. Va tech
    5. LSU
    4. Nebraska
    3. OU
    2. Oregon
    1. Alabama

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