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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. 14: Wisconsin

Bathing suit? Check. Goggles? Check. Snorkel? Check. Let's take a dip, Old Style style.

Big Ten football is alive and well, if you know where to look. No, not Columbus. And no, certainly not in Ann Arbor. Take a look at Madison, Wisc., where physicality and ball control — three yards and a cloud of dust — have ruled the day for a generation. Team speed means little when the other guy runs the ball down your throat, as Miami found out in last year’s Champs Sports Bowl. The only spread you’ll find in Madison is in the parking lot, where ice cold lagers join the finest grilled meats and local cheeses for the pregame feast. Most football purists would have it no other way.

Conference
Big Ten

Location
Madison, Wisc.

Nickname
Badgers

Returning starters
16 (10 offense, 6 defense)

Last year’s ranking
No. 41

2009 record
(10-3, 5-3)

Last year’s
re-ranking

No. 19

2010 schedule

  • Sept. 4
    at U.N.L.V.
  • Sept. 11
    San Jose St.
  • Sept. 18
    Arizona St.
  • Sept. 25
    Austin Peay
  • Oct. 2
    at Michigan St.
  • Oct. 9
    Minnesota
  • Oct. 16
    Ohio St.
  • Oct. 23
    at Iowa
  • Nov. 6
    at Purdue
  • Nov. 13
    Indiana
  • Nov. 20
    at Michigan
  • Nov. 27
    Northwestern

Last year’s prediction

This is a big season for Wisconsin and, in extension, its head coach. The struggles the team went through last fall were troubling, especially on defense. Now, the good news is that I believe the Wisconsin offense will be better than it was a season ago, even with the losses up front. This is an issue, but take note: Wisconsin has not rushed for fewer than 160 yards per game in any season since 2002. No, I’m not crazy about the Badgers, but I think U.W. will easily match last season’s win total of seven and potentially upend Michigan State, Iowa or Illinois for the third spot in the Big Ten behind Penn State and Ohio State.

2009 recap

In a nutshell Was last year’s offense the finest in school history? I’d have to give the edge to the Ron Dayne-led 1999 team, but last year’s group is surely in the conversation. The Badgers led the Big Ten in scoring (31.8 points per game) and total offense (416.9 yards per game), with both totals ranked among the top five in school history. The Badgers both rushed and passed for 200 yards per game, one of only six teams in the country to do so. The running game was its usual physical self, pounding many an opponent into submission down the stretch. Quarterback play was a very pleasant surprise, with first-year starter Scott Tolzien leading the conference in pass efficiency while finishing second in completion percentage. So how did Wisconsin lose three games? Though improved, the defense battled inconsistency: it allowed 29.7 points per game in an October three-game stretch, and 28.3 points per game over a three-game stretch in November. The latter period was followed by solid performances against Hawaii and Miami (Fla.) to end the season, perhaps indicating a turning point for this defense entering 2010.

High point A good coaching job can offset any athletic mismatch. Case in point: Wisconsin’s six-point victory over Miami in the Champs Sports Bowl. How do you stop a speedy defense from cutting down your offense in the backfield? Run between the tackles, again and again. As someone who despises the trend towards finesse, Wisconsin’s offense always makes me smile.

Low point Losses to Ohio State and Iowa, though nearly the rest of the Big 10 lost to those two B.C.S. bowl participants. One team that did beat Iowa, Northwestern, also topped Wisconsin. The Wildcats squeaked past the Badgers, 33-31, on Nov. 21.

Tidbit Last fall saw running back John Clay become the sixth sophomore in Big Ten history to be named the conference offensive player of the year. He joins former Purdue quarterback Drew Brees (1998), Michigan running backs Tyrone Wheatley (1992) and Jon Vaughn (1990) and Michigan State running backs Tico Duckett (1990) and Lorenzo White (1985). Vaughn and Duckett shared the honor, obviously, with Clay, Brees, Wheatley and White the only outright winners. Each of the final trio went on to win a Big Ten title, Wheatley doing so in that 1992 campaign, Brees and White as seniors.

Tidbit (strange loss edition) Team A compiles 22 first downs, 250 yards passing, 118 yards rushing and controls the clock for a whopping 42 minutes and 47 seconds. Team B compiles eight first down, 87 yards passing, 97 yards rushing, converts 3 of 11 third down opportunities and holds the ball for little more than 17 minutes. Who wins? Team B, of course. Wisconsin dominated Ohio State in Columbus on Oct. 10, but lost — by 18 points. Ohio State’s 31-13 win was aided by a pair of interceptions returned for touchdowns and a kickoff return for a score.

Tidbit (who knew edition) Who knew? If you run the ball well and stop the run well, you tend to win more than you lose. Maybe you should have sat down before I broke that news. Wisconsin was 10-0 in 2009 when rushing for at least 150 yards. That means the Badgers were 0-3 when they didn’t rush for 150 yards, if you get my drift. The Badgers also ended last season holding 10 consecutive opponents to fewer than 100 yards rushing, the longest active streak in the country and a new school record.

Former players in the N.F.L.

26 TE Travis Beckum (New York Giants), RB Michael Bennett (Oakland), LB Jonathan Cassilas (New Orleans), WR Chris Chambers (Kansas City), TE Owen Daniels (Houston), WR Lee Evans (Buffalo), TE Garrett Graham (Houston), LB Nick Greisen (Denver), DT Nick Hayden (Carolina), RB P.J. Hill (New Orleans), WR Paul Hubbard (Oakland), S Jim Leonhard (New York Jets), LB DeAndre Levy (Detroit), S Chris Maragos (San Francisco), TE Jason Pociask (Dallas), FB Chris Pressley (Tampa Bay), C Casey Rabach (Washington), C Donovan Raiola (Tampa Bay), LB O’Brien Schofield (Arizona), DE Matt Shaughnessy (Oakland), QB Jim Sorgi (New York Giants), CB Scott Starks (Jacksonville), DT Jeff Stehle (Denver), OT Mark Tauscher (Green Bay), OT Joe Thomas (Cleveland), OG Kraig Urbik (Pittsburgh).

Arbitrary top five list

Best players in Milwaukee Brewers history
1. OF Robin Yount.
2. DH Paul Molitor.
3. 1B Cecil Cooper.
4. P Jim Slaton.
5. P Dan Plesac.

Coaching

Bret Bielema (Iowa ’92), 38-14 after four 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 next Badgers head coach when Alvarez chose to step down. He 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 last fall, when Wisconsin failed to live up to its preseason billing with a 7-6 finish. 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. Five of the last seven 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 79-26 mark both as an assistant and head coach over the last eight seasons. Last season’s team provided Bielema with some breathing ground, with the former assistant indicating an ability to bring the Badgers back into Big Ten contention. The onus remains on Bielema to continue this growth in 2010 and beyond.

Players to watch

Let’s give John Clay some national love: his superb 2009 campaign has allowed the junior to rumble, truck and stiff-arm his way into the Heisman conversation. I think he’s right up there with any player in the country in this regard, particularly when taking both his top-level production and his importance to his team into the equation. As noted earlier, Wisconsin was perfect, 10-0 when rushing for at least 150 yards. The Badgers were 7-1 when Clay rushed for at least 100 yards, losing only to Northwestern; Clay rushed for only — only — 100 yards in that loss. He’s a star, pure and simple, a perfect fit for what Wisconsin wants to accomplish: run the ball in the first quarter, the fourth quarter, and with consistency in between. Yet Clay is not just a bruiser: check out his 72-yard scamper against Fresno State, or his 52-yard tote over, around and past the Hurricanes in Wisconsin’s bowl win. Hello, Heisman.. maybe. Clay will have to remain healthy — his ankles have given him trouble in the past, as well as his weight — for him to reach his individual goals and Wisconsin its team goals.

Sophomore Montee Ball and senior Zach Brown will spell Clay on occasion, with Ball coming off a strong finish to his rookie season. He didn’t land any significant action until the first Saturday of November, rushing for 115 yards on 27 carries in a win over Indiana. He was a fixture in the rotation down the stretch, rushing for at least 61 yards in each of Wisconsin’s last three victories. Brown is a reliable, tested hand, one who has started in the past. His production has ebbed since his freshman campaign, but some of this decline can be tied to injuries: he missed all or parts of three games last fall, though he still finished third on the team with 279 yards rushing.

How good was Scott Tolzien last fall? Surprisingly good, in fact. Yes, the first-year starter struggled in Wisconsin’s biggest two games: he tossed five interceptions without a touchdown against Ohio State and Iowa. He was great the rest of the way, however, exceeding all expectations that accompanied his ascension into the starting lineup. On the year, Tolzien threw for 2,705 yards — the second-most in school history — with 16 touchdowns against 11 interceptions. Not bad for a guy who entered fall camp last fall third on the depth chart. Better yet, Tolzien gives Wisconsin a returning starter at quarterback for the first time since 2006. What can he do for an encore? All he needs to do is put forth an equal performance to a year ago, though improve against the Buckeyes and Hawkeyes, of course.

The Wisconsin receiver corps is defined by its experience: seniors David Gilreath, Kyle Jefferson and Isaac Anderson and junior Nick Toon bring plenty of production into the 2010 season. Toon led the Badgers in receptions (54) and receiving yards (805) a year ago, making at least three catches in each regular season game. That type of consistency was great to see from the all-conference candidate. Anderson chipped in with 30 grabs for 480 yards — a team-best 16.0 yards per catch. Gilreath and Jefferson are wild cards, or at least somewhat. Each has battled injuries in the past: Gilreath was limited last fall following foot surgery, while Jefferson has had concussion issues in the past. Typically, losing a player like tight end Garrett Graham would be a concern; not to say Graham won’t be missed, but converted receiver Lance Kendricks has shown great potential in the passing game. The senior made 29 receptions a year ago, including a team-best seven in Wisconsin’s bowl victory.

Another year, another talented offensive front. While last fall’s injuries were frustrating, they did allow Wisconsin to develop quality depth, depth that will pay enormous dividends in 2010. Seven players with starting experience return, led by an all-conference left side: both tackle Gabe Carimi and guard John Moffitt earned first-team all-Big Ten accolades in 2009. This senior pair will be joined up front by juniors Josh Oglesby and Kevin Zeitler at right tackle and guard, respectively, and sophomore center Peter Konz. The latter has some issues to overcome — he was diagnosed with blood clots late last season — with another sophomore, Travis Frederick, ready to step back into the starting lineup if needed. There’s also depth here, with senior Bill Nagy and four well-regarded underclassmen pushing the incumbent starters. Keep an eye on Oglesby’s development: he has yet to play up to his full potential.

We can look at the defense in two ways: one, that last season’s improvement was a sign of things to come; or two, that last year’s improvement, as nice as it was, still isn’t good enough — and that an average statistical finish will be the norm, not an exception to the rule. If more improvement is too occur, Wisconsin must replace a superb edge rusher while doing a better job against the pass.

Much depends on the secondary. While the Badgers were superb against the run last fall — see that streak of solid performances detailed above — they were merely average, if not worse, against the pass. Cornerback play will be the key: the second cornerback, most notably. Junior Devin Smith, a 13-game starter last fall, is a solid choice at one spot. The Badgers simply couldn’t find an answer on the opposite side, with senior Niles Brinkley and juniors Aaron Henry and Antonio Fenelus alternating starts. Henry has since been moved to free safety, with Brinkley — as of now — penciled in to land the starting role. Fenelus will continue to play a role, of course, though the hope is that Brinkley finally lives up to his ability.

Henry will replace departed starter Chris Maragos at free safety; it’s hard not to view this as a step back for the defense. What Henry does have is pretty good size to go with above average speed, factors that along with his coverage experience might yield a stronger performance in his new role. Senior Jay Valai is back at strong safety — he’s been in Madison forever, it feels like — and will be the leader of the secondary. Now entering his third year as a starter, Valai was a second-team all-conference pick a year ago.

The play of the linebacker corps will depend on the availability of talented sophomores Chris Borland and Mike Taylor, each of whom missed spring practice while recovering from off-season surgery. Neither is a threat to miss any time this season, to be fair. If each is 100 percent healthy, well, look out: depending on whom you ask, either Borland or Taylor was the best freshman linebacker in the Big Ten in 2009; if you think it was Borland, Taylor came in second.

Borland was an immediate hit: he was the Big Ten Freshman of the Year last fall, finishing fifth on the team with 54 tackles (10.5 for loss) to go with five sacks. Taylor was en route to similar totals before an A.C.L. tear ended his season after seven games; when his year ended, Taylor was leading the Badgers in tackles. This sophomore pair will earn the headlines, but don’t sleep on seniors Culmer St. Jean and Blake Sorensen. The latter might have the best speed of any Wisconsin linebacker, while Bielema was effusive in his praise for St. Jean during the spring.

Position battles to watch

Defensive line The Badgers must replace O’Brien Schoefield, the all-Big Ten end, but the biggest worry is on the inside: only one returning tackle, junior Patrick Butrym, has played a down on the college level. Butrym is a good one, but this is a concern. Wisconsin will need one, two, three redshirt freshmen to step up: one to start, the latter pair to help provide depth. Jordan Kohout has the inside track to start alongside Butrym, but look for Ethan Herner and Beau Allen to factor heavily into the rotation. Allen is actually a true freshman, one whose early arrival on campus allowed him to showcase his talent. Depth at end, on the other hand, doesn’t seem to be a worry. Junior J.J. Watt will be extremely valuable to this defense: beyond stepping into Schoefield’s shoes as Wisconsin’s lead rusher, Watt has the size to move inside on passing downs. He showed an ability to get into the backfield last fall, making 15.5 tackles for loss, though as Watt himself has admitted, he needs to get to the quarterback with more regularity. Look for continued competition at the other end spot, where both junior Louis Nzegwu and sophomore David Gilbert have made claims to the starting role. Nzegwu holds a slight edge, but both should see time as Wisconsin shuffles linemen in and out at end.

Game(s) to watch

Ohio State on Oct. 16, Iowa a week later. Wisconsin’s season will be decided in a seven-day span. A road trip to Michigan and home dates with Michigan State and Northwestern will also be important, especially if the Badgers fall to both the Buckeyes and Hawkeyes. In that case, games against the latter trio will decide third place in the Big Ten.

Season breakdown & prediction

In a nutshell 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. The Badgers have a great Rose Bowl shot even without an outright Big Ten title, though this opportunity hinges on whether Ohio State can run the table and reach the B.C.S. Championship Game. Perhaps such talk is a tad premature: Wisconsin still must address the defense, which breaks in several new starters among its front seven and remains questionable in the secondary. If the defense comes together, on the other hand, 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. Even if the defense remains stagnant, the offense is good enough to carry Wisconsin to eight wins: Clay is a Heisman candidate, Tolzen likely even better in 2010 thanks to experience and the offensive line its deepest in years. 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.

Dream season The Badgers run the table: 12-0, 8-0 in the Big Ten, and in the B.C.S. title game.

Nightmare season The defense doesn’t get it done, dragging down a talented offense in a 7-5 finish.

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.

Up Next

Who is No. 13? Our next program’s debut season, way back in 1926, was highlighted by a pair of wins over the University of Havana.

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

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Comments

  1. Jim Dotter says:

    Triskaidekaphobics will love Miami!

  2. 'Catatonic Tim says:

    Sounds like Miami at 13?

  3. Keith S. says:

    Seriously? Jim Slaton makes it over Gorman Thomas?

    Paul: I felt like it was too batter heavy. Slaton is all-time leader in wins, thought he deserved mention.

  4. TrumanHugh says:

    Miami beat Havana just once, in 1928 (62-0). This is according to the ESPN CFB Encyclopedia. Perhaps they played them before the official record keepers took note?!

  5. [...] Five and Five: No. 14, Wisconsin By PAUL MYERBERG Paul Myerberg is getting you ready for the upcoming college football season over at Pre-Snap Read. The Quad will also feature a daily look at each of Paul’s top 50 teams in the country heading into the season opener. Today’s team, No. 14, is Wisconsin. You can find a larger Wisconsin preview here. [...]

  6. Chris P. says:

    Very thorough work, Paul! I’m going to link this to my friends as required reading. Gonna turn them into experts.

    I’m amazed at how accurate this article is in light of the other 119 write ups that you’ve done / are doing.

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