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The Countdown

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

Need to Know

O’Brien’s Transfer Path Leads to Wisconsin

The early leader for Danny O’Brien’s services was Vanderbilt, thanks to O’Brien’s connection to James Franklin, his former offensive coordinator at Maryland. That Randy Edsall and the Terrapins denied O’Brien an opportunity to transfer into Vanderbilt, and then accused the university of tampering with its former quarterback before O’Brien announced his decision to transfer, only lent further credence to the idea that Vanderbilt was the team to beat. More recently, thanks to two visits within two weeks, Penn State seemed to hold the lead for O’Brien’s signature. Eventually, however, O’Brien chose the school that made the most sense for all parties: Wisconsin.

It was the Badgers that desperately needed a quarterback. Vanderbilt’s need wasn’t desperate: the Commodores have Jordan Rodgers, a former JUCO transfer who propelled Vanderbilt into bowl play after a midseason promotion into the starting lineup.

Penn State has options, albeit options that don’t exactly strike fear into the rest of the Big Ten. Rob Bolden has been a disappointment during his periodic shuffling in and out of the starting lineup. Matt McGloin has fared better, but he has yet to outplay Bolden to the point where he can be deemed the clear-cut starter. Paul Jones is unproven.

But Penn State has two quarterbacks with starting experience in the Big Ten. What did Wisconsin have? The Badgers had five quarterbacks on the roster: senior Curt Phillips, junior Jon Budmayr, sophomore Joe Brennan, redshirt freshman Joel Stave and true freshman Bart Houston.

Phillips’ career has been stymied at every turn by knee injuries. Budmayr is suffering through nerve issues in his throwing elbow; after missing all of last season, it’s unknown whether Budmayr will be available at all in 2012. Brennan was last year’s backup. Stave is a former walk-on. Houston underwent shoulder surgery this month and should miss all of his rookie season.

Penn State and Vanderbilt could offer a potential starting spot in the Big Ten and SEC, respectively. Mississippi, which was a bit of a surprise addition to O’Brien’s list, could likewise offer an SEC shot along with the chance to play under Hugh Freeze, a rising star among offense-first head coaches on the B.C.S. conference level.

But Wisconsin is the only school where the demand clearly matched O’Brien’s needs. Bret Bielema is providing lip service to the idea that the competition remains wide open, saying in a statement that he has “not promised Danny anything other than the chance to come in during the fall and compete for the starting quarterback position.”

Don’t believe that for a moment. There’s simply no impediment in O’Brien’s path: Brennan is the only healthy scholarship quarterback on the roster. Brennan was Russell Wilson’s backup last fall, but the Badgers, with eyes on another Rose Bowl, couldn’t afford to turn the offense over to such a lightly-tested sophomore.

In its recent history, Wisconsin has always shied away from younger options and towards older, more experienced quarterbacks. The last sophomore to start for the Badgers was John Stocco, who did so in 2004. Since then, Wisconsin has typically waited until a quarterback’s junior season — or senior, at times — before moving him into a starting role.

O’Brien fits all of Wisconsin’s needs, just as he met Penn State’s needs, for example. He’s a proven and experienced starter on the B.C.S. conference level. He’s well-versed in a balanced, pro-style attack; in fact, with Montee Ball in the fold O’Brien will finally be able to balance out his own passing game with one of the best rushing attacks in college football. He wasn’t afforded this luxury at Maryland.

So what differentiated Wisconsin and Penn State? Here’s one: Wisconsin can tout continuity. While the Badgers went through an extreme coaching overhaul in the offseason, the program will retain the same philosophies on each side of the ball. The cast will change, but the play remains the same.

Wisconsin has a superb supporting cast. The offensive line needs to replace a few all-conference standouts, but Wisconsin always reloads up front; if that’s the Badgers’ biggest worry, then the offense is in good shape. Jared Abbrederis, Jacob Pedersen and Jeff Duckworth return as the leading figures in the passing game. There’s Ball and James White in the backfield.

And the biggest difference-maker for Wisconsin? That would be the fact that the program’s been here before: it was less than a year ago that Wilson opted to move in from N.C. State, and after the way he fared in 2011 it’s clear that the Badgers have a plan for quickly and effectively transitioning a transfer into a starting role.

O’Brien may not be a quarterback of Wilson’s caliber, but the Badgers could tout the same sort of tutorial that led the latter to have one of the best seasons by a quarterback in F.B.S. history as a senior. Above all else, it was this that served as Wisconsin’s greatest appeal.

O’Brien weighed his options, visiting Oxford, Happy Valley — twice — and Madison, but settled on the Badgers for those three reasons: continuity, a supporting cast and the knowledge he’d be in good hands. What does this mean for Wisconsin? With the offense’s biggest issue settled, the Badgers can resume another run to Pasadena. The rest of the Big Ten groans as a result.

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