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The Countdown

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

A Retrospective

The Year in Review: Wisconsin (11-3, 6-2)

It’s not quite Tennessee, but it’s close. The Volunteers lost seven assistants off last year’s staff. Bret Bielema and the Badgers lost six assistants, though it seemed, for a day or two, that the total would jump to seven: Earlier this month, running backs coach Thomas Hammock flirted with the St. Louis Rams before choosing to remain with Wisconsin. But you can see why coaches were leaving Derek Dooley and Tennessee en masse; one former assistant, Eric Russell, openly cited the lack of stability in Knoxville as his rationale for joining Mike Leach at Washington State. Other former Dooley assistants couldn’t be faulted for feeling the same way.

On the other hand, why would Wisconsin have suffered such massive changeover on its coaching staff? The Badgers ended last year with 11 wins and a narrow loss in the Rose Bowl, just as they ended the 2010 season. The program has won 32 games over the last three years, and an even 60 over Bielema’s six seasons as head coach.

Six assistants left Madison in the weeks following the Rose Bowl loss. Offensive coordinator Paul Chryst was named the head coach at Pittsburgh on Dec. 22, though he remained on Bielema’s staff through the postseason. He was followed to Pittsburgh by offensive line coach Bob Bostad, tight ends coach Joe Rudolph and linebackers coach Dave Huxtable.

In early January, wide receivers coach DelVaughn Alexander left for the same position at Arizona State. On Jan. 19, special teams coordinator and safeties coach DeMontie Cross was hired as Charlie Weis’ linebackers coach at Kansas. There’s your six: Chryst, Bostad, Rudolph, Huxtable, Alexander and Cross.

Chryst landed a B.C.S. conference head coaching job — an absolute no-brainer. Bostad and Rudolph were package deals, it seems. Huxtable earned a promotion from linebackers to defensive coordinator. Alexander’s move was lateral, to be fair. But Cross was able to get his own position group with the Jayhawks, and as weak as Kansas might be in 2012, that’s a definite career upgrade.

Unlike the circumstances at Tennessee, Wisconsin’s departed assistants left for better opportunities, not greater stability. The lone exception is Alexander, who left for another reason altogether: the chance to work in the Pac-12. A native of Los Angeles, Alexander worked at U.S.C. — his alma mater — Oregon State and the University of San Diego before joining Bielema in 2007.

Three assistants will return this fall, each in the same role. Chris Ash remains Wisconsin’s co-defensive coordinator and secondary coach. Charlie Partridge, Bielema’s assistant head coach, will share coordinator duties and coach the defensive line. After that mild flirtation with the N.F.L., Hammock returned for another year of Montee Ball and the Badgers’ high-profile running game.

Despite the circumstances, and despite the trio of coaches who opted to remain, the widespread turnover is reason for concern. Not quite red-alert-level concern, but there’s no easy answer to the question: Why would so many coaches leave what seems, on paper, like one of the better situations in college football? The question doesn’t apply to Chryst, but what about the rest?

Is Bielema difficult to work under? Perhaps. But that didn’t lead Chryst, a seven-year veteran of Wisconsin, to take another job at any point over the previous six seasons. Bostad had been with the Badgers since Bielema’s arrival in 2006. Alexander had been in the fold for five years; Rudolph since 2008. Huxtable and Cross were new additions in 2011.

A more valid theory: The six had capped out with the Badgers. Chryst’s stock was never going to be higher — besides, he landed a plum gig with the Panthers. Bostad and Rudolph were able to ride his coattails to a nice raise and a career boost. Huxtable earned a promotion. Cross turned a Rose Bowl run into the job at Kansas. The six got out while the getting was good. A nice theory, at least.

Turnabout is fair play. Bielema reached into Chryst’s pocket to nab tight ends coach Eddie Faulkner, who agreed to terms with Wisconsin less than a month after joining the Panthers. On Feb. 18, Bostad left Pittsburgh — he joined Chryst on Jan. 7 — to become Greg Schiano’s offensive line coach with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Bielema raided Northern Illinois for Matt Canada, who replaced Chryst as offensive coordinator. Nevada lost defensive coordinator Andy Buh, who stepped in for Huxtable. New receivers coach Zach Azzanni was Western Kentucky’s offensive coordinator. And round and round we go.

Season grade: A Rarely does a transfer work so well — whether from another program, the junior college ranks or via the N.C.A.A. graduate student loophole, with the latter responsible for allowing Russell Wilson to trade in Raleigh for Madison. For every Wilson there’s a Jeremiah Masoli, who arrived at Mississippi with similar fanfare but crashed and burned outside of Chip Kelly’s offense. Wilson was nearly perfect, setting a pair of N.C.A.A. records during his marvelous one-year run with the Badgers: one career, for the most consecutive games with a touchdown, and one single-season, for the highest quarterback efficiency rating. Thanks to Wilson, a Heisman-worthy running back and a fairly strong defense, the Badgers won 11 games for the second consecutive season. Sadly, the year ended with another loss in the Rose Bowl.

High point Two victories stand out. The first was a prime-time destruction of then-No. 8 Nebraska on Oct. 1. Key word: destruction. The second was a 42-39 win over Michigan State in the inaugural Big Ten title game, one that avenged a narrow loss in October and pushed the Badgers into the Rose Bowl.

Low point In order: Oregon, Ohio State and Michigan State. The first for occurring in Pasadena, where the Badgers have dropped two straight under Bielema after winning all three of its tries under Barry Alvarez. The second for the utter insanity of it all; the Buckeyes had no business hanging around that game, let alone pulling out the win. The third was painful, but the Badgers were able to gain a measure of revenge in Indianapolis.

Offensive M.V.P. Thirty-nine total touchdowns, the second-most in F.B.S. history. An F.B.S.-best 1,932 yards rushing. Ten 100-yard games; two 200-yard games. At least one touchdown in 20 consecutive games, an N.C.A.A. record. A Heisman finalist. With all due respect to Wilson, Montee Ball was the engine behind Wisconsin’s prolific offense. The best news? After weighing his options in January, Ball opted to return to Madison for his senior season.

Defensive M.V.P. The defense melted down against Oregon. It suffered through a horrific second quarter in the loss to Michigan State. The Badgers were unprepared for Braxton Miller and the Ohio State running game a week later. By and large, however, the defense might have been Wisconsin’s best since 2006, Bielema’s first season. One thing the Badgers did as well as anyone was defend the pass, ranking fourth nationally in yards allowed per game and intercepting 16 passes, tied for 18th nationally. That the defense struggled at times stopping the run contributed to the nice numbers against the pass — the Badgers faced the 25th-fewest passing attempts in the country — but cornerback Aaron Henry, a first-team all-conference pick, helped pace a secondary that held four opponents under 100 yards passing. Linebackers Mike Taylor and Chris Borland, who combined for 293 tackles, also earned all-conference recognition.

Stock watch Ball’s still around, as is Bielema and a few loyal assistants. But the Badgers have some serious questions to address before being penciled into another postseason trip to Pasadena. There’s that nearly brand-new staff. The Badgers’ quarterback issues have resurfaced. Both lines suffered a handful of losses to graduation. Wisconsin’s not going to suffer a precipitous slide, but can this team really be viewed as the best in the Big Ten for a third straight year? A few things in the Badgers’ favor: the offensive line is always superb; Ball is the best returning back in the country; three of last season’s top four receivers return; and by and large, the defense remains intact. The pieces are there for another run at 10 wins. How well the new faces meld with the old standbys will decide Wisconsin’s fate.

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