Badger football fans are perhaps a little less enthusiastic about Bucky’s 2009 season, which begins Saturday at Camp Randall Stadium against Northern Illinois.
Why so cautious? Well, last year’s 7-6 campaign took Wisconsin from the status of elite Big Ten team to average Big Ten team. And it took Head Coach Bret Bielema from being a wunderkind to being a coach on the hot seat, particularly when he was called for a costly unsportsmanlike conduct penalty in the Nov. 1 loss against Michigan State. Many then made the connection between the team’s overall lack of discipline and its leader’s lack of discipline.
Let’s face it: Bielema’s record has been going in the wrong direction since taking over in 2006, from his 12-1 debut to 9-4 in 2007 to last year’s 7-6. Despite his strong relationship with athletic director Barry Alvarez, Bielema knows he has to reverse that trend to keep his job.
But can he?
Heading into a season with an inherent quarterback controversy is never good, and that’s exactly what the Badgers have. Even the coaches can’t decide, as the official depth chart reads “Scott Tolzien or Curt Phillips” as the starter.
Given the buzz that Phillips generated in camp, I would expect him to be the eventual starter once the conference schedule begins in late September, particularly if Tolzien reminds anyone of 2008 stillborn starter Allan Evridge. And if both Tolzien and Phillips flame out, Dustin Sherer, who I thought showed vast improvement over the final few weeks of 2008, is waiting in the wings.
But a wise man—was it my father? Al Michaels? Thomas Dewey?—once said, if you don’t have one starting quarterback, you don’t have any. That’s the situation the Badgers are in.
Fortunately, whoever lines up under center will have some talent around him. P.J. Hill is gone, but John Clay is back. And for a traditional run-first team, the Badgers have a solid receiving corps, with returning starters David Gilreath, Garrett Graham, Isaac Anderson, and Nick Toon.
While the so-called “skill” positions boast some familiar faces, the lines do not: both the offensive and defensive fronts will feature three new starters, while two of Wisconsin’s starting linebackers have a total of three starts.
The secondary, with Jay Valai, Shane Carter, and Niles Brinkley, is more experienced, and if Aaron Henry can come back from a knee injury that caused him to miss all of last season, the Badgers' defensive backfield should be solid.
Of course, considering how porous and penalty-riddled the Badgers’ defense was last year (forget Rob Zombie; the defensive performances against Minnesota, Cal Poly, and Florida State to close out the 2008 season still keep me up at nights), the personnel turnaround on that side of the ball could be one of this team’s strengths.
Another of the Badgers’ strengths is their schedule: they get the first four games at home, most of their road games are against conference opponents that should be weaker (Minnesota, Indiana, Northwestern), and they don’t have to face Penn State (whew) or Illinois at all. By far the toughest game will be Ohio State in Columbus on Oct. 10.
One anomaly in the schedule is the fact that the Badgers will play the Gophers in Minnesota Oct. 3—much earlier than they typically meet—which is just two days before Brett Favre’s Vikings play the Packers in Minnesota. (That’s assuming Brett Favre hasn’t retired again before week four of the NFL season.) Forget the Middle East; the Wisconsin-Minnesota rivalry will be the border battle that first week of October.
Here’s a capsule look at the Badgers’ 2009 football schedule with my gut predictions:
Sept. 5, Northern Illinois. The Huskies led their conference in team defense in 2008. Of course, that was the MAC Conference. Final: Wisconsin 35, Northern Illinois 10.
Sept. 12, Fresno State. This was a big game last year, when both teams were expected to do big things in 2008. No such luck this year. Final: Wisconsin 27, Fresno State 17.
Sept. 19, Wofford. You know when the Badgers' football schedule comes out and there’s always that one team on it that you’ve never heard of before, and you wonder aloud where they’re even from? Well, I’ll tell you. Wofford College is in Spartanburg, South Carolina. Their mascot is the Terriers. They play in the same conference—the Southern—as Appalachian State. Remember when Appalachian State beat Michigan in 2007? A great story, but don’t expect a sequel here. Final: Wisconsin 49, Wofford 7.
Sept. 26, Michigan State. The Big Ten opener is an intriguing one. The Spartans are a trendy pick in 2009, but they’ve lost running back Javon Ringer and quarterback Brian Hoyer. This could come down to what type of quarterback play the Badgers are getting. If the Badgers are getting even adequate play at QB, the home team should prevail. Final: Wisconsin 20, Michigan State 17.
Oct. 3, @ Minnesota. This will be the first conference game at the Gophers’ new TCF Bank Stadium, and while there will certainly be a lot of cardinal and white in the stands, I think the excitement of the occasion favors the Gophers. Plus, Minnesota has a brutal late September-late October schedule. This looks to be one they can win. Final: Minnesota 27, Wisconsin 24.
Oct. 10, @ Ohio State. Bret Bielema has yet to beat the Ohio State Buckeyes. I have yet to watch my DVD of Forgetting Sarah Marshall. I think I have a better chance of crossing my item off of my to-do list in 2009. This should be Bucky’s toughest game this season. Final: Ohio State 38, Wisconsin 17.
Oct. 17, Iowa. Like Michigan State, Iowa is a trendy pick in 2009. The two finished neck-and-neck in the standings in 2008. But Iowa finished stronger last season and retains more of its 2008 team than do the Spartans. In other words, I think Iowa will be the better team. Final: Iowa 24, Wisconsin 20.
Oct. 31, Purdue. Coming off its bye week, the Badgers face what could be the Big Ten’s worst team in 2009. The Boilermakers have a new coaching staff, new quarterback, and have been going in the wrong direction for several seasons. This Halloween game doesn’t look too scary. Final: Wisconsin 41, Purdue 20.
Nov. 7, Indiana. If Purdue won’t be the worst team in the Big Ten, the Hoosiers will be. Final: Wisconsin 35, Indiana 17.
Nov. 14, Michigan. Michigan was terrible last year, yet still beat the Badgers. They’ll be better this year. Final: Michigan 24, Wisconsin 21.
Nov. 21, @ Northwestern. The Wildcats were the surprise team in the Big Ten last year, winning nine games for the first time since 1996 and coming close to winning the school’s first bowl game in 50 years. Unfortunately, the team then lost its quarterback, starting running back, and three top receivers. That’s college football for you. Final: Wisconsin 17, Northwestern 10.
Dec. 5, @ Hawaii. You thought the Wildcats’ turnover was severe? Hawaii’s head coach recently said of his 2009 squad, “It’s an unknown team.” Well, they should be known by December. They’ll be known as lousy. Final: Wisconsin 35, Hawaii 20.
Regular Season Record Prediction: 8-4 (4-4)