With just five days until kickoff, it’s everyone’s last opportunity to get their season previews done and set the tone for the year-long evaluation of Bret Bielema. (For what it’s worth, I’m an optimist at 9-3, losses to Ohio State, Iowa, and one of Northwestern or MSU). Bielema’s seat is warm, but how warm? With a few days to go before the opener, by what standard should we judge him?
The one that counts: wins.
Message board crazies were up in arms after last year’s loss to Iowa and it just got worse after the Florida State debacle. “Bielema’s awful and needs to go.” Unfortunately, patience is a rare commodity in the internet age. Lost in the anger over last season’s collapse was perspective on the past.
Wisconsin is not Ohio State, or even Michigan (even the current Michigan). Whether led by Bielema, Alvarez, or Jesus Christ himself, the Badgers will never have a cupboard full of uber-recruits. Nine win seasons aren’t “down” years for the Badgers (used to be eight, but we’re fully entrenched in the 12-game season now). Our bad years will be around .500.
Can’t tolerate that? Then you can’t tolerate Barry Alvarez. And I don’t mean pre-Rose Bowl Barry Alvarez, I mean King Barry savior-of-the-program Alvarez. After winning the ’93 Rose Bowl, Alvarez’s teams went 8-3-1 in ’94 and 4-5-2 in ’95.
But that was still a program in transition, you say? After winning back-to-back Rose Bowls (no other Big Ten has ever done that) and crowning a Heisman campaign, the Badgers went 9-4 in ’00, then 5-7 in ’01. No excuses there; Barry’s ’01 team just didn’t perform.
Lest we think that was a blip on the radar, after going 8-6 with only two conference wins in ’02, Alvarez led another disappointing campaign in ’03 (7-6).
The point is one 7-6 season isn’t reason to ditch Bielema, even in the Badgers’ post-Rose Bowl era. Nonetheless, things need to change.
Bielema has done a good job of bringing solid talent into Madison. But again, the Badgers will never have enough talent to win on talent alone. Alvarez’s teams didn’t have any more talent than Bielema’s, but one thing they always had was discipline.
A lack of discipline translates to penalties and turnovers. Drive killers. Momentum killers. Sound familiar? These are things King Barry didn’t allow, but killed Bielema’s Badgers time and again last season. Discipline, or the lack thereof, is the difference between winning and losing when you’re coaching up a bunch of three-star kids to steal a win in the Big House, the Shoe, or even East Lansing.
Bielema’s added a few years and taken some humbling since becoming a 36-year-old head coach. Hopefully the days of him sprinting across the field to slap any opposing coach’s hand are over. But more importantly, hopefully the days of costing his team a win with an ill-advised comment to a referee are over. Hopefully he's a little more disciplined. And hopefully his team will follow suit.
Hope is not a method.
This year, against this slate: eight wins. No less.
The Badgers should sweep the weak out-of-conference slate (although one loss there isn’t indictment enough, see pre-Big East Cincinnati, 1999). That leaves splitting the conference slate. Without Penn State or Illinois, with MSU and Iowa at home, and with Michigan rebuilding with a true-freshman quarterback (raise your hand if you see Sheridan getting meaningful snaps in the conference schedule… I didn’t think so), there’s simply no reason the Badgers can’t come up with four wins in conference play.
Realistically, a pretty mediocre team could win nine or even 10 this season. Michigan State, while improving, has the same talent issues we do; they will never just plug new guys in and win on talent alone.
Minnesota? It’s the “in” thing to predict a loss in Minneapolis at the new stadium (I’ve done it at least once this summer), but remember how the Gophers ended last season: a brutal melt-down over the last five games (coincidentally against better teams, save for Michigan, than they played in the first seven games).
Northwestern? I know they shouldn’t be overlooked, but with a new quarterback and new running back, they shouldn’t be feared either.
The only games on the schedule that look really tough on paper are Iowa and Ohio State. That’s the optimist in me speaking, but outside of those two, the Badgers are—on paper—competitive with or better than everyone on their slate.
So, Bret… eight wins. But don’t go patting yourself on the back if that’s all you get.