As Alvarez’s hand-picked successor enters his fourth season as Wisconsin’s head football coach, Bielema must halt a steady decline in the program. Bielema’s Badgers were 12-1 in 2006, capping the season with a win over Arkansas in the Capital One Bowl to finish the year ranked fifth in the nation. A year later the record slipped to 9-4 and Wisconsin lost 21-17 to Tennessee in the Outback Bowl.
Then came last year’s miserable 7-6 season that saw the Badgers barely scrape by Fresno State, one-win Minnesota, and I-AA opponent Cal Poly. The season also included a two-point loss to a three-win Michigan team, and ended with an embarrassing effort against Florida State in the Champs Sports Bowl.
Every year under Bielema the Badgers have gotten worse.
When he took over, they were a perennially ranked team. Now they enter the 2009 season just hoping to become bowl eligible.
Bielema is a defensive-minded coach, and was UW’s defensive coordinator under Alvarez. He must focus his attention on that side of the ball because Wisconsin has seen its points allowed average swell from 12 in 2006 to nearly 27 last season.
Fixing that will go along way in reversing the downward spiral of Wisconsin’s record. It won’t be easy with just three returning full-time starters—safety Jay Valai, defensive end O’Brien Schofield and linebacker Jaevery McFadden—returning.
The inexperienced defense has talent though and is ready to accept the challenge.
“There are no excuses for us on defense to give up more points every year,” Valai told Madison.com. “We’d better reverse that trend because we have to. With the type of offense we have, we’re going to ground and pound and beat the mess out of you … so we’ve got to come through.”
Wisconsin has loads of talent at the skill positions on offense, but will have to get consistent play from first-year starter Scott Tolzien. The junior beat out highly touted freshman Curt Phillips and last year’s starter, senior Dustin Sherer, for the job.
Wisconsin lost some starters on the offensive line, but the one thing that has always been a constant in Madison is a good, big, strong offensive front. The Badgers play power football, and the big uglies up front should be able to reload and clear holes for a stable of running backs led by John Clay and Zach Brown.
Clay is the official No. 1, but Brown is a good change-of-pace back that has the ability to take 20 carries a game. Also in the mix is true freshman Montee Ball, a super prospect from Timberland High School just went of St. Louis. Redshirt freshman Erik Smith has blazing speed and good hands out of the backfield—both good for a third-down threat.
The Badgers bring back nearly all of their pass catchers. Travis Beckum’s injury last year opened things up for Garrett Graham to become the featured tight end. Returning at wideout are David Gilreath, Isaac Anderson, and Nick Toon, son of former Badgers great Al Toon. What that trio can’t afford to do is drop passes, something that plagued the unit a season ago.
That’s the good and the bad. The yin and the yang. So what’s the prognosis?
Well, the schedule is managable.
Wisconsin opens at home Saturday with Northern Illinois, a 6-7 team a season ago. Then it’s two more home games against Fresno State and I-AA Wofford. So a 3-0 start is likely, but Wisconsin was 3-0 last year also.
Week four is the first real test, a home game against Michigan State, which is a team considered a dark horse to win the Big Ten. Win or lose, if the Badgers at least look crisp and focused against what is on paper a more talented team, then things could be looking bright. Last year’s contest in East Lansing was a 25-24 win for Sparty.
Another winnable game is in week five, but it’s also Wisconsin’s first road game. Minnesota was dismal last year, but the Badgers barely won to keep Paul Bunyan’s Axe – the best rivalry trophy in all of college football. Minnesota will be improved this year, so it will be no walk in the park inside the Gophers’ brand new stadium for the Badgers.
And this is when the schedule gets really tough.
Although Wisconsin played Ohio State tough last year, the Buckeyes still won, and a similar fate could await the Badgers this year. The Buckeyes are stacked and experienced.
The following week is homecoming in Madison, but it’s also against highly-touted Iowa. It sucks losing the homecoming game, but just think of all the comforting drinks that will be consumed on State Street after the game.
So 4-3 is likely after seven games, but there might not be a loss on the schedule after that with home games against Purdue and troubled Michigan. The road contests are at Indiana, Northwestern and Hawaii.
A 9-3, or even an 8-4 record will reverse the trend of the last three years, and should save Alvarez from having to make a difficult decision.
Bret Bielema just might be able to stave off the “Fire Bret Bielema” calls for at least one more season.