Breaking Down The Big Ten, Part Nine: The Wisconsin Badgers

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Breaking Down The Big Ten, Part Nine: The Wisconsin Badgers

Bret Bielema has now been the head coach of the Wisconsin Badgers for four years.

He has an overall record of 38-14. This averages out to 9.5 wins per year.

He has gone to a bowl each of his four years at the helm. His bowl record is 2-2, and it includes two wins over ranked teams.

Since 2006, Wisconsin is tied for 15th-most wins in FBS football. Moreover, they have the third most wins in the Big Ten during that span.

They are in the same stratum as teams such as Virginia Tech, Georgia, and Oklahoma. This is despite the fact that historically and recruiting-wise, they have nowhere near the cache of those institutions.

So, why does a site called FireBretBielema.com exist? Why is Bret Bielema not the most popular guy in Madison?

I think there are three primary reasons.

The first is that his predecessor, and current boss, is Barry Alvarez .

Alvarez is a Wisconsin coaching legend. He has presided over the Badgers only Rose Bowl wins ever. He is their all-time winningest coach. He was the first Badger coach to secure 10 wins in a season.

Wisconsin's all-time winning percentage pre-Alvarez is .54468 . During Alvarez's tenure the Badgers winning percentage was .61538 .

In short, to Wisconsin fans, Alvarez is on equal footing with Bear Bryant, Joe Paterno, and Knute Rockne. Meanwhile, Bret Bielema is not.

It is never easy to replace a legend, even if one is hand-picked to be his successor.

The second reason is Bielema's timing. Specifically, his most successful season—from a win/loss perspective—was his first.

In 2006, the Badgers went 12-1. 2007 saw the Badgers slip a little to 9-3. In 2008, the Badgers started the season as a dark-horse contender for the Big Ten title, and wound up going 7-6. Moreover, that 7-6 season was littered with a number of questionable coaching decisions .

I will stop there, and note that usually new coaches face a certain new-coach adversity period early in their tenure. Perhaps it builds calluses and teaches them a thing or two.

Bielema lost one game in his first season. Outside of that one loss, he had nowhere to go but down.

I would argue if Bielema's four seasons as head coach were flipped around a bit—if he had started at 7-6, then gone 9-3, followed by 12-1—nobody would be questioning him.

Also, if you look at the FireBretBielema.com web page, you will notice there are no posts after January, 2009. That is because the Badgers were supposed to have a "down" season in 2009. However, they surprised a lot of critics with an impressive 10-win campaign.

Finally, there is Bret's record against top-notch in-conference competition.

Under Bielema, UW is 2-7 against ranked Big Ten teams.

Both of their wins were in 2007. One of them was against Michigan State. MSU was ranked No. 23 at the time, but wound up 7-6, and did not finish the season in the Top 25. The other was against a Michigan team that ended up 9-4 and ranked 18th.

As Wisconsin feature columnist Sam Oleson so appropriately noted , Bielema faces a huge year in 2010.

He has 10 starters returning from an offense that led the Big Ten in scoring in 2009. More specifically, they return their quarterback, their entire offensive line, a solid and deep group of receivers, and the best back to grace Camp Randall since Ron Dayne.

Furthermore, Wisconsin probably has the easiest schedule out of the top teams in this year's Big Ten.

The fact is, if the Badgers finish the regular season with any less than 11 wins, Bielema may permanently relegate himself and his program to perennial also-rans.

On the other hand, if Wisconsin wins 11 or more games, Bielema can finally step out of Barry Alvarez's formidable shadow.

 

Offense

In 2009, Wisconsin had the top scoring offense in the Big Ten, both for the season and in Big Ten play . They averaged 32.8 points per game overall, and 31.8 points in-conference.

Northern Illinois, Iowa, and Ohio State were the only teams that held the Badgers to less than 30 points.

Moving into 2010, one can expect more of the same from UW, as they return all but one of their offensive starters.

To begin with, the entire offensive line returns. They will line up as follows (from left-to-right): Senior Gabe Carimi, sophomore Travis Frederick, senior John Moffitt, junior Kevin Zeitler, and junior Josh Oglesby.

Also, sophomore Peter Konz, who started 10 games last season, will be in the mix.

The reason for Konz's apparent demotion is due to John Moffitt moving from left guard back to his natural center position. Presumably this is due to his beautiful hands, and because really, "people come to see [Moffitt] snap the ball."

Both Carimi and Moffitt are on various preseason All-American lists , and are locks for All-Big Ten laurels. Also, Wisconsin's line is considered the top front five in the nation by multiple preseason magazines .

In 2009, Wisconsin averaged 4.56 yards per carry . They may just put up over five yards per carry this season.

The majority of those carries will go to junior John Clay. Clay is the returning Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year. He is also on many preseason All-American teams, and is considered a potential Heisman candidate .

Last season, Clay rushed for 1,517 yards, 18 touchdowns, and 5.29 yards per carry.

This season, behind this offensive line, Clay could go over 2,000 yards. In fact, I expect him to get excessive playing time in mop-up duty, as Bielema will try to get him to that plateau.

Nevertheless, the one damning stat for Clay is his performance against elite Big Ten defenses. In fact, he ran for an average of over four yards per carry against every team the Badgers played, except OSU, Iowa, and Northern Illinois.

Behind Clay are senior Zach Brown and sophomore Montee Ball. Both are very able backs in the typical Badger mold. Neither are quite as good as Clay, but in this offense, behind this line, either could pick up 1,400-1,500 yards.

At receiver, Wisconsin returns all but one of their top 10 receivers from last season. The one non-returning player is All-Big Ten tight end, and Brick, NJ native, Garrett Graham. Last season, Graham had 51 catches for 624 yards and seven touchdowns.

In most cases, that sort of production would be difficult to replace. However, Wisconsin has senior Lance Kendricks ready to pick up where Graham left off. In 2009, Kendricks had 29 catches for 356 yards and three touchdowns. If he stays healthy, his 2010 numbers should be similar to Graham's 2009 production.

It remains to be seen whether Kendricks will line up at tight end, or remain in the H-back position.

UW's starting receivers will be junior Nick Toon and senior Isaac Anderson. Also, key backup, senior David Gilreath will log plenty of plenty time.

In 2009, the three combined for 117 catches, 1,462 yards, and six touchdowns.

College Football News ranked Wisconsin's receiving unit as the best in the conference. That may be a little far-fetched, but they are a very solid, dependable group.

With all of that talent on offense, in the end, the season may very well rest on the shoulders of the Badgers' senior quarterback, Scott Tolzien.

Yes, Wisconsin's offensive philosophy is to run, run, and run some more—63 percent of their offensive plays in 2009 were rushing plays—but keeping the defense honest is what makes that possible.

The Badgers' quarterback is not asked to do as much as other quarterbacks, but when called upon, he has to be efficient.

For the most part, Tolzien was surprisingly efficient in 2009. He completed 64.3 percent of his passes for 2,705 yards. His touchdown to interception ratio was 16:11.

He also had the highest quarterback rating of any Big Ten quarterback; even higher than All-Big Ten quarterback Daryll Clark.

The problem was his performance against elite Big Ten teams.

Against Ohio State and Iowa, he completed 60 percent of his passes for 393 yards. More importantly, he threw five interceptions to zero touchdowns.

Due primarily to this, the team that averaged 32.8 points per game on the season, averaged 11.5 against the Bucks and Hawks.

Further compounding Tolzien's importance, backup Curt Phillips will be sidelined for the year with a torn ACL. In effect, redshirt freshman Jon Budmayr moves into the backup spot.

Ultimately, OSU's Terrell Pryor may be the most indispensable player in the Big Ten, but I would argue that Scott Tolzien is a close—and surprising—second.

 

Defense

In 2009, the Badgers were fourth in the conference in scoring defense, allowing 22.4 PPG.

However, five of last year's defensive starters have graduated, including three from a very good defensive line. Along with the three linemen, UW also lost a linebacker and a safety.

Most notable among that bunch of graduates was defensive end O'Brien Schofield, who was second in the Big Ten in both sacks and tackles-for-loss.

Needless to say, one of the big questions facing the Badgers is whether they will be able to replace Schofield's productivity.

It will start with junior defensive end J.J. Watt, who had a breakout season in 2009. He was third on the team with 4.5 sacks, and second on the team in tackles-for-loss with 15.5. Along with that, he had 44 total tackles, and five passes broken up.

In a conference that is full of defensive linemen, Phil Steele picked Watt for his pre-season All-Big Ten team. Watt certainly has the ability. It remains to be seen if he can shine when opposing offensive coordinators gameplan against him.

The reason offensive coordinators will focus on him, is because the only other notable experience on the defensive line will come from junior defensive tackle Patrick Butrym. In 2009, Butrym picked up three starts.

In those starts, he accumulated 24 tackles, 2.5 tackles-for-loss, .5 sacks, and one interception. He will need to continue to progress in order for the UW defense to be successful.

The rest of the line should fill out with redshirt freshman Jordan Kohout on the inside and junior Louis Nzegwu at the other end. Nzegwu picked up 3.5 sacks last season, while spelling Schofield, so the ability is there.

Walk-on Ethan Helmer came on late in the spring and looks to be the third tackle. Also, there might be some playing time for true freshman Beau Allen .

Wisconsin can expect a lot of teams to run right at this green d-line. The good news is that there is a good amount of experience behind the line.

The linebackers will be sophomores Chris Borland and Mike Taylor on the outside, and senior Culmer St. Jean in the middle.

St. Jean started every game last year. Meanwhile, Taylor started the first seven games before a knee injury caused him to miss the rest of the season. True freshman Borland stepped in for him and shined, enough to earn the Big Ten's Freshman of the Year award.

In his somewhat limited playing time, Borland compiled 54 tackles, 10.5 tackles-for-loss, five sacks, one interception, five forced fumbles, and three fumble recoveries.

Both Taylor and Borland were on Phil Steele's pre-season All-Big Ten team, with Borland appearing on the first team, and Taylor on the third. Both sat out spring practice while recovering from surgeries.

Last season, the Badgers struggled a bit against the pass. This was despite having such a formidable defensive line and pass rush.

In all games, Wisconsin was sixth in the Big Ten in pass defense. However, in conference play , they were second-to-last. They were also eighth in the conference in pass defense efficiency.

This year, the secondary returns three players. The one graduation is free safety Chris Maragos. His four interceptions were twice as many as anybody else on the team.

Taking Maragos's spot will be converted cornerback Aaron Henry. Henry is a junior that has had minimal game-time experience thus far, at either corner or safety. As of the spring game, his reaction time left something to be desired. He will be looked upon to make considerable progress heading into September.

He will be helped along by strong safety, Jay Valai. 2010 will be Valai's third season starting at strong safety. He has not been great in coverage, picking up only one interception over the last two seasons. Nevertheless, he is a solid player, superb in run support, and he will be the leader of the backfield.

One cornerback spot appears to be locked up by junior, and returning starter Devin Smith. However, the other returning cornerback, senior Niles Brinkley, has missed some time with a hamstring injury. This has opened the door for junior Antonio Fenelus.

In fact, after the spring game, Bielema called Fenelus his "most consistent performer all spring" at the position. Is this a sign that the Badgers are stronger in the secondary than expected, or is it a sign that the returning starters are struggling?

That question will probably be answered when the Badgers open the Big Ten season against Michigan State, who had the fourth-best pass offense in conference games.

 

Schedule

The Badgers open the season with a road game against UNLV. While UNLV projects to be a substandard team out of the Mountain West Conference , it will be a good way for UW to get some easy road experience.

After this, the Badgers come home to play what looks to be a fairly lousy San Jose State team. This is followed by a home game against Arizona State, who might be the second-worst team in this year's Pac-10.

Finally, Wisconsin finishes up its out-of-conference slate against FCS Austin Peay.

UW starts Big Ten play on the road against Michigan State. They then come home to compete with Minnesota for possession of Paul Bunyan's Axe .

After this, comes the two-game stretch that will decide Wisconsin's and Bret Bielema's fate. The Badgers start with a home game against Ohio State, and then travel to Iowa City to play the Hawkeyes.

After the Iowa game, Wisconsin has an open date. This is followed by a road trip to Purdue, and then a home game against Indiana.

UW finishes the season on the road against Michigan, and back home against Northwestern.

The Badgers should sweep the OOC with ease. The only real test might be ASU, who does boast a respectable defense. Nevertheless, Wisconsin's second and third-string players should get reps in every one of these games.

Furthermore, these easy games might help John Clay's conditioning, as reports and pictures coming out of Fort Bielema show a fairly hefty Clay , who is recovering from off-season ankle surgery.

In conference, they should easily beat Minnesota and Indiana. Moreover, Purdue shouldn't pose too much of a threat.

That leaves Michigan State, Ohio State, Iowa, Michigan, and Northwestern as the Badgers' real challenges.

However, if UW is as good as advertised, the crux of their season will be their back-to-back games against OSU and Iowa.

 

Intangibles

One of the bigger surprises I've come across while doing this series has been Wisconsin's defensive numbers. Even more specifically, I've been surprised by Bret Bielema's defensive numbers.

Before becoming the head coach, he spent two years working as the defensive coordinator under Alvarez. Before that, he worked as co-defensive coordinator at Kansas State, under Bill Snyder.

He used to play nose guard, and his background is strictly as a defensive coach.

Yet, at Wisconsin—including his two years as defensive coordinator—his teams have given up an average of 20.4 points per game.

That is fourth in the conference over that time period, and it is hardly an embarrassing number. However, it is a substantial drop from OSU (14.2 PPG), PSU (15 PPG), and Iowa (17.6 PPG).

It is also worth noting that Bielema's best scoring defense corresponded with his most successful season. It's probably safe to say that is not a coincidence.

We all know the old maxim: "Offense sells tickets, defense wins championships."

In order for Bret to pull his Badgers over the proverbial hump, it stands to reason they will have to be a top three defense. Is that possible for a defense with a fair amount of questions?

Also, the following is strictly based on random observations, and has no basis in fact or numbers. Regardless, it seems like the injury bug seems to strike teams in off-years.

For example, if team A loses 10 percent of its starts to injuries in Year One, it somehow tends to even out in Year Two.

Again, this has no real basis in fact, but here are two facts: Wisconsin lost 3.7 percent of its starts last season, making the Badgers the fourth-least injured team in the conference. Also, the Badgers have very little depth on the defensive side of the ball, particularly on the line and at safety.

If J.J. Watt or Jay Valai go down, the UW defense will have a hole the size of Lake Mendota .

Finally, Wisconsin ranked second-to-last on kick returns and fourth-from-the-bottom on punt returns. While the offense probably won't need that much help, every little bit is something.

And speaking of "every little bit," Wisconsin's kicker, Phillip Welsh, seemed to take a step backward from his 2008 freshman year . In 2009, he converted a slightly-less-than-respectable 70.8 percent of his field goals. Nonetheless, as seemed to be a theme for last year's Badgers, he fell apart against Iowa and OSU. In those games he was a disastrous three-for-six.

 

Worst Case Scenario

When the season begins, the offense is as good as expected. However, the defense struggles a bit against what should be lightweight OOC foes. Still, Wisconsin goes 4-0 to start the year.

However, they stumble against Michigan State, and get into a shootout. John Clay and the offense get their yardage, but Kirk Cousins dissects the struggling Badger defense. Last team with the ball wins, and that last team happens to be the Spartans.

They go on to beat Minnesota, but lose the turnover battle, and the games to Ohio State and Iowa.

They beat Indiana and Purdue, but with Badger fans already calling for Bielema's head, Wisconsin loses another shootout, this time to the Wolverines.

They finish the year beating Northwestern. However, at 8-4, their season has to be considered an abject failure.

 

Best Case Scenario

The offense predictably rolls over their OOC foes. Not so predictably, the defense is extremely stout, never surrendering more than two touchdowns in their first four games.

Wisconsin solidly beats Michigan State in East Lansing, and destroys Minnesota to win the Axe for the seventh year in a row.

John Clay piles up over 1,000 yards in only six games.

Against OSU, Clay and Co. eat up the clock, Scott Tolzien takes care of the football, and the Badgers win a close, low-scoring game in typical Wisconsin fashion.

Coming off that high, they head into Iowa City, win the turnover battle, and proceed to beat the Hawkeyes by more than two scores.

At this point, John Clay is on every short list of Heisman candidates, and Wisconsin finds themselves ranked as one of the top two teams in the country.

They destroy Purdue and Indiana, and win a surprisingly close, high-scoring game against Michigan.

Against Northwestern, about the only thing that is in question is whether Clay will top the 2,000-yard mark for the season. He does.

He goes on to win the Heisman, Wisconsin finishes 12-0, and when it's all said and done, they receive a bid to play in the National Championship game.

 

My Prediction

The Badgers will roll over their out-of-conference foes. Their second string will get plenty of playing time, and, as a team, UW will put up over 200 yards rushing on each team.

Michigan State, who I expect will have one of the three best run defenses in the conference, will prove to be Wisconsin's first real challenge. Furthermore, it will force Scott Tolzien to take center stage. He will shine, and the Badgers will win in a high-scoring game.

They will proceed to destroy Minnesota, heading into the biggest two-week stand of Bret Bielema's short career. I think if they beat OSU they will be riding so high that they will go on to handily beat Iowa. On the other hand, if they lose to Ohio State, I think they will come into Iowa City deflated.

I predict they will lose to both the Bucks and the Hawks.

They will dismantle both the Hoosiers and the Boilers. However, Michigan will surprise a lot of people by beating the Badgers in a shootout between the league's two best offenses.

Their last game of the year will see them rolling over Northwestern.

In truth, I think this Wisconsin team has what it takes to beat anybody in the conference. I wouldn't be at all shocked if they do go 12-0.

Nonetheless, heading into this season, Bret Bielema has consistently demonstrated a tendency to crumble to the conference's best teams. Until he shows that his Badgers can hang with the big boys, I, for one, have no reason to think that he, or they, can.

All he has to do is prove me, and any other doubters, wrong. 2010 will be his chance to do it.

Final Record: 9-3. Wisconsin will go to the Capitol One Bowl for the third time in six years.

 

Breaking Down the Big Ten, Part One: The Minnesota Golden Gophers

Breaking Down the Big Ten, Part Two: The Illinois Fighting Illini

Breaking Down the Big Ten, Part Three: The Indiana Hoosiers

Breaking Down the Big Ten, Part Four: The Purdue Boilermakers

Breaking Down the Big Ten, Part Five: The Michigan Wolverines

Breaking Down the Big Ten, Part Six: The Northwestern Wildcats

Breaking Down the Big Ten, Part Seven: The Michigan State Spartans

Breaking Down the Big Ten, Part Eight: The Penn State Nittany Lions

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