Cover of Sports Illustrated. Biggest division lead in Major League Baseball. Huge attendance. Huge merchandising sales. Two players who could legitimately finish 1-2 in MVP voting.
You’d have to go back to 2008 — when Milwaukee earned its first postseason berth in 26 years — for the last time there was nearly so much hype around the Brewers.
Fast-forward just one year to 2009: Despite understandable offseason expectations, the Brewers failed to sustain the good vibes of the previous season and finished with a losing record and out of the playoffs.
I bring this up because parallels can definitely be found between the 2008-2009 Milwaukee Brewers and the current state of the Wisconsin Badgers football team.
Like the Brewers of 2008, the 2010 football Badgers attained what was for them a rare level of success on the field, beating #1 Ohio State, then beating #12 Iowa in Iowa City, then running off an impressive streak of scary-dominant games against Indiana, Michigan, and Northwestern.
But like the Brewers of 2008, the 2010 Badgers disappointed in the postseason, coming up short in the Rose Bowl against a #3-ranked TCU team that was, if anything, even better than advertised.
And like the Brewers of 2008, who lost rented starting pitcher C.C. Sabathia after the season, some key Badgers played their final season for the team in 2010. Gone are quarterback Scott Tolzien, running back John Clay, defensive end J.J. Watt, defensive back Jay Valai, wide receiver David Gilreath, and offensive linemen Gabe Carimi and John Moffitt.
That’s a distressing list of huge playmakers lost, each one having played a huge role in the Badgers’ 2010 11-2 season.
So can the 2011 Wisconsin Badgers football team avoid the letdown that befell the 2009 Milwaukee Brewers?
In a word, yes. In two words, most definitely. In three words, believe the hype.
Let’s look more closely at why, come December, the Badgers should be playing in the first-ever Big Ten Championship Game, to be followed by a very high-profile bowl game in January.
Although Scott Tolzien was at times awe-inspiringly good last year and he put up some downright gaudy statistics (he completed 72.9 percent of his passes, for instance) as the Badgers finished the year as the most efficient offense in the Big Ten (43.3 points per game), it wasn’t as if Wisconsin completely abanondoned their run game. On the contrary, freshman James White and sophomore Montee Ball joined John Clay to engineer one of the most impressive three-headed-monster running attacks in recent college football history: The three combined last year on 46 TDs and gained an average of nearly 6 yards a carry.
And while it could be argued that the Badgers don’t exactly need any highly-regarded running back prospects, Jeff Lewis and Melvin Gordon — both freshmen — have impressed coaches thus far. Despite the loss of Clay, who, partly due to injury, was clearly outshone in the second half of the 2010 season by both White and Ball, the Badgers should have the best running attack in the Big Ten in 2011.
But few people are worried about Wisconsin’s running game. When the Badgers take the field Thursday, September 1, against the UNLV Rebels, all eyes will be on Russell Wilson, the former NC State quarterback who transferred to the Badgers in June.
Rarely if ever has a collegiate athlete transferring from one program to another created such buzz. But it makes sense: Neither of Tolzien’s heir apparents, Jon Budmayr nor Curt Phillips, had been able to impress anyone, a fact that the Badger coaches had run out of ways to try and disguise. (With Budmayr’s elbow injury, freshman Joe Brennan is set to backup Wilson.) As spring turned into summer, lingering doubts about the Badgers’ quarterback position hung like a dark cloud of despair over any talk of the team making another run at a BCS game.
Then Wilson fell into their lap. Far from a fill-in, Wilson will enter Thursday’s game ranking third among active college players both in total yards and touchdowns responsible for. In an analogy that should hit close to home for Badgers fans, it’s like the Minnesota Vikings trading up from Tavaris Jackson to Brett Favre two years back. And, for one season at least — and Wilson only has one season of eligibility left — that worked out pretty well.
If you went looking for an area of concern on the offensive side, it would be the Badgers’ receiving corps, which not only lost Gilreath, but seniors Kyle Jefferson, Isaac Anderson, and tight end Lance Kendricks. Only Nick Toon, Jared Abbrederis, and sophomore Jeff Duckworth have any college-level pass receptions to their credit, and Duckworth has just three of them. For Wilson to play to his potential, Toon will need to improve upon an injury-plagued 2010 campaign, Abbrederis will need to graduate from role player to starter, and someone, anyone will have to emerge.
As far as the offensive line is concerned, the losses of Moffitt, Carimi, and Bill Nagy will hurt. But one look at Wisconsin’s massive opening-day offensive line, with returning players including Josh Oglesby (6’7″, 330 lbs.), Ricky Wagner — transitioning from right to left tackle — (6’6″, 320 lbs.), Kevin Zeitler (6’4″, 315 lbs.), and Peter Konz (6’5″, 315 lbs.), suggests that a long-standing strength of the Badgers will continue.
A cursory glance at the defensive starters returning to the Badgers is bound to make fans feel at ease: safeties Shelton Johnson and Aaron Henry, corners Devin Smith and 2010 All-Big Ten honoree Antonio Fenelus, and linebackers Mike Taylor and especially Chris Borland, who missed most of the 2010 season with a shoulder injury, are a solid core.
But on the defensive side of the ball, the Badgers lost not only two of their team leaders and best big-play guys in J.J. Watt and Jay Valai, but they also lost defensive coordinator Dave Doeren, who left to take over the head coaching job at Northern Illinois University. Doeren was so good Bielema decided he needed two guys to replace him: Chris Ash and Charlie Partridge, who cut their teeth as Bielema’s defensive backs and defensive line coaches respectively.
Statisically speaking, Wisconsin’s defense was good if not spectacular last season, finishing fifth in the Big Ten in points per game allowed and fourth in yardage allowed. But of course those stats don’t tell the whole story: The Badgers’s offense spotted their defense to such huge leads so often last year that a little statistical letdown was inevitable. But in close games, Wisconsin’s defense could be brilliant, their performances against Ohio State and TCU in the Rose Bowl the most notable examples.
Word from camp is that Ash and Partridge will play a more aggressive defense than Doeren; it remains to be seen how that strategy, if implemented, will play out, but the Badgers certainly have the playmakers to give any new defensive schemes a high rate of success.
Philip Welch has been a productive — and busy — placekicker over the last three years, making 77 percent of his field goal tries and 153 out of a possible 156 extra points. While he might miss the UNLV game due to a groin injury, there don’t seem to be any fears about him missing any more time.
Punter Brad Nortman had a terrific 2010 and, although he didn’t always see a lot of action due to the Badgers’ prolific offense, became something of a folk hero after his successful and game-changing fake punt against Iowa last October.
Certainly the biggest question concerning the Badgers’ special teams is the return game: With David Gilreath gone, Jared Abbrederis and James White will share the return duty. Both have seen kick return coverage in the past, and both have the requierd explosiveness to back up Bielema’s faith: Abbrederis twice returned kickoffs for 52 yards last season, and few can question White’s ability to break tackles and get into the open field.
The 2011 Badgers will have to do a better job than the 2009 Milwaukee Brewers of dealing with tons of preseason hype. The Badgers open the season ranked 11th in the AP Poll, and beyond simple rankings, they know that expectations are high. As head coach Bret Bielema recently said, “It’s fun and I think it’s a sign of respect. There’s not a lot of negativity around our program. A lot of things going around college football have stayed out of Madison. I like the character and the kids we have. Hopefully, it doesn’t go to their heads.”
What looks to be a relatively easy schedule, with only the October 1 home game against Nebraska — the Cornhuskers’ inaugural conference game in the Big Ten — and the October 22 game at Michigan State, looking worrisome, probably won’t help the Badgers players from getting overconfident. (We should know by that October 29 game if a rebuilding Ohio State program is legit or not. I’m guessing not.)
Regular Season Prediction: 10-2, first in “Leaders” division.
Thursday, Sept. 1. UNLV. Camp Randall Stadium. 7 p.m. ESPN.
The line is 45-1/2 points. The Badgers haven’t lost a season opener since 1997. Even if Russell Wilson understandably starts out rusty, the outcome shouldn’t dampen the spirits of a wired Madison crowd hungry for football and another shot at the Rose Bowl.
Prediction: Wisconsin 35, UNLV 14.