Wisconsin has, in the past two decades, been the unlikely Big Ten powerhouse. The story is eerily similar to a lot of what has been written in this column over the last ten weeks*. Wisconsin had some very good teams around the turn of the century, had a great deal of success in the 50s and 60s, and waned until Barry Alvarez took over in 1990.
Alvarez is the ultimate architect of what we now consider to be Wisconsin Football -- capital letters and all. He stepped into a terrible situation, took three years to turn the team around, and proceeded to keep Wisconsin relevant in the Big Ten more often than not during the rest of his time roaming the sidelines of Camp Randall. The Badgers won three Big Ten titles and three Rose Bowls, while Alvarez won two Big Ten coach of the year awards and coached a Heisman winner in Ron Dayne.
However, Alvarez, like most architects, only drew the plans and put things into action. In the years since it has been Bret Bielema that has flourished with the Badgers.
*(seriously, it is insane how many Big Ten teams were good in the 50s and 60s, abject failures in the 70s and 80s, and resurgent in the 90s and 00s. The whole idea of the "Big Two, Little Eight" never really sunk in until I started to see just how mediocre the rest of the Big Ten was in the 70s and 80s.)
Bielema is another in the long line of guys to come out of Hayden Fry's Iowa program and have wildly successful careers as coaches. Bret played nose guard in the late 80s/early 90s and hopped on board the coaching staff at Iowa as a GA then LB coach before being picked up by Kansas State to help run the defense and eventually Wisconsin to do the same.
Since taking over the reigns at Wisconsin, Bielema has elevated the level of the program and accomplished nearly as much as Alvarez in a fraction of the time. The Badgers have already won two Big Ten championships and gone to two Rose Bowls -- both close losses. Four of his six Wisconsin teams have finished the season with double-digit wins, and five were ranked in the top-25 to end the year.
Wisconsin's run of success over the past half decade is surpassed only by Ohio State's during the same time period. Michigan bottomed out under Rich Rodriguez, Iowa regressed after reaching the BCS level, Michigan State's success has only come as of late, and Penn State hasn't been consistent. Meanwhile, Wisconsin has been getting stronger.
All of this has been done in classic Wisconsin fashion: big, bulldozing lines; bowling ball running backs; and smart quarterbacks. The Badgers success has translated into draft success as well. Under Bret Bielema Wisconsin has had two offensive linemen selected in the first round of the NFL draft (and four combined in the first three rounds over the last two drafts), and a total of 12 players taken in the first three rounds. The 2010 season produced three thousand-yard level rushers (Montee Ball was six yards short and thus gets the benefit of the doubt). The 2011 season saw Montee Ball mount a serious Heisman candidacy and quarterback Russell Wilson start the year with considerable Heisman hype -- he would go on to set a new record for pass efficiency rating.
However, as teams like Iowa have seen in the past few years, this type of high level success isn't easy to keep from year to year when the natural turnover of the college game starts to catch up. The players that past Big Ten title teams were built on are beginning to move on to the NFL, the coaches that put together the ridiculously successful offense of the past two years are gone as well.
From last year's Big Ten championship team Wisconsin must replace three offensive linemen that received first-team honors: consensus picks Kevin Zietler and Josh Oglesby and media selection Peter Konz. Then there is
free agent starting quarterback Russell Wilson, who as mentioned before was pretty damn good. Number one receiving threat Nick Toon is gone to the NFL as well. And all these losses on offense are paired with the loss of half of Wisconsin's good-not-great defense.
Still,the road to a Big Ten title this year runs through Camp Randall Stadium.
The strides made by the Badgers over the past few years under Bret Bielema have been impressive and while the core of the position and coordinator staff has moved on, Bielema remains. So too do a pair of stellar running backs in Ball and James White. The offensive line returns two other players with all-conference mention: Ricky Wagner and Travis Frederick. Jared Abbrederis is back as the primary receiver and return man, and Jacob Pedersen is back at tight end.
Joining this cast of celebrated offensive players is yet another transfer quarterback, Danny O'Brien, fresh off the runaway train that is Maryland football under Randy Edsall. O'Brien shores up the one major concern on offense: the lack of quarterback experience. O'Brien started as a freshman and won Freshman of the year honors in 2010 before falling out of favor under Edsall.
The Leaders division is for all intents and purposes Wisconsin's to lose. Ohio State is barred from representing the division in the title game and under a new coach. Penn State is under as much upheaval as the program has ever been. Illinois is breaking in a new coach after years of being Zook'd. Purdue has become a daytime soap titled As the ACL Tears. Indiana? Indiana is just happy I mentioned them in the same paragraph as the words Big, Ten, and title.
Wisconsin is the baddest team on the block once again, and while the winds of change have been sweeping through the cold, gray Midwest, there isn't anything changed just yet. The Big Ten title is still looks to be Wisconsin's to lose.