MnB B1G Preview: As Good As It Gets

"Man, I am so tired from scoring all these touchdowns, I'm just going to go ahead and eat this floating football right here." (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Wisconsin football has come a long way since 1990, back when Barry Alvarez was hired after a sort stint as the defensive coordinator at Notre Dame under one Lou Holtz, M.D. After a few rough years to start off his tenure in Madison, Alvarez took the Badgers to the Rose Bowl in year four, UW's first trip to Pasadena since 1962. In that interim period between 1962 and 1993, the Badger program went through five different head coaches, with only one of them achieving a record above .500 (and that coach, Dave McClain, only went 46-42-3). Perhaps most noteworthy is the fact that John Jardine, Wisconsin's head coach from 1970 to 1977, finished with a sub-.500 record. This type of performance would be unthinkable and basically unallowable in this day and age; a head coach would never get the chance to amass that kind of record in eight seasons. If Jardine was coaching today he likely would've been fired after either his third or fourth season in Madison (he started off his tenure there with four straight 4-win seasons).

Although Jardine's record can be pointed to as evidence of the increasing competitive and egalitarian* world of college football, generally, but it does also reveal some things about Wisconsin, specifically. Before 1990, Wisconsin was startlingly bad, especially if you are fairly new to college football and only have the Bielema era within your arsenal of useless college football knowledge. Alvarez left Madison with 118 wins, meaning that, after a relatively short 16-year tenure, 20% of the program's wins--remember, Wisconsin has been playing football since 1889--were credited to Coach Barry Alvarez. That's fairly amazing. Wisconsin wasn't exactly Indiana or anything pre-Alvarez, but they weren't exactly lighting things up. They certainly were not the name brand that they have been built into the past two decades.

After Alvarez built the foundation for contemporary Wisconsin football in the post-Big 2 Little 8 era, the question is: what next? What needs to be done to make the next step? On second though, what is the next step: consistent B1G title contention, or are we talking loftier goals?

Most importantly, can the Badgers keep things rolling in 2012?

*I know, try not too laugh too hard, but...things are definitely more egalitarian--which I'm basically using interchangeably for "parity" here--today than they were back in, say, 1969 when Bo took the Michigan job.

Whereas Alvarez built up a baseline level of performance that had not been seen in several decades, Wisconsin football still hadn't quite become a consistent Big Ten contender, let alone a nationally relevant team (of course, the same thing could be said for Michigan throughout the Carr era). For all of the good that Alvarez did, his winning percentage of .605 is not as impressive when you remember that Lloyd Carr finished up with a .753 winning percentage. It puts things in perspective a bit. My point is not to compare coaches, obviously, just to briefly outline the type of progression the Wisconsin football program has gone through the last half century or so.

In a sort time, Brett Bielema has somehow taken that tried and true Wiconsin formula and squeezed out three double digit win seasons. In Bielema's debut season, the Badgers had maybe the quietest 12-1 season of all time, executed efficiently in the shadow of the season long crescendo leading up to The Game between undefeated Michigan and Ohio State. Bielema's second season wasn't quite as successful, but the fact that anybody can say that about Wisconsin football--that is, that a 9-win season wasn't "as successful" as the previous season--is a statement in and of itself. It speaks to progress.

2008 was sort of a watershed moment for Wisconsin football. As we all remember so well, the Badgers stated out in the top 10 before losing to a Threet-led Michigan team in the Big House in what was one of the few happy moments that season for Michigan fans. That Michigan team was historically awful, so it is no wonder that that loss led to a 4-game losing streak for Wisconsin. The Badgers finished that season at 7-6 (3-5), capped by an embarrassing loss against a fairly mediocre 4-loss Florida State team. Wisconsin looked slow, plodding, and generally unathletic, and there were rumblings that maybe Bielema's first two seasons were entirely due to having Alvarez' players as opposed to being Bielema's coaching acumen.

As you can imagine, the next season would say some things about where this operation was headed. Would it stumble along, becoming a mediocre parody of itself? Well, the answer was fairly clear, as Bielema led the Badgers to a solid 10-3 season in 2009. Two straight Rose Bowl appearances in 2010 and 2011 later and I think it's safe to say that this isn't your daddy's Wisconsin football team, and, if you're a youngish guy like me, this isn't even the Wisconsin of your youth.

Unlike 2006, Wisconsin was actually in national title consideration this past season, a pretty big step for a program that was doing pretty poorly for many years up until the early 1990s. If not for two ridiculous Hail Mary plays against MSU and OSU, the Badgers would've been in serious consideration well into November. If they even avoid one of those two late game defensive gaffes and we very well may have ended up avoiding an Alabama-LSU rematch in New Orleans. Who knows.

However, it's hard to ignore the two straight Rose Bowl losses. The Badgers undoubtably should have been able to pull out a win against the Horned Frogs, even without considering that curious decision to pass it on that 2-point conversion. The Oregon game was Wisconsin's chance to shine, however, and while they did exactly that offensively, the defense was fairly disappointing.

This sort of segues into "things that Wisconsin needs to do to break through": UW's recruiting will never be equal to that of teams like Michigan, Ohio State, and Notre Dame, but the Badgers need to get better, particularly, IMO, in the back seven. Now, I don't want to go overboard here: UW was still pretty good on defense last. Still, in games against MSU (twice), OSU, and Oregon, the D struggled, often looking very average. There is no shame in getting shredded by Oregon, but you'd like to see a team with national aspirations do a little bit better than that. After all, a statistically mediocre Auburn team held Oregon to far fewer yards and points in the national title game the year before, so it's not like it can't be done. For a team that, by virtue of being the B1G's Rose Bowl representative, should be the best the conference has to offer, the defensive performance left a little to be desired.

It's partly a question of athleticism. Wisconsin has produced some good back 7 players over the years, but, speaking impressionistically, the athleticism doesn't always seem to be there. This sort of deficiency can and will get taken advantage of by a team like Oregon. Even a non-spread team like MSU, a team with several talented and athletic skill players on the outside, had significant success.

Naturally, this is basically a discussion of recruiting. UW has taken generally mediocre classes (according to the recruiting services, at least) and molded them into teams capable of winning 7-11 games on a consistent basis. This is great, but even Wisconsin fans would have to admit that there needs to be a little more star power to get that last little push Wisconsin needs to find itself in the realm of the consistently elite.

The strangely small 2012 class of 12 players featured only a trio of 4-stars, only one of whom plays defense (4-star LB Vince Biegel). The 19-member 2011 class also only boasts 3 4-stars, only one of whom plays defense (4-star LB Jake Keefer). Per Rivals, Wisconsin's classes throughout the Bielema era have ranked as such:

  • 2006-40th
  • 2007-34th
  • 2008-41st
  • 2009-43rd
  • 2010-87th (!)
  • 2011-40th
  • 2012-56th
So, other than that wildly divergent (and terrible) 2010 class, it seems that Wisconsin's recruiting efforts confirm all anecdotal/impressionistic notions that Wisconsin sort of just does what Wisconsin does on the recruiting trail, generally irrespective of the level of success on the field. It seems that Wisconsin will continue to recruit at this level into perpetuity, and that will result in fine to very good seasons. It seems useless to me to discuss concepts like "ceilings" (i.e. does a non-traditional power like UW have one/have they already come upon it?), especially after a year when Wisconsin was separated from a trip to NOLA by two flukey Hail Mary plays. Saying that Wisconsin's "ceiling" is winning 10 or 11 games and going to the Rose Bowl is basically like saying "Wisconsin will never accomplish anything better than the best thing that they have already accomplished", which, okay Nostradamus. Tell Wisconsin fans circa 1989 what their ceiling is.
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The second major point, after "more defensive athleticism", centers around QB development/recruiting. Now, the fact that Wisconsin has churned out a 12-win season with John Stocco and two double digit win seasons with Scott Tolzien is nothing sort of amazing. No offense to them, but they aren't exactly NFL talents, and I think it's safe to say that they would not look nearly as efficient if under center for practically any other offense in college football. Moving forward, Wisconsin needs to find more signal callers that remind you of Russell Wilson as opposed to Brian Cupito (I'm name droppin'like a madman right there), and yes, obvious statement is obvious.

After acquiring Wilson's services last year, the Badgers went out and got Maryland transfer Danny O'Brien (which is a good thing because the rest of the depth chart doesn't seem too inspiring). O'Brien graduated from Maryland in three years, so he is eligible to play two seasons for UW. It's probably unrealistic to expect him to be as productive as Wilson, but with talented and prolific skill guys like Montee Ball, Jared Abbrederis, and tight end Jacob Pedersen, he definitely has help. Wisconsin does have to replace three very good lineman (Zeitler, Oglesby, and Konz), but if there's anything that Wisconsin knows how to replace, its offensive linemen.

In any case, if O'Brien can put up a nice 2012 (and 2013 if he chooses to come back, which I'm assuming that he will), that would give the top QB prospects of the Midwest something to think about. Wisconsin has never been known as a QB destination, but with a couple yeas of QB play that is not nearly as caretaker-ish as it used to be, maybe Wisconsin can reel in a decent QB in the near future. Otherwise, it's very difficult for me to imagine the Badgers breaking through to a national title game appearance with a quarterback that doesn't scare you with his arms and can't do much at all with his legs. As dominant as the Badgers' ground game can be, defensive coordinators can find ways to stop it or slow it down enough to the point that QB play becomes a major factor.

O'Brien's numbers thus far have been fairly underwhelming, but he seems to fit the model of QB outlined above, i.e. athletic with a good arm. This season and next on offense will be just as much about building and developing an offensive reputation that extends beyond the traditional power running game. It goes without saying that a significant percentage of elite high school QBs don't even consider Wisconsin largely because they want the chance to show off their arm at the college level, and Madison hasn't really been the place to do that.

As far as development and scheme go, Wisconsin's hiring of Matt Canada to take over for the departed Paul Chryst was probably one of the most intriguing coaching additions in all of college football for the simple fact that Canada, at least of late, is a spread offense guy. As such, I think that he could turn out to be the perfect hire; he's coached pro-style attacks before, and his spread offense knowhow could be the thing that gives this offense the subtle kick that it might need in order to propel the Badgers from "mere" BCS bowl contention to national title contention.

Whether or not Canada and O'Brien can perfectly sync up with the traditional strengths of the Wisconsin attack this season remains to be seen. Either way, the signing of O'Brien and the hiring of Canada were both brilliant strokes. The Badgers have some questions to answer at QB and various spots on defense, but they are without a doubt the Leaders division favorites. They might not be national contenders this year, but hiring a spread offense guy and a concerted effort to up the talent of the QB position--even via transfers like Wilson and O'Brien--shows that Wisconsin is making the nuanced effort to transform itself from being just a solid Big Ten team for which every B1G stereotype applies completely to a consistently relevant regional and national power.
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