After a strange start to the 2012 football season, the Wisconsin Badgers found themselves in the Big Ten title game on Dec. 1, putting an old-fashioned whoopin' on the Legends division champion Nebraska Cornhuskers, 70-31.
The thumping of the Huskers--Wisconsin's second in three tries since the former joined the conference--capped a regular season in which the Badgers struggled to move the ball in September. The typically robust ground game averaged just 3.6 YPC against Northern Iowa to open the season, barely avoided being shutout at Oregon State in a 10-7 defeat (albeit against a much improved OSU squad) and a two-point victory against now Badger head coach Gary Andersen's Utah State Aggies. On the heels of back-to-back Rose Bowl appearances, the September 2012 iteration of the Badgers did not exactly inspire the same confidence that the Russell Wilson-led version did at the same time the year prior.
After about 10 quarters of football, it was obvious that Maryland transfer Danny O'Brien was not Wilson redux; in fact, he couldn't even hold onto the starting job, as Joel Stave took over after halftime of the Utah State game, one which would have sent to the Badgers to a 1-2 mark if not for a USU field goal missed wide right in the closing seconds.
The Badgers looked a little bit better in their next outing, putting up 37 against UTEP on the back of an efficient performance from Stave and a dynamic 1-2 punch from tailbacks Melvin Gordon and James White, who filled in for an injured Ball.
The Badgers gave the aforementioned Cornhuskers a rude welcome to the conference in 2011, delivering a thumping at Camp Randall to the tune of 48-17. It seemed that things were going in that direction again, as the Badgers built up a 17-point lead in the conference opener for the two squads. A Ball touchdown run early in the third put Bret Bielema's squad up 27-10, but Taylor Martinez et al stormed back to tie it; a fourth quarter Husker field goal was the difference, a quarter in which the Badger offense could not get on the board.
Still, with both Penn State and Ohio State ineligible for the Leaders division's spot in the title game, there was never really much to worry about. Wisconsin steamrolled through the Illini, Boilermakers and Gophers, moving to 6-2. However, 4-4 Michigan State rolled into Madison and handed the Badgers their first loss at Camp Randall since 2009; the 2011 B1G Championship game aside, the Badgers have had problems against the Spartans in recent years, having now dropped three straight regular season meetings. It will be interesting to see if Gary Andersen's squads continue this tradition of exciting matchups, but, unfortunately, we'll have to wait a little while to see these two take the field in East Lansing or Madison again.
The Badgers recovered from the setback against the Spartans with the annual "I sort of wish college football had a mercy rule" game against the Hoosiers, winning 62-14 and rushing for a school record 564 yards. The win clinched a spot in the conference title game, despite remaining matchups against the Buckeyes and Nittany Lions. This was fortunate for Bielema and Co., as the Badgers notched their second and third overtime losses of the season. The Ohio State loss was a disappointing one for far different reasons in 2011; this time, it was obvious statistical dominance and not Braxton Miller's late-game sorcery that left Badger fans reaching for another Spotted Cow.
And so, after a strange season, beginning with difficulty moving the ball and the subsequent firing of offensive line coach Mike Markuson (after two games), it's difficult to know what to make of the Badgers going forward. Will they be closer to the team we saw in Indianapolis, or the team that struggled in the non-conference schedule and in close games against Nebraska, MSU, OSU and PSU?
On the bright side for the Badgers, I think history would indicate that replacing Montee Ball will be easier than replacing Russell Wilson. Additionally, after a season of musical chairs at the quarterback position, the Badgers have a number of options from which to choose. Joel Stave started six games for the Badgers after the Danny O'Brien experiment proved to not be working out, although a broken collarbone against MSU on Oct. 27 kept him out for the rest of the season (notwithstanding a brief appearance in the Rose Bowl against Stanford).
Curt Phillips, who was granted a sixth year of eligibility, started the rest of the way. He was neither spectacular nor terrible (56.8% completion percentage, 5 TDs to 2 INTs), however he was an obvious step down from Stave in playmaking ability, with a YPA of just 6.67 compared to Stave's 9.28. But, assuming the running game continues to do its thing, Phillips would certainly fit into the UW quarterback mold, which I'm pretty sure exists somewhere in an underwater laboratory in Lake Mendota.
At tailback, the Badgers bring back James White, itching for a chance to be the starter with Ball now plying his trade in the NFL. However, White can't get too comfortable about the thought of running through holes the size of the Madison isthmus, as former 4-star recruit Melvin Gordon will be right behind him. The Badgers also signed 4-star tailback Corey Clement out of New Jersey in the 2013 class. As always, the Badgers will have more than one talented option in the backfield.
The Badgers also return WR Jared Abbrederis and TE Jacob Pedersen, giving whoever takes over the QB1 role a pair of solid options. Assuming the Badger OL gives Stave a little time, Stave and Abbrederis should connect for some big plays this season. The Badgers do have to replace two NFL draft picks on the line in Travis Frederick and Ricky Wagner, but, like tailback, this is generally not a position to worry about when it comes to Wisconsin (notwithstanding the first couple of weeks of the 2012 season), even then many are noting that depth on the line is an issue (including Andersen himself).
Defensively, the Badgers will move to a base 3-4, albeit only slightly over half of the time, per Andersen. Tackle machine Chris Borland returns at middle linebackers, and the Badger front 7 should be a strong one. The Badgers finished 15th in DFEI in 2012 and 13th in rushing S&P+.
Perhaps the biggest question mark for defensive coordinator Dave Aranda's defense is without question the secondary. The Badgers will be replacing three 2012 starters, made even more difficult by the loss of Reggie Mitchell and incoming JUCO Donnell Vercher. Although not directly related to this possession group, the loss of pass rushing threat David Gilbert to Miami does not exactly help what will likely be a vulnerable secondary.
In any case, it's easy to take the implementation of an odd-man front the (eventual) shift toward the dual-threat quarterback and have visions of Rich Rodriguez, but I don't think that is really the case at all here. While Andersen's ideal squad may differ in some respects to the traditional Wisconsin model, it seems to me that the essence of his philosophy will fit in just fine in the Big Ten.
As dramatic as Bielema's departure was for the fans in Madison, the Andersen hire was just the opposite: devoid of controversy and generally regarded positively. It will be interesting to see whether or not the offense somewhat resembles the Al Borges offense with Denard: how closely will Andersen and his staff stick to the time-tested UW model? What will the Badgers look like once 2015 recruit Austin Kafentzis takes over at quarterback?
Either way, the Badgers should once again be in contention for a division and conference title in 2013, among many other teams. The Nittany Lions are still out of contention, but the Buckeyes do return to title contetion after a one-year ban. Many are already penning their OSU-Alabama national title game predictions, but the Buckeyes will have to win the Leaders division first (Alabama-LSU jokes go here).
The key stretch for the Badgers will come early in the season, when they head to Arizona State, back to Madison for Purdue, then travel to Columbus and back to Camp Randall to take on Northwestern. Assuming they split this quartet, a record of 8-4/9-3 is likely, which would be an improvement over last season, even if it doesn't yield another conference title.
All of that said, like I said about Michigan State last week: college football is a whirlwind of nonsensical happenings lined up one after another like a series of perplexing non sequiturs. The Badgers could win the division or go 6-6, and I wouldn't necessarily be surprised by either outcome.
Early returns have been encouraging, and I'm inclined to believe that the final result will fall somewhere in the middle of those two extremes. In the wake of a tumultuous separation, Andersen seems like the perfect guy to keep the Badgers moving forward.
Will he make Badger fans forget all the good things Bielema accomplished in Madison? Once again, get back to me in late November.