It was a pretty weird year for the Badgers. The team finished the regular season 8-4 but made it to the B1G title game where it pummeled Nebraska in one of the most lopsided beatdowns of supposedly even teams I've witnessed in my life. This gave the Badgers a third straight Big Ten title and Rose Bowl appearance. But days after that win, Bret Bielema announced he would be leaving Wisconsin for Arkansas and the warm embrace of the SEC. How do Badger fans view the successes and failures of last year, as well as the departure of Bret Bielema for supposedly greener pastures?
"Weird" certainly is an understatement for last year, though I'm not sure Wisconsin fans have settled on a reasonable synonym. The non-conference woes were much more dramatic than anything we could remember, highlighted by Danny O'Brien's incredible struggles and sudden benching, as well as the firing of first-year offensive line coach Mike Markuson two games into the season. Steadier play by Joel Stave righted the ship and secured another trip to the Big Ten Championship Game, but those good vibes only lasted until Oct. 27, the date of the Michigan State game in which the freshman quarterback broke his collarbone. Curt Phillips was good-but-not-great, and a masterful gameplan and even greater execution (plus who knows what the heck kind of voodoo Bielema cooked up) vs. Nebraska led to that 70-31 trouncing and a third straight date to the Rose Bowl.
The consensus: all that mattered was the return trip to Pasadena, where the game vs. Stanford was very close, perhaps closer than expected. Badgers fans, all but the most irrational, realize the ineligibilities of Ohio State and Penn State were critical factors in that happening. Nevertheless, we're not about to say Wisconsin didn't just make three straight Rose Bowls.
On Bielema, the fan base is generally over the situation and intends to keep no more than a single eye on his early tenure at Arkansas. A sizable portion of fans don't even want to hear anything Bielema or Arkansas-related -- not out of lingering insult or envy, but from pure fatigue. That Grantland profile of Bielema was published a couple of weeks ago, and finding it personally fascinating, I posted about it on B5Q and expected to generate some interesting discussion. We achieved that to some degree, but the more glaring result was the number of comments saying, in so many words, "Oh please, we're over this."
Most of the fan base is thrilled by the young Gary Andersen tenure, though we recognize it is indeed very young. Four players have also left the program since he take over -- albeit all for legitimate reasons -- and while solid recruiting has generally compensated for that, such a loss is still notable. The takeaway is that we're very excited by the future under Andersen, though the Rose Bowl streak may indeed be snapped this or year. Or, you know, not.
One thing that has been a constant over the years in Wisconsin is a dedication to power-I, between-the-tackles football. With a shift in head coaches will there be a similar shift in offensive philosophy? Do you worry about Wisconsin's ability to continue to produce talent on a high level with a new staff, as one of Bielema's cited reasons for leaving was the noncompetitive pay scale for assistant coaches?
No, I don't think many people are concerned about Wisconsin's ability to continually produce talent in the running game. The returning talent in that regard is incredible, and most of it comes from arguably the nation's best running back duo in James White and Melvin Gordon. Incoming Corey Clement is perhaps already the best power back of the group, and he should be a stud before long. The offensive line is incredibly thin, and that aspect is arguably the greatest weakness on the offense (the lack of a solid wide receiver not named Jared Abbrederis is another). Still, the talent is there, as is the reputation. That's still worth something.
Schematically, Andersen's bringing his spread looks from Utah State. That sounds dramatic for a Big Ten team, and even more so for a program that, as you mentioned, is historically as between-the-tackles as it gets. But all indications are the offense will still be run-based, and will heavily feature the Badgers' deep roster of tight ends in Jacob Pedersen, Brian Wozniak, Sam Arneson and Brock DeCicco. You'll probably still several players split out wide, including the running backs, though that's not necessarily a new look.
Wisconsin's defense was very good last year (top-25 in all four major def. categories), and held 10 out of 14 opponents to 21 points or less. What were the keys to this defense being so good, and will the coaching change have a big effect on how good the defense can be? How much will losing Mike Taylor and David Gilbert hurt the defense?
The defense was indeed good last year, and probably undervalued. In certain games, the unit was spectacular -- namely Ohio State, whose offensive coordinator, Tom Herman, recently said the Badgers' D played the Buckeyes better than any other 2012 opponent. The defense was very often bend-but-don't-break, but a strong front seven and generally solid secondary made it work more often than not.
The coaching changes here will be drastic -- Wisconsin will be employing the Big Ten's only base 3-4 defense. Of course, the coachspeak from first-year coordinator Dave Aranda has already labeled it as "multiple," and it won't always be a traditional 3-4. The system will be aimed at generating pressure from its looks, hopefully generating the impression that any of up to 10 players can be rushing the passer on any given play. It won't necessarily be blitz-heavy, which Aranda outlined in solid detail in a recent Q&A with BTN.com's Tom Dienhart that is well worth reading for anyone interested in this topic.
The losses of Mike Taylor and David Gilbert certainly sting, though All-Big Ten stud Chris Borland is still around. There are enough able bodies in the linebacking core to overcome those two losses, especially with sixth-year senior transitioning to outside linebacker from end. The more glaring issues are in the secondary, where two of the aforementioned losses -- safeties Reggie Mitchell and Donnell Vercher -- have dramatically weakened unit that already lost three starters from last season to graduation. Dezmen Southward is the lone senior and he could have a fantastic year at strong safety, though there are question marks at literally every other position due to inexperience. Peniel Jean and Darius Hillary are the projected starters at corner, and between them they have 32 games played and zero starts.
Right now, what would you say is the Badgers' best position group? What is the one with the most questions?
I would say the best position group is the running backs. White is a proven commodity, dating as far back as his freshman year, when he led the team in rushing despite the presence of John Clay and Montee Ball. White is the speediest starting back the Badgers have had in some time, and I'd argue the only thing he lacks that Ball had is the proven ability to rush up the middle -- though I certainly wouldn't call it a "weakness." Gordon is obviously less tested and has set forth a smaller sample size of success, but boy, that small sample is enticing. He averaged 10 yards per carry on 62 attempts last year, and that Big Ten Championship Game performance is purely brilliant: nine carries, 216 yards and one touchdown.
The most questions, I would argue, are found in the secondary. I already outlined the issues there, but the other possible answers at least have the possibilities of being shored up. The wide receivers behind Abbrederis, while untested, have potential in the likes of Jordan Fredrick, Kenzel Doe, Reggie Love and A.J. Jordan. The offensive line, while absolutely thin, still returns senior Ryan Groy and two giant bodies in Rob Havenstein and Dallas Lewallen.
Did the spring game answer any questions about this team going into 2013?
Spring games, even ones preceded by as much fanfare as Wisconsin's was back in April, must be taken with grains of salt. More than 10 starters didn't play, but there were legitimate flashes of encouragement. Early-enrollee cornerback Sojourn Shelton capped a fantastic first spring in Madison with a great effort in coverage, while both Stave and Phillips looked good enough to quell most of the concerns about the quarterback job.* Again, you can't ever take a spring game so seriously, but this one went pretty well.
*On the quarterbacks: While having no set starter among four different options is troubling on paper, the fact remains Wisconsin has two proven quantities in Joel Stave and Curt Phillips. Stave's probably the odds-on-favorite to win the job, and many people forget he was playing at arguably the highest level of any conference quarterback last year before he got hurt. Tanner McEvoy also joins the team as the top-ranked JUCO passer, and at 6-foot-6 with terrific mobility, he may be the most talented at the bunch. He'll get a very fair shot at winning the job, but no matter who does, the Badgers will have settled on a fine option. With that core of running backs and an offense that almost assuredly will be varied enough, Wisconsin won't need another Russell Wilson.
While it will be tougher this year for Wisconsin to stretch the B1G title/Rose Bowl streak to four given how good Ohio State is projected to be, the Badgers seem to be well positioned for a long run of success when the new conference alignment takes effect. What are your expectations for the 2013 season, and are you confident that Wisconsin can continue to control the west after losing Bielema in such startling fashion?
My expectations for this season are optimistic, largely due to two factors: a very soft schedule and the strong early impression from Andersen's coaching staff. On paper, there are only two legitimately challenging games: the non-conference finale (well, they do host BYU later in the year on Nov. 9) at Arizona State, at night on Sept. 14 and at Ohio State on Sept. 28. Yes, Northwestern won't be easy, but Wisconsin gets the Wildcats at home and after a bye. The regular-season finale vs. Penn State won't be a cakewalk, but again, it's at Camp Randall.
The Badgers could very well be playing for a Big Ten title game appearance and their fourth straight Rose Bowl trip in that game vs. the Buckeyes. If that's the case, I'm tempted to say the streak ends and Wisconsin's resigned to something like the Capital One Bowl. I've seen a few bowl projections saying just that, including a few with a match-up vs. LSU, which I think Badgers fans would definitely welcome as a consolation prize.
Of course, if things gel, the possibility is there for an 11-1 season. You'd like to think that would get you to the Rose Bowl, but again, there's Ohio State. Given that, as well as soft schedules throughout the conference, I think the smart money's on two Big Ten teams getting BCS bowl berths. That could very well also be Wisconsin, but for the sake of a succinct prediction, I'll say the best-case scenario is a return trip to the Rose Bowl, worst-case is the Capital One Bowl or some equivalent and the most rational might be as a Big Ten at-large BCS bid.