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MnB B1G Preview: The Biggest Storylines Surrounding Wisconsin football

In this installment of the Maize n' Brew Big Ten Preview series, we explore some storylines about Wisconsin going into 2014.

"You had a single run that went for less than 20 yards? Get the FFFFFFFFFFF-"
"You had a single run that went for less than 20 yards? Get the FFFFFFFFFFF-"
Michael Hickey

How legit is Gary Andersen?

I'm going to be honest: I did not expect Gary Andersen to be so successful in his first year at Wisconsin. I had this crazy idea (yes, it was crazy) that Andersen, who had built Utah State into something respectable largely on the gimmicks inherent in the spread, and who had risen to the top of the WAC for the first time in Utah State's history by doing so, would maybe try to do to Wisconsin what Rich Rodriguez did to Michigan. I figured he would come in and wave his own banner and talk about how the spread was what got him here and the spread was what would take Wisconsin forward. I made a prediction, which in hindsight was completely absurd, that Wisconsin would go 2-6 in the Big Ten and would fall to Purdue of all places, since I guessed Darrell Hazell's Big Ten pedigree would mean a better debut than Andersen's red-nosed "WAC-iness."

Since I possess a secret, abundant hatred for Wisconsin, this was my hope. I loathe Wisconsin for being essentially what Michigan was supposed to be: a power run offense that grounds and pounds their way to multiple Rose Bowls, a suffocating defense, powerful lines on both sides, and in worst down years they still get it done -- they don't rebuild, they reload. I thought that with the departure of Bret Bielema and Barry Alvarez hiring a "spread guy," the good long run by Wisconsin was finally over. Andersen would Rodriguez the sh*t out of that place.

That's not what happened. Andersen arrived and promised to make changes, yes, but nothing really drastic changed. He experienced practically zero regression or growing pains for a coach who comes in with a completely new staff and has to adjust to the personnel. You might feel inclined to say that he's the Gus Malzahn of the Big Ten, but that's not fair: even Malzahn had a previous, working relationship with the players, since he had recruited many of them, and of course with the athletic department and some of the coaching staff. Andersen, meanwhile, was more of an overhaul: he was an outsider with no real connections to Wisconsin, much less the Big Ten. In fact, the only real, drastic change he made, switching from a 4-3 defense to a 3-4, which made many Badger fans nervous, went so swimmingly well that it actually improved Bielema's already impressive defense. The only guy I've seen who has undergone a similar transition with better results is Urban Meyer. (My hatred for and disappointment in Rich Rodriguez grows stronger with each passing second of writing this.)

How did it happen? Is Gary Andersen simply so vastly more competent than Rodriguez was that he can just keep chugging along at Wisconsin like it doesn't matter who the coach is? Is Barry Alvarez simply the best athletic director in the Big Ten, since he was able to go out and find a smart, adaptable coach to win in the conference without selling both kidneys and mortgaging the entire athletic department? Wisconsin fans will tell you that, yes, he is. I'll admit that Alvarez's hiring of Andersen was impressive, though I wasn't impressed with it on the surface. There may be more to Andersen's debut than solely his inherent awesomeness, however. In previewing Wisconsin for the 2014 season, Bill Connelly pointed out some things that might have made Andersen's first year smoother for him than for most coaches newly arriving at programs:

Andersen inherited a nearly perfect distribution of talent and experience on his first Wisconsin roster when he came to Madison from Utah State. Not only did he have three strong running backs, a go-to receiver, and a top-notch offensive line, but he also inherited perhaps the most experienced defensive front seven in the country, one capable of meeting the size requirements of a shift from a 4-3 to a 3-4 front.

So basically Gary Andersen walked into a great situation at Wisconsin, much like Meyer did at Ohio State. As much as Wisconsin fans might want to give all the credit to Barry Alvarez for Andersen's great situation, some of it has to go to Bret Bielema. By that point in the program, it wasn't Alvarez who was supplying Andersen with a deep and experienced set of offensive and defensive lines, nor was it Alvarez who had recruited Melvin Gordon and Jared Abbrederis. It was Bielema.

The challenge for Andersen will now be maintaining the standard which he set for his program in year one, and being able to stay excellent (not just competitive) without all the key pieces already in place. Chief on the list is finding a No. 1-receiving option and finding new starters for the defensive line. The offensive line, meanwhile, should be solid, as three upperclassmen (right tackle Rob Havenstein, right guard Kyle Costigan, left tackle Tyler Marz) return with more than 20 career starts each, and even the two who haven't started more than 10 games (left guard Dallas Lewallen, center Dan Voltz) have at least started six each. Couple that with the return of Melvin Gordon and you're looking at a running game that almost certainly won't taper off. Even returning Joel Stave at quarterback means the offense won't be breaking in a new signal-caller. We shouldn't see much difference from Wisconsin's offense this fall.

As to the question, "How legit is Gary Andersen?" I think we can safely say that he's going to look pretty legit in 2014. He still is reaping the rewards of the fantastically filled cupboard that Bret Bielema left him -- seriously, Andersen should send that guy his Christmas bonus -- and he's found himself on a schedule that misses Michigan, Ohio State, Penn State, and Michigan State. It would be an absolute shock if the Badgers didn't win at least nine games. Where we'll really get a chance to see Andersen's meddle is on defense, since he made his bones as a defensive coach throughout his career. (This is a notable fact when bringing up Rodriguez, who was offensive-minded.) Wisconsin has the talent to replace their experienced front-seven, so that unit should appear to be stout as well. Andersen probably won't have to do much to keep them playing at a high level.

Can Wisconsin do more besides run?

Just so you can understand how much Wisconsin ran the ball, let me paint a picture for you. In 2013, the Badgers had 557 running "attempts," and they totaled 3,689 yards on the ground, or 6.62(!) yards per attempt. We also have to adjust for sacks, since unfortunately they too are counted as rushes, and opponents sacked Wisconsin quarterbacks 16 times for a grand total of 94 yards. Since sacks are counted as negative yardage runs in the total for rushing, when we add 94 to 3,689 we get 3,783. So that means that Wisconsin strictly ran 541 times for 3,783 yards. They were the second-best rushing offense in the Big Ten, behind Ohio State. They were ranked 8th in rushing nationally.

Meanwhile, Wisconsin only attempted to pass the ball 355 times. (Passing stats are much stricter than rushing stats, so we don't need to do overall calculation to get a total.) They competed 217 of their 355 passes for 2,562 total yards. With their rushing attempts, that means Wisconsin ran a total of 896 offensive plays (roughly 68.9 per game) in which they passed for 39.6% of the time and ran for 60.4%. As a means of comparison, Michigan State passed the ball 430 times (43.8% of 982 plays) and ran the ball 552 times (56.2% of 982 plays), which is a little more balanced. The Spartans, Buckeyes, Gophers, and Cornhuskers each had more rushing attempts than the Badgers, but only the Buckeyes were more efficient per run. Still, being the second-best rushing offense in the Big Ten is nothing to scoff at, and if it wasn't obvious before, Wisconsin will look to again be in the top half of the conference carrying the ball in 2014.

But the question isn't whether or not Wisconsin can run the ball -- it's clear as day that they can -- the question is instead how well can they pass the ball and who catches it. No one on Wisconsin's roster came close to matching Jared Abbrederis's receiving total in 2013. He had 78 receptions, more than every wide receiver combined. Only tight end Jacob Pedersen and running back James White, each with 39 receptions, provided some variety to the aerial attack. Clearly the quarterback's favorite target, Abbrederis totaled 1,081 yards receiving, while no other pass catcher even broke 600. (Again, Pedersen was the closest, at 551.) A flurry of underclassmen in Alex Erickson, Jordan Fredrick, and Robert Wheelright were targeted sparingly, with 21 total receptions between the three of them. Even Kenzel Doe, the only receiver who will be a senior this fall, managed to catch fewer than 10 passes (7). Offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig will ask one of these players to become the next No. 1-receiver, but if no one emerges, the Badgers might be forced to rely exclusively on the run, for which they are more than aptly suited.

Will the Badgers dominate the West division?

Long term, Wisconsin shows no signs of falling behind the other challengers of the Big Ten's West division, and they are the closest to a "sure thing" that you can find as yearly favorites to win the division. A lot of their trajectory will depend on how the other West division programs do. Iowa and Nebraska are nipping at Wisconsin's heels, with both being considered rising programs who look to have deep units in the coming seasons. While possibly stuck in the middle tier of the division, Minnesota and Northwestern aren't lagging too far behind, but it remains to be seen just how much Jerry Kill's and Pat Fitzgerald's teams can close the gap between them and the West's top three. Sitting squarely at the bottom, Illinois and Purdue have an even higher hill to climb, and it seems like it will be a few years before either is in the conversation. Wisconsin will happily enjoy their new alignment where they don't have to fret over the East division powers for most years until they face one of them in the championship game.

Despite the fact that Wisconsin did not pull a Top-25 recruiting class for either 2013 or 2014, Badger fans are still excited about the recruits they are landing. Wisconsin's 2013 class was ranked 11th in the Big Ten, and their 2014 class was ranked 6th, which might seem like an odd direction for recruiting to be on for a program that went to three straight Rose Bowls and just finished a 9-4 season. Yet Bret Bielema always made developing his players a priority over their recruiting rankings and "star power," and Badger fans are assuming that Andersen will operate in the same vein. He'll need to, if he's to lead a squad to the West division crown every year for the foreseeable future.

In the short term, Wisconsin has a schedule of medium difficulty but still should be counted on as the likely favorites for the West division title in 2014. They face a great challenge in their opening week match against the LSU Tigers, which is their biggest threat (though only non-conference, and at a neutral location) for the first two months of their season. Should the Badgers fall to Les Miles's team on August 30, they should still be able to cruise to 8-1 before they face off against Nebraska in Madison on November 15. If they can beat the Cornhuskers, Wisconsin should be a lock for the division crown, though they'll have to defeat Iowa at Kinnick Stadium the following week. Even if the Badgers are 1-1 from the back-to-back bouts against Nebraska and Iowa, a win over Minnesota at home should still send the Badgers to Indianapolis with a record of 10-2 overall.