Take us back to the moment when Bret Bielema left and Gary Andersen was hired. Was anyone nervous that Andersen might not fit into Wisconsin's philosophy, given that he coached the spread for four years in the WAC? What was the general consensus about Andersen?
It's a dark, chilly December night and I'm riding my friend's comically undersized bike down the streets of Madison to the Wisconsin practice facility to camp out as players depart Bielema's absurdly brief "exit meeting." Eventually after several players push off or evade reporters, Montee Ball starts talking and my face is plastered all over the local news as I was positioned so that the camera couldn't capture Ball's face without also capturing mine. Highlight of my journalistic career thus far.
Anyway, a few weeks later news broke that Andersen was hired and I feel it was met with almost immediate acclaim. Local media, national media, fans — everyone seemed to at least agree it was a suitable hire. It seemed like a smart, thoughtful choice, and though not a flashy hire, flashy isn't so much the thing when the name of the game is lining up 320-pound lineman and pounding the ball through whatever space those beasts create.
Any hesitation about Andersen bringing in the spread all but evaporated when he said he would stick with tradition. So he may have created a brief identity crisis some with such radical ideas, but it was short-lived.
I know this is a stupid question, but does anyone in the Wisconsin fan base miss Bret Bielema? Even a little?
The only thing anyone misses about Bielema is making fun of him, which, as fans have quickly discovered, is even more fun from afar. Bielema wasn't loathed when he was in Madison, but he was also never embraced. Now that the Badger faithful have seen Andersen can do an equally good job, any lingering "maybe we never appreciated what we had" talk is gone.
Were you surprised by the amount of success that Gary Andersen had in his first season? How did he manage to run his offense so effectively? Did he just stick with Wisconsin's usual play-style, or did he go more spread?
I don't think I was surprised. It only confirmed my initial thoughts. I thought Andersen was a wonderful fit early on (not like I haven't been wrong before) and this season just proved that. In fairness, the Badgers didn't exactly play an SEC West schedule last year (insert Bielema joke on Arkansas finishing 0-8 in conference), so that certainly helped.
I really believed Andersen's composure, the product of experience and age, would make for a rather seamless transition. He wasn't walking down the tunnel before that first game thinking, "Oh sh*t, I'm big-time now!" This guy is as clear-headed as a major college football coach can be.
If I remember correctly, there was a bit of stir caused in the Wisconsin faithful when Andersen announced that they'd be going to a 3-4 defense. How would you say the team has adjusted? Does the 3-4 look more effective than Bielema's 4-3, or less? Are there any issues with the defense?
I think the 3-4 has been a wonderful reinvention of the Wisconsin defense. It certainly was all the buzz for some time – how will the guys who spent three years in a 4-3 learn a new position in just a few months? Will this work in the Big Ten? etc. — but the defense was overdue for a fresh coat of paint. Defensive coordinator Dave Aranda is a gifted defensive mind, and he really livened things up. Things should only improve as UW recruits players designed for this system and add a better grasp of the Xs and Os.
If you're ever looking to shoot down a Wisconsin fan, you can do so with these two words: "the secondary." I didn't grow up around the Badgers, but for as long as I've followed the team (since 2009, roughly), the secondary has been maddeningly incompetent. I just get the sense that every defensive backs coach stands at the whiteboard, draws a line between receiver and defender, and says something like, "You want to always leave about a four to seven yard cushion between yourself and the receiver." Opponents know the best method to attack the Badgers is through the air, and that didn't change as much as I hoped in Andersen's first season. The statistics tell me Wisconsin was third in the Big Ten in pass defense last year (202.5 yards per game), but that just doesn't sit right. That probably just speaks to the number of big plays in big moments they've given up, and those tend to stay in the mind a little bit longer.
Along those same lines, were there any frustrations with Andersen's play-calling or decision-making at all? Or any things that you'd like to change about the team itself?
You can't have it both ways. Some were scared of change, yet others (myself included) felt like the play-calling turned a bit too vanilla. Two run plays and a play action on third down, again? For the most part, however, it worked, so I don't have much of an axe to grind with Andersen or with offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig. I also think, with time, we could see him spice things up a bit more. As he recruits his own players and shows that he can win in Madison on a regular basis, he'll get more leeway and it will be interesting to see if he takes advantage.
At what point are we simply getting greedy? I certainly sit on the side of wishing he shook things up more, but I'm also hesitant to overhaul a system that brought us three consecutive Rose Bowls and a Capital One Bowl. (Yes, they lost all four of those bowl games. Another story for a different day.)
Filed under things I'd like to see change: a steady, accurate quarterback. Joel Stave has never been the answer, and nothing assures me he'll undergo some magical reinvention this year. I'm really hoping Tanner McEvoy, a transfer who actually played safety last season, at least gets his fair shot. I'm not asking for a second coming of Russell Wilson, but I wouldn't mind something more resembling Scott Tolzien.
Talk about Wisconsin in the West division. Is the fan base just delighted that their biggest obstacle to Indianapolis seems to be Nebraska, or am I totally overestimating how good Wisconsin will be this season? Does anyone in the division besides Nebraska make you nervous? Does Nebraska even make you nervous?
Nebraska does seem like the only real threat. Part of me wants to say Minnesota is a sleeper, but I also feel like I'm being dishonest by suggesting that. That Wisconsin doesn't have to deal with Ohio State and sudden juggernaut Michigan State is quite the blessing. I think the Huskers are a viable contender for the West division crown, though they always seem to tumble below pre-season expectations, and this year Wisconsin gets them at Camp Randall. Their schedule is also far from daunting, and Ameer Abdullah is a scary threat, so the Badgers need to be on the lookout.
That said, even I, the eternal pessimist, feel like the path has been carved to Indianapolis: all the Badgers have to do is drive a car through it without crashing... but Joel Stave has crashed a lot of cars before.
Final thoughts. How do you expect Wisconsin to do in 2014? How tough is the schedule? What's the biggest thing that worries you?
The season opener against LSU in Houston is going to be awfully tough. I actually plan on attending, and I expect it will be something like a Death Valley satellite campus. I'm not sure we have the athletes to compete with them, so I chalk it up as a loss for the Badgers. After that, it seems like easy cruisin', though the Badgers always seem to have trouble in Evanston, so watch out for the conference opener at Northwestern. The schedule is simply not that difficult, or at least shouldn't be if Wisconsin plays somewhere near the level I expect it to.
My worries are 1) Quarterback and 2) Receivers. I won't rehash the quarterback thing, but when you throw the ball you need someone to catch the ball. (Stay with me here.) Jared "Mr. Everything" Abbrederis is gone, as is tight end Jacob Pedersen. The top returning receiver is rising sophomore Alex Erickson, who had nine catches for 127 yards -- nine catches! That's 0.69 grabs per game. So something needs to change there.
This offense, without question, will run on the legs of Melvin Gordon. I think his ceiling is much higher than the previous ones of Montee Ball, James White, and the other stellar backs who have called the Wisconsin backfield home over the last few years. His place on the preseason Heisman watch-lists is well warranted. Still, at some point, someone will have to throw the ball and someone else will have to catch it. Therein lies the problem.