Thursday, August 23, 2012

Previewing Big Ten Football: Wisconsin

Write it in stone: Wisconsin will be the winner of the Leaders division in 2012. This can be attributed to multiple things. The strength of their team. Montee Ball. OSU going through their sanctions and not being able to compete for it. Penn St as well. Having Illinois and Indiana in your division. That leaves only Purdue to compete with, and Purdue can't hold a candle to Wisconsin right now. Yet as this season is beginning to unfold, there will be similarities and differences. Here's what Wisconsin has ahead of them in 2012.

2011 Record:  11-3, 6-2 Big Ten

Returning Starters: Offense – 5, Defense – 6

Bret Bielema is becoming one of college football's elite coaches. He's entering his 7th season coaching the Badgers, where so far he has a record of 60-19 (.759). Last season, he led Wisconsin to back-to-back Rose Bowls for the first time since 1999 and 2000. Bielema coached Wisconsin to victories in 17 of his first 18 games, making it the best Big Ten coaching start since Fielding Yost, who went 55-0-1 when he started. Consistency in coaching is huge in any sport, and a consistent winning coach is one to treasure, and that's also why he received a contract extension earlier this year. One major change, coaching wise, is that there will be 6 new assistant coaches. The biggest change of all is Matt Canada replacing Paul Chryst as the offensive coordinator. Chryst left to take the head coaching job at Pittsburgh, and all of us wish him well there. Wisconsin is also losing their wide receivers, linebackers, and offensive line coaches. That's a huge loss for any team that it trying to hold onto a specific identity.

The offense won't be changing too much this season, and that's probably a good thing. They averaged even more points (44.1) than they had in 2010 (41.5), when they scored 70 or more points three times. That was with one-year transfer Russell Wilson taking snaps. This year, they've decided to go with another transfer quarterback in Danny O'Brien. However, that's where the similarities will end. O'Brien will have two years of eligibility, not one. O'Brien also does not have the running ability that Wilson possessed, but is three inches taller and more of a pocket passer. O'Brien had a rough ending at Maryland by losing playing time to another guy, not really playing well in Randy Edsall's offense, and broke his non throwing arm (left) in a game against Notre Dame. O'Brien earned ACC Rookie of The Year honors in 2010 and guided Maryland to a 9-4 record, passing for 2,438 yards and 22 touchdowns with eight interceptions. He struggled last season under new coach Randy Edsall, throwing 10 interceptions and seven touchdowns. I'm not sure how O'Brien will fare in his new starting role. I found it odd that Bielema declared O'Brien the starter over Twitter, but that's how the world works now. There are a few backups to choose from, ranging from Joel Stave, Bart Houston,  Curt Phillips (still recovering from an ACL tear), and Joe Brennan. Make no mistake though...O'Brien seems to be the unquestioned starter.

Now, we move on to what makes the offense churn, and that's Montee Ball. The 2011 Heisman finalist made the choice to return to Wisconsin, a move that surprised many. Ball was projected to be drafted in the first round of the NFL draft, and if his 2012 season compares to his 2011 one, then he very well could be a top-5 pick. Ball had one of the best seasons a running back could possibly have in 2011, averaging 6.3 yards per carry over 22 carries per game, catching 24 passes, and scoring an incredible 39 touchdowns in 14 games. Had he scored one more TD,  he would have surpassed the mark set by Barry Sanders in 1988. Ball has a very capable backup in James White, with White having amassed almost 1,800 rushing yards and 20 TDs himself. Also there is Jeffery White and Melvin Gordon, but in the end, Ball is the Madison Man.

If Ball is to try and repeat his stellar 2011 season, then he needs a steady offensive line to open holes for him.  Center Peter Konz left for the NFL, and he was just one of three all-conference linemen who have left. And that leaves Travis Frederick and Ricky Wagner as the only returning starters. Junior Ryan Groy, who is taking over for Konz, has appeared in all 14 games, senior Robert Burge played in 12, sophomore Rob Havenstein played in 12 and junior Zac Matthias played in nine contests. The common theme is that even though Wisconsin has lost some good players on their line, they have plenty of experienced players to fill in. Their offensive line is usually known for being one of the biggest in the nation, pro or college.  Even if Wisconsin's line does take a step back, which it certainly could do, it won't be much.

At wide receiver, things are in flux as well. Gone is reliable pass-catcher Nick Toon, who compiled almost a 1,000 yds receiving and 10 TDs last season. He might have had bigger numbers if it weren't for the legs of Ball, Wilson, and White. Jared Abbrederis is back and is vastly underrated. Last year he put up 55 receptions for 933 yards, and 8 TDs. With a ridiculous 14.4 ypc average, he figures to be the number one option in 2012. He also is a great returner and should be an impact player for the special teams.  Tight end Jacob Pedersen returns to improve on his 2011 numbers, and Joel Duckworth (quack quack quack Mr. Duckworth) also is a legitimate threat. It's not a deep depth chart, but with the running attack it doesn't need to be.

Defensively four of the top five ends, the top three tackles, five of the top six linebackers, and seven of the top nine defensive backs are returning. The Badgers were 60th in the country in rushing yards per game allowed, but rather poor at pass defense, and that cost them last year. The front seven might be able to improve, and again the linebackers will see most of the action. The linebacking corps made over a quarter of the tackles last season, with 28.0 tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks, four interceptions, eight passes broken up, eight forced fumbles.

Their leading pass rusher on the line is gone and that means David Gilbert will have to step up and take over, even after missing last season due to injury.  He does have some experience and got 10 tackles despite playing in only 4 games last year.  Brendan Kelly and Ethan Hemer could also play a role on the line as both played in every game last year and got around 35 tackles each.  Younger players Beau Allen and Jordan Kohout could also play a role.  Allen had 5.5 TFLs last year and did get 22 tackles last season.  If the quarterback position is the question mark for the offense, this is the question mark for the defense.  The team had just 25 sacks last year (Michigan had 30, MSU had 45) so getting pressure on the quarterback will be key.  Allen and Gilbert are the biggest returners in terms of sacks so look for them on the defensive side.  If they can increase pressure and improve the team's sack total, the Badgers should have a good defense.  If they do not, passing teams could continue to punish them.

Mike Taylor should lead the linebackers, coming back from a season with 60 solo tackles and 150 total tackles.  Chris Borland and Marcus Cromartie should also be solid, each having played in 14 games last year and being 2nd and 4th respectively in terms of tackles.  This should be the anchor of the defense and will primarily be tasked with cleaning up the mess that the defensive line leaves for them.  All three are experienced and did a solid job last season.  Like the line, however, I would like to see a little more pressure on the quarterback, specifically in the passing game.  Wisconsin's linebackers had just 6.5 sacks last season. Borland did have 19 TFls, but when Michigan's linebackers had 8 sacks and MSU's Denicos Allen had 11 sacks himself, their performance becomes a little less impressive.  The linebackers will carry the defense, but they may be found picking up too many pieces left over by the defensive line.

I know I said 7 of the top 9 DBs are returning, but those who left are leaving a hole. The top corner and safety are gone, and having 8 interceptions between them is a big loss. Safety Shelton Johnson (four interceptions, four passes broken up, 6.0 tackles for loss) returns, but the cornerback position is a bit of a mystery.  Marcus Cromartie and  Peniel Jean have potential, but they need to show it a bit more. This means the bulk of the work will again be placed on the linebackers.

Recruiting Spotlight: Wisconsin's 2012 class is not particularly sexy. Then again, it rarely is. They have three 4* recruits in RB Vonte Jackson, OL Dan Voltz, and LB Vince Biegel. Beyond that it's a compendium of 3* players and a couple 2* players. Oddly, overall there are only 12 recruits coming in for 2012 and that's a small class for any team. However, this is Wisconsin, and they can make stars out of anyone.  Since most of Wisconsin's small recruiting class (12 commits) aren't at positions of need, there are only a few guys lined up for a potential impact.  D.J. Singleton, a 4* safety according to ESPN, could make an impact if some of the newcomers don't make a big impact.  Along with him, Hugs Etienne might get some playing time as a defensive back.  To be honest, nobody in Wisconsin's 2012 recruiting class is likely to get significant time, but these are probably the most likely.

2012 Outlook: Wisconsin will again win the Leaders Division, and they have some help.They don't play Michigan, and this will be the last year of sanctions for Ohio State, and Wiscy plays them at home so they're out the picture. Penn State will have enough troubles fielding a team, and their sanctions will keep them out of the hunt for many years. Purdue might give them a test in Fayetteville, and another tough road game at Nebraska might allay them from perfection, but they'll still be in Indianapolis playing for the second Big Ten Championship...against Michigan.

Wisconsin Predictions:
Record: 10-2
Ability To Compete With Top Teams: High
Upset Status: Medium to High
Bowl Status: High Bowl

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