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2011 Season Preview: Raw Power And The Wisconsin Badgers

Wisconsin was very, very Wisconsin and very, very good in 2010. With All-Americans out and Russell Wilson in, can the Badgers stay on top in the new Big Ten?

ANN ARBOR MI - NOVEMBER 20:  Montee Ball #28 of the Wisconsin Badgers celebrates a second quarter touchdown while playing the Michigan Wolverines at Michigan Stadium on November 20 2010 in Ann Arbor Michigan.  (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)
ANN ARBOR MI - NOVEMBER 20: Montee Ball #28 of the Wisconsin Badgers celebrates a second quarter touchdown while playing the Michigan Wolverines at Michigan Stadium on November 20 2010 in Ann Arbor Michigan. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)
Getty Images

NOTE: Confused? Don't miss the definitions and footnotes at the bottom. And as always, if you don't like numbers, just skip to the words.

There are so many different ways to win a college football game. It is, to those of us who prefer the (somewhat) amateur version of the sport, one of the draws. There are so many variations of so many different types of offense; hell, Pittsburgh is going to try to win running three versions of the spread simultaneously next year. That's why Wisconsin's retro style felt so damn refreshing last year. Throwbacks are usually a good time -- powder blues are a personal favorite -- but in 2010, Bret Bielema's Badgers did more than just make you say "Oh, I remember that style ... how quaint!" They bludgeoned you with it. They manhandled you like you were on the Stoughton High School junior varsity, they out-identitied your identity, and if they got the chance, they humiliated you.

It was one of those jarring, out-of-body, role-reversal situations. Like watching yourself on camera, or the body switch premise that makes up half of all Hollywood comedies. Wisconsin is supposed to be of the Ohio State "Destroy you, 28-14" variety, a team capable of giving you no chance to win while grinding out closer-than-the-score-suggests victories. But ... there was Wisconsin, scoring 70 on Austin Peay. There was Wisconsin, scoring 70 on Northwestern! There was Wisconsin, scoring 83 ... 83 ... on Indiana. Wisconsin!

Most amazing of all, they put up ridiculous total after ridiculous total by simply being themselves. Granted, they were a bigger, stronger, faster version of what we have seen in recent years, but their identity was the same as it ever has been: run a lot on offense, bend a lot on defense, wear the opponent out in the second half, drink Capital outside Camp Randall and Jump Around in the fourth quarter. It's just that this typical Wisconsin style simply generated a startlingly good product in 2010.

2010 Schedule & Results*

Record: 11-2 | Adj. Record: 11-2 | Final F/+ Rk**: 12
Date Opponent Score W-L Adj. Score Adj. W-L
4-Sep at UNLV 41-21 W 23.9 - 25.9 L
11-Sep San Jose State 27-14 W 29.2 - 28.2 W
18-Sep Arizona State 20-19 W 40.4 - 31.2 W
25-Sep Austin Peay
70-3 W 53.0 - 18.4 W
2-Oct at Michigan State 24-34 L 27.7 - 28.6 L
9-Oct Minnesota 41-23 W 37.1 - 31.9 W
16-Oct Ohio State 31-18 W 56.1 - 20.5 W
23-Oct at Iowa 31-30 W 40.2 - 29.0 W
6-Nov at Purdue 34-13 W 27.4 - 16.8 W
13-Nov Indiana 83-20 W 51.2 - 18.3 W
20-Nov at Michigan 48-28 W 38.0 - 28.8 W
27-Nov Northwestern 70-23 W 48.1 - 22.7 W
1-Jan vs TCU 19-21 L 50.6 - 21.9 W
Category Offense Rk Defense Rk
Points Per Game 41.5 5 20.5 25
Adj. Points Per Game 40.2 3 24.8 39

It took Wisconsin a little while to get rolling against UNLV in their 2010 season opener. They led just 17-14 heading into halftime, but it takes midwesterners a little while to get their bearings in the Sin City. (At least, that was true in my case.) A third-quarter burst gave the Badgers a comfortable, if underwhelming win; it was the last time Wisconsin was anything worse than average on offense all season. They played at a good-not-great level against San Jose State, Michigan State and Purdue, and in their other nine games, they basically had the best offense in the country.

The Badgers' 2010 season is proof that you don't get punished by FO ratings for an iffy schedule if you take care of business. Yes, Wisconsin bludgeoned teams like Austin Peay, Indiana and Northwestern. And yes, most teams moved the ball comfortably against those teams. But Wiscy was a remorseless buzzsaw in those games, and their opponent-adjusted performances were still some of the best of the season. They also played far above average against very good defenses like Ohio State's and TCU's.

In all, Wisconsin's Adj. PPG average almost matched their gaudy, real-life totals. This was a really, really good offense. The defense? Eh. They were consistently in the average-to-above-average neighborhood, but this team won with a brutal, clinical, offense, one that now must replace seven starters and two All-Americans.


Category S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
OVERALL 9 6 15
RUSHING 4 2 6 Adj. Line Yards:
PASSING 14 7 29 6
Standard Downs 7 2 12 Adj. Sack Rate:
Passing Downs 4 3 7 70
Redzone 10 5 13
Q1 Rk 22 1st Down Rk 6
Q2 Rk 10 2nd Down Rk 11
Q3 Rk 3 3rd Down Rk 3
Q4 Rk 6

One gets the impression that former Wisconsin coach Barry Alvarez didn't actually sleep last fall; he just went into the backyard at night, ripped his shirt off like Andy Dufrene in the river, and meditated on his knees in reverence at the offense his program was producing. This was Wisconsin to the nth power, visceral, concentrated Wisconsin. They ran three-quarters of the time on standard downs, with meaty running backs and a gigantic offensive line, they pounded out the best leverage rate in the country, and as the game progressed, they just got more and more effective. They weren't afraid to throw the ball on passing downs, and considering a disproportionate number of their passes came on standard downs, it is simply amazing that quarterback Scott Tolzien managed to complete 73% of his passes.

Tolzien's playmaking ability was perhaps the most underrated aspect of the Badgers' attack. Sure, he had some lovely weapons -- tight end Lance Kendricks (663 yards, 15.4 per catch, 79% catch rate, 5 TD) was perhaps the most well-rounded tight end in the country, and in all, five members of the receiving corps averaged at least 8.7 yards per target, which is outstanding; but while he took too many sacks in waiting for his guys to run more intermediate, old-school routes (the poor sack rate dragged down the passing rankings), he was a tough, accurate playmaker.

Though Wisconsin must replace six other starters, Tolzien's absence is the most interesting not only because it comes at the quarterback position, but because Russell Wilson is replacing him. The former N.C. State quarterback is also a patient playmaker, but that appears to be where the style similarities end. N.C. State passed a lot and played at a much higher pace (Wisconsin wasn't slow, mind you, but N.C. State was quite fast). The Wolfpack offense was built around Wilson's talents -- put the ball in his hands and watch him make a play one way or another. But Wisconsin already has their identity, and it's a good one.

It's built, of course, around that run game and that offensive line. Two All-Americans (Gabe Carimi and John Moffitt) depart from the left side of the line, but the Badgers still return 72 career starts, and they still average in the neighborhood of 6-foot-5, 325 pounds. Guard Kevin Zeitler and center Peter Konz are two-year starters, and tackle Josh Oglesby is strong if he can stay healthy (and to date, he hasn't been able to). Overall, it's hard not to expect at least a bit of a dropoff considering what the unit loses, but this is still going to be a big, strong, mean line, and it's still going to e blocking for an outstanding pair of running backs.

Other tidbits:

  • Oh, the running backs. John Clay, James White and Montee Ball combined for a difficult-to-fathom 3,060 yards, plus-31.5 Adj. POE and, perhaps most ridiculous of all, 46 touchdowns. The hefty Clay (1,012 yards, +2.0 Adj. POE) is gone, but honestly he was the weakest of the three last fall. White and Ball are back, and it is difficult to imagine Wilson throwing too much of a fit if they continue to be Option Nos. 1-2 on this offense.
  • Three of last year's top five weapons in the passing game are gone: Lance Kendricks, truly a devastating weapon at tight end, and receivers David Gilreath and Isaac Anderson (combined: 603 yards, 1 TD). That means Wilson will probably have to lean heavily on injury-prone Nick Toon (459 yards, 12.8 per catch, 68% catch rate, 3 TD in nine games), insanely efficient walk-on Jared Abbrederis (289 yards, 14.4 per catch, 80% catch rate, 3 TD) and Jacob Pedersen (132 yards, 16.5 per catch, 57% catch rate, 2 TD).


Category S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
OVERALL 26 29 15
RUSHING 35 47 35 Adj. Line Yards:
PASSING 16 26 8 46
Standard Downs 42 46 44 Adj. Sack Rate:
Passing Downs 27 40 17 49
Redzone 50 47 52
Q1 Rk 38 1st Down Rk 50
Q2 Rk 17 2nd Down Rk 9
Q3 Rk 64 3rd Down Rk 63
Q4 Rk 57

So if Wisconsin's offense was so amazing, why did the Badgers rank just 12th in overall F/+? Because of the defense, of course. It wasn't bad by any means -- in fact, in terms of overall performance, it was almost exactly the same as the three UW defenses that came before it. It's just that it wasn't anywhere near as elite as the offense. Auburn got away with having an only decent defense because their offense was not only excellent, but transcendent. Wisconsin couldn't quite get away with it (though there's very little wrong with 11-2 and a Top 12 F/+ ranking).

Wisconsin's biggest strength was in the elimination of big plays in the passing game. It allowed them to play the bend-don't-break routine to perfection (which, with their offense, is a lovely strategy -- you don't have to make a ton of plays on defense when you're scoring on every one of your own possessions; you just have to make a few plays). Despite the presence of J.J. Watt (52.0 tackles, 21.0 TFL/sacks, 1 INT, 3 FF, 2 FR, 8 PBU), the Badgers were only decent at getting to the quarterback, but with a smart secondary led by safeties Jay Valai (33.5 tackles, 2.0 TFL/sacks, 1 INT, 3 PBU) and Aaron Henry (52.5 tackles, 0.5 TFL/sacks, 2 INT, 3 FR, 7 PBU) and corners Antonio Fenelus (49.5 tackles, 4 INT, 7 PBU), Niles Brinkley (44.0 tackles, 9 PBU) and Devin Smith (23.5 tackles, 1.0 TFL/sacks, 1 INT), UW was fantastic at keeping the play in front of them and living to fight another down. That both Brinkley and Valai (along with Watt) are gone is cause for concern, simply because the Badgers didn't appear to have much depth in the secondary. Only five players got significant playing time, making the loss of two a lot more significant.

Despite the presence of Watt, Wisconsin's "Need For Blitzes" figure was quite high. Why? Partially because of the limitations of the formula (without detailed game charting, all we can use to discuss blitzes are sack numbers from standard downs and passing downs; if you ranked a lot higher on passing downs sack rates than standard downs, the assumption is you blitzed effectively; when you've got a pass-rush specialist like Watt on the line, it fakes the numbers out a bit), and partially because Watt was the first, second and third threat on the defensive line. The next six Wisconsin linemen combined for just 17.5 TFL/sacks, 3.5 fewer than Watt managed on his own.

In this way, obviously, Watt's departure could be damaging. Louis Nzegwu (37.0 tackles, 7.5 TFL/sacks, 3 PBU) is solid, and there is encouragement from the fact that a) six of the top seven return and b) three of those six were freshmen who might be about to take a big step forward. But Watt was the only proven playmaker up front, and he's gone. The line was not particularly big and got pushed around a bit against the run with Watt, so now they have quite a bit to prove; and needless to say, Wisconsin's real need for blitzes probably increases in 2011.

Other tidbits:

  • While the front and back of the Wisconsin defense have holes to fill, I'm pretty confident that the linebackers should improve. They must replace Blake Sorensen (48.0 tackles, 1.0 TFL/sacks, 2 INT) and Culmer St. Jean (50.0 tackles, 3.0 TFL/sacks, 1 INT), but from a playmaking perspective, the return of Chris Borland (45.0 tackles, 10.5 TFL/sacks, 1 INT, 5 FF, 3 FR as a freshman in 2009) from an injury redshirt should compensate. Borland and Mike Taylor (42.5 tackles, 8.0 TFL/sacks, 2 INT) are both very interesting players, and when you throw in Kevin Claxton (15.5 tackles, 2.0 TFL/sacks) and Ethan Armstrong (11.0 tackles, 2.5 TFL/sacks as a redshirt freshman), you should have a pretty good unit. Sorensen and St. Jean were stable, "tackling machine" players, but those are typically more replaceable than big-time playmakers.
  • One of the more interesting aspects of having written nearly 90 3,000-word profiles in the last four months is seeing teams' differing approaches to tackles. Some defenses filter everything to the middle linebacker, therefore ending up with one or two players compiling infinitely more tackles than everybody else on the team. But then there are defenses like Wisconsin's. Seven Badgers made between 42.5 and 52.5 tackles (counting assists as only 0.5 tackles), meaning Wisconsin did more swarming than leveraging.

Wisconsin's 2010 Season Set to Music

"Big Dogs," by Method Man & Redman
"Big Fun," by Bad Brains
"Big Rumble," by Bruce Hornsby & The Range
"Boom," by The Roots
"Do Do Wap Is Strong In Here," by Curtis Mayfield
"Power," by Kanye West
"Powers," by Blackalicious
"Raw Power," by The Stooges
"Stronger," by Kanye West
"Tomb Of The Boom," by Outkast

Fun Stat Nerd Tidbit


Summary and Projection Factors

Below is a small handful of projection and change factors most pertinent to the Football Outsiders' preseason projections you will find in this summer's Football Outsiders Almanac 2011.

Four-Year F/+ Rk 21
Five-Year Recruiting Rk 44
TO Margin/Adj. TO Margin**** +14 / +10.5
Approx. Ret. Starters (Off. / Def.) 10 (4, 6)
Yds/Pt Margin***** -4.9

I really don't see any way Wisconsin doesn't regress at least a bit in 2011. In replacing two All-Americans on the line, a stud defensive end, and 40% of a thin-but-steady secondary, and in potentially seeing worse fumbles luck and a lesser YPP margin, Wisconsin is going to struggle to finish in the F/+ Top 12 again this fall. That's the bad news. The good news? Nobody else in the Big Ten is likely to finish in the Top 12 either. A weaker Wisconsin squad is still going to fight it out to the last minute with a weaker Ohio State squad for the Leaders? Legends? Leaders (I think) Division title.

It's amazing to remember that Bret Bielema was on a bit of a hot seat as recently as a couple of years ago. Wisconsin went just 7-6 in 2008, giving up far too many points and not scoring nearly enough. Instead of making any significant stylistic changes, he just doubled down on Wisconsin's "size and strength" identity. Two years and 21 wins later, he has, with Ohio State's recent off-the-field problems, built perhaps the most stable program in the new Big Ten. Even if the Badgers take a likely step backwards this fall, and even if Russell Wilson brings about a bit of a shift in the plays that are called, this team is going to have the strongest identity, and be one of the toughest outs, in the conference, and they're going to have solid odds at returning to the Rose Bowl in January.




* For more on the 'Adj. Score' and 'Adj. Record' measures below, feel free to read this Football Outsiders column. Adj. Score is a look at how a team would have performed in a given week if playing a perfectly average team, with a somewhat average number of breaks and turnovers. The idea for the measure is simple: what if everybody in the country played exactly the same opponent every single week? Who would have done the best? It is an attempt to look at offensive and defensive consistency without getting sidetracked by easy or difficult schedules. And yes, with adjusted score you can allow a negative number of points, which is strangely satisfying.

** F/+ rankings are the official rankings for the college portion of Football Outsiders. They combine my own S&P+ rankings (based on play-by-play data) with Brian Fremeau's drives-based FEI rankings.

*** What is S&P+? Think of it as an OPS (the "On-Base Plus Slugging" baseball measure) for football. The 'S' stands for success rates, a common Football Outsiders efficiency measure that basically serves as on-base percentage. The 'P' stands for PPP+, an explosiveness measure that stands for EqPts Per Play. The "+" means it has been adjusted for the level of opponent, obviously a key to any good measure in college football. S&P+ is measured for all non-garbage time plays in a given college football game. Plays are counted within the following criteria: when the score is within 28 points in the first quarter, within 24 points in the second quarter, within 21 points in the third quarter, and within 16 points (i.e. two possession) in the fourth quarter. For more about this measure, visit the main S&P+ page at Football Outsiders.

**** Adj. TO Margin is what a team's turnover margin would have been if they had recovered exactly 50 percent of all the fumbles that occurred in their games. If there is a huge difference between TO Margin and Adj. TO Margin (in other words, if fumbles and unlucky bounces were the main source of a good/bad TO margin), that suggests that a team's luck was particularly good or bad and might even out the next season.

*****Phil Steele has long tracked Yards Per Point as a means of looking at teams that were a little too efficient or inefficient the previous season. A positive Yds/Pt Margin means a team's offense was less efficient than opponents' offenses, and to the extent that luck was involved, their luck might even out the next year.