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2012 Wisconsin Football Preview: A Lot Can Change In Three Years

Three years ago, Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema was a somewhat immature coach who made some silly mistakes and was a couple more bad losses away from the hot seat. Now, he's a fiery, confident winner and back-to-back Big Ten champion. Funny how winning changes the adjectives. Related: Wisconsin's complete 2012 statistical profile, including projected starters, year-to-year trends and rankings galore.

For more on Badgers football, visit Wisconsin blog Bucky's 5th Quarter, plus Big Ten blog Off Tackle Empire.

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October 23, 2008:

Basically, my take on Bielema is simple: I'm beginning to believe they hired the wrong guy. It's nothing against Bielema, as I think he's a pretty good defensive coach. But this team is looking more and more like a mess the further away we get from having a team built around Barry Alvarez recruits. Bielema is an okay motivator, but he hasn't proven anything to me as a recruiter, and the fact that a defensive head coach is watching idly as his defense gets consistently shredded is just too much for me to stomach.

The quarterback position has never been adequately addressed. The talent at wide receiver is undeveloped and seems to be inadequate, again.

April 2, 2009:

But there's no doubt that the coaching was subpar last season. There were way too many penalties (especially from Bielema himself), there was a toughness issue, attitude problems and blatant coaching mistakes (like calling timeout as Michigan State was scrambling to lineup a game-winning field goal).

If the coaching doesn't improve then the fans will stop buying tickets. It's probably a combination of the economy and last year's struggles, but season ticket renewals did go down slightly and there have never been more ads on about season ticket renewal.

August 3, 2009:

Now, entering his fourth season as Wisconsin athletic director Barry Alvarez's hand-picked successor, Bielema finds himself at a crossroads of sorts in what could be the defining season of his tenure.

"Is Bret on the hot seat?" Alvarez says. "I wouldn't say he's on the hot seat. What happens if he goes 7-6 again? I think it depends on how you go 7-6. If it's coaching mistakes, it's different than if you lose tough ball games. Guys are playing solid football."

August 4, 2009:

Like a lot of Badger fans, Alvarez seems frustrated with his team's failures in close games. He also pointed the finger at the sideline conduct of his coaches. Bielema got headlines last season for taking a horrible 15-yard penalty while arguing a call in the Michigan State loss.

Almost exactly three years ago, Bret Bielema's seat may not have been entirely hot, but it was warm. His Wisconsin Badgers had fallen from 12-1 in 2006 (21st in F/+), to 9-4 in 2007 (38th), to 7-6 in 2008 (41st). But since starting the 2008 season 0-4 in conference play, Wisconsin has won 22 of 28 conference games and 36 of 46 games overall. They have been to back-to-back Rose Bowls and won the inaugural Big Ten title game in 2011.

Lulls do happen, of course. Barry Switzer went just 23-12-1 at Oklahoma from 1981-83 before going 33-3 from 1985-87. Don James averaged just seven wins per season at Washington from 1985-89 before going 22-2 in 1990-91. And Bear Bryant famously went 12-10-1 at Alabama in 1969-70 before ripping off 107 wins in the next 10 years. Maybe more recruits than normal turn out to be lemons. Maybe you lose a couple of valuable assistant coaches. Maybe your schemes get stale. Or, in Bret Bielema's case, maybe you're just a young coach who has some mistakes to make and some further development to undergo.

When you are a head coach at the highest level of college sports, it's a thin line between immature and fiery, stupid and smart, unimaginative and old-school. Bielema is living proof. He didn't suddenly become a much better coach (it rarely works like that) but after making a series of mistakes as the program became fully his own (and not Barry Alvarez's), he has pressed the right buttons recently. Of that, there is no doubt.

In 2012, Bielema will find some new challenges: gone are offensive coordinator Paul Chryst and five other assistants, quarterback Russell Wilson, No. 1 receiver Nick Toon, and a pair of all-conference linemen. Plus, a defense that regressed in 2011 will need to regroup and rebound. New pieces (quarterback Danny O'Brien, in particular) will need to contribute quickly if Wisconsin is going to earn its third straight Rose Bowl. But while we may have doubted WIsconsin's head coach a few years ago, he has given us little reason to do so since.

Related: Check out Wisconsin's statistical profile.

Last Year

Here's what I said about Bucky and company last year:

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. […]

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. [...]

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.

I admit it: I severely underestimated one mister Russell Wilson. The Wisconsin defense did indeed regress in 2011, but it didn't matter because an offense led by Wilson, running back Montee Ball, receivers Nick Toon and Jared Abbrederis (who went from "insanely efficient walk-on" in last year's preview to perhaps "best No. 2 receiver in America not named Marqise Lee") and a new batch of all-conference linemen surged from fourth in Off. F/+ to an easy first. As a result, Wisconsin improved from 12th overall in F/+ to sixth, won their second straight Big Ten title, and averaged even more points (44.1) than they had in 2010 (41.5), when they scored 70 or more points three times. The incredible offense made up for a defense that regressed from 36th to 43rd in Def. F/+ (only once in the past five years has Wisconsin ranked in the Top 30 in the category), but the D still managed to hold the Badgers back a bit: in each of their two regular season losses, the Wisconsin defense allowed a long, improbable touchdown pass in the final minute.


When a team loses its quarterback and offensive coordinator in the same offseason, it might be fair to wonder if the head coach is going to take the opportunity to change things up. At least, it might be fair to wonder about this at schools other than Wisconsin. The Badgers have long thrived in a power-first, power-second system -- which, considering the local talent base of solid linemen and run-friendly personnel*, makes a lot of sense -- and after some fits and starts, Bielema and coordinator Paul Chryst figured out ways to modernize a run-heavy, power scheme with fantastic results.

* Since 2002, the state of Wisconsin has produced 23 high school players who were given at least a four-star rating by 12 were linemen, three were linebackers, five were running backs, two were receivers, one was a quarterback. Nineteen of the 23 signed with Wisconsin, and a 20th (running back Brian Calhoun) ended up transferring back to Madison.

With Chryst taking the Pittsburgh head coaching position (where he should fit in beautifully), Bielema made an interesting hire, bringing in Northern Illinois offensive coordinator Matt Canada. Northern Illinois worked from a spread alignment in 2011, but the Huskies ran more frequently than the national average in 2011, and Canada has gone out of his way to assure that he is not making significant changes to what has clearly worked.

And oh, did Wisconsin's offense work in 2011. With Russell Wilson behind center, the Badgers' attack went from very good to great. Now, Canada has to figure out how to produce similar results with Wilson wearing a Seattle Seahawks uniform.

Montee Ball is a pretty good place to start, of course. 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. His plus-57.2 Adj. POE (which suggests he was more than eight or nine touchdowns better than the average college running back given his carries, opponents and blocking) was the best on record since 2005.

Ball's combined stats from Wisconsin's two Rose Bowl seasons are simply absurd: 2,919 rushing yards, 40 receptions, 57 touchdowns. He will be running behind a slightly inexperienced and reshuffled line (five players with starting experience, 51 career starts), but he did last year, too. It didn't slow him down much. Backups James White, Jeffrey Lewis and Melvin Gordon (who had a fantastic spring game) should be available to spell Ball when necessary, but Ball will be The Man in Madison, and he has a chance to leave school with some incredible career numbers. Hell, that would have been the case if he had left after last season.

What made Wisconsin so good in 2011, though, was that they could pass, too. Despite a propensity for scrambling around and occasionally taking some sacks, Wilson averaged a ridiculous 9.1 yards per pass attempt, completed 73 percent of his passes (just like Scott Tolzien had the year before) and never threw picks. His presumptive replacement is Maryland transfer Danny O'Brien, though he will have to beat out sophomores Joe Brennan and Joel Stave, among others, to lock down the job.

If O'Brien does win the job, he will have to significantly raise his efficiency game. He completed just 56 percent of his passes last year (albeit with Maryland's less-than-stellar receiving corps) and threw seven touchdowns to 10 interceptions. You can't totally blame that on the Randy Edsall regime, either; with better receivers and Ralph Friedgen in charge in 2010, O'Brien still completed only 57 percent of his passes and threw eight interceptions. O'Brien is probably the best quarterback on the Wisconsin roster, but he has yet to prove he is as good as even Tolzien, much less Wilson. (Of course, Wilson completed just 58 percent of his passes and threw 14 interceptions in 2010 at N.C. State, so O'Brien could potentially make the same improvement.)

O'Brien will have a couple of interesting weapons at his disposal, however. Jared Abbrederis was one of the nation's most underrated receivers in 2011. Of the 168 receivers targeted at least 70 times last fall, Abbrederis was the only one who managed at least a 74 percent catch rate and averaged better than 16 yards per catch. He averaged an outstanding 12.6 yards per target; of those targeted more than 70 times, Marqise Lee was the only other one to average better than 11.5. The former walk-on saw his per-target averages rise as he went from Wisconsin's No. 5 target in 2010 (11.6 per target) to their No. 2 target last year. This fall, he will almost certainly be O'Brien's (or whoever's) No. 1 target with the departure of Nick Toon. Tight end Jacob Pedersen (356 yards, 8.7 per target, 73 percent catch rate) and wideout Jeff Duckworth (230 yards, 9.6 per target, 63 percent catch rate) also return, and Ball and White will remain prevalent options in the passing game. The receiving corps isn't amazingly deep, but in this offense it doesn't necessarily need to be.


Without Wilson, the Wisconsin will potentially regress in 2012. (I said the same thing this time last year, of course, but with how good the offense was last year, it almost has no choice but to fall back a bit, especially with a new coordinator.) But in theory, that is alright as long as the defense picks up the slack. For better or worse, almost all of last year's two-deep returns -- four of the top five ends, the top three tackles, five of the top six linebackers, and seven of the top nine defensive backs. Coordinator Chris Ash took over the defense last year and saw mixed results, but there's no questioning that the experience is quite a bit higher than it was last year.

Wisconsin's 2011 defense is further proof that raw yards-per-game stats just aren't worth following closely. The Badgers were 60th in the country in rushing yards per game allowed, fourth in passing yards per game allowed. But a) only two defenses in the country (Alabama, Army) faced fewer plays per game because of their slow-paced, efficient offense, and b) opponents ran the ball more frequently than the national average against them. Wisconsin was actually rather inefficient in pass defense (90th in Passing Success Rate+), and it cost them.

The secondary is the defense's biggest concern heading into 2012. Safety Aaron Henry (four interceptions, four passes broken up, 3.0 tackles for loss) and corner Antonio Fenelus (four interceptions, five passes broken up, 3.0 tackles for loss) are both gone, and while theirs are the ONLY departures, they were each quality playmakers for a defense that needed them. 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. Senior Marcus Cromartie and sophomore Peniel Jean have potential, but they need to show it a bit more.

If the secondary isn't too much of a liability, the front seven should make sure the defense improves overall. Leading pass rusher Louius Nzaegwu is gone, but junior David Gilbert returns after missing most of last season with a foot injury (he had 3.5 tackles for loss in just four games), Brendan Kelly is decent, and tackles Ethan Hemer, Beau Allen and Jordan Kohout are active in the pass rush. The line should improve after an incredibly mediocre 2011 -- a dominant spring game was a nice first step -- and considering only Kelly is a senior, should improve again in 2013.

The Wisconsin defense filters the action to the linebackers as much as possible, and while the run defense gave up a few too many big plays, linebackers Mike Taylor and Chris Borland still did their jobs pretty well. They combined to make 28 percent of Wisconsin's tackles by themselves, but they also made PLAYS: 28.0 tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks, four interceptions, eight passes broken up, eight forced fumbles. The secondary let them down at times, and they were probably asked to make too MANY plays on their own, but they are rock solid.

Defining Success

The success-or-not line is pretty easy to draw for the Badgers. They have won consecutive conference titles, and Ohio State is ineligible for the division title, so anything less than a return to the conference title game will feel rather disappointing, especially considering it would be a team like Illinois or Purdue going in their place.


You can talk yourself into a glass-half-full or half-empty viewpoint with Wisconsin in 2012. On the half-empty side, nearly half the coaching staff is new, the quarterback is new (and potentially hasn't even practiced with the team yet), and a defense that wasn't very good last year is going to have to pick up the slack for likely offensive regression. On the half-full side, the Badgers had to replace their quarterback last year as well (one who had produced very similar stats to those of Danny O'Brien before his move to Madison), the defense is wonderfully experienced and will almost certainly improve, and Montee Ball is still Montee Ball.

Without Ohio State in the picture, Wisconsin is clearly the favorite to make another trip to the Big Ten title game from the Leaders Division. But if they were to slip up in road trips to Nebraska and Purdue in October (after what will probably be quite an easy September), the water could get really muddy, really quickly.

For more on Badgers football, visit Wisconsin blog Bucky's 5th Quarter, plus Big Ten blog Off Tackle Empire.

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