Part of the Doc's Big Ten Week.
For a while there, Wisconsin was in a nice little groove of sneaking up on people: The Badgers exceeding expectations with nine-win regular seasons, Jan. 1 bowl bids and top-20 finishes in both 2004 and 2005, then vaulted into the top 10 with a nine-game winning streak and Capital One Bowl upset of Arkansas to finish 12-1 in 2006, when no one expected anything at all from them under first-year frat boy coach Bret Bielema. This was despite considerable turnover: Along with the coaching change, UW had three different leading rushers from 04-06, six different players over 500 yards receiving (only of whom, Brandon Williams, did it twice) and only one repeat performance (Joe Thomas) between 15 different players on the year-end All-Big Ten teams. Regardless of the specific faces, the program was rolling.
Not surprisingly, pundits finally caught on and made the Badgers a favorite in the Big Ten and a darkhorse national contender in 2007, to which the team responded by losing three Big Ten games and the bowl game to Tennessee and barely slipping into the final polls at all. Encouraged by a slew of returning talent, the buzz last summer had Wisconsin as the second-best team in the Big Ten behind unanimous favorite Ohio State and a favorite to lumber into the BCS for the first time. Instead it blew five of six games at midseason and finished with a losing Big Ten record for the first time since 2002.
So it's back to full-circle, then: The summer consensus has the Badgers pegged as thoroughly mediocre also-rans, a fairly obvious conclusion for any team replacing as many as seven starters on defense and boasting Dustin Sherer as its starting quarterback. In a lot of ways, though, Wisconsin is the same team that ran up 40 wins and four straight Jan. 1 games, a throwback lot still based around a punishing, straight-ahead running game widely expected to improve with John Clay replacing the consistent but very non-explosive P.J. Hill as backfield thumper de jour -- good for exactly zero top-25 votes by any major preseason outlet.
The defense. Pretty much all of it. As D-coordinator at Kansas State, Bielema's defenses finished in the top ten nationally in scoring and total defense every year from 2000-03. Upon his hop north to take the same job in 2004, the Wildcat D immediately tanked and Bill Snyder went into retirement; meanwhile, the Badger defense suddenly went from very mediocre every year from 2000-03 to rockin’ upon Bielema’s arrival in '04, finising in the top ten in, yes, both scoring and total defense. After a bizarre collapse in 2005, the Badgers were right back in 2006 in the top five in both scoring and total defense. Six elite units in seven years at two different schools, neither of which approached the same numbers before/after Bielema's departure/arrival, is a trend. An impressive trend.
And one I think we can declare officially finished:
Three of the last four seasons have produced mediocre to bad results, partly because of the injuries that have plagued so many starters over the last two years (half the starting lineup missed at least one game in '08) and partly because of a lack of depth. But when a lineup composed almost entirely upperclassmen gives up 276 yards rushing in a one-point overtime win over Cal Poly, the problems run deeper than the depth chart. The fact that the Badgers lose five multi-year starters this year from the front seven can only be spun if you think the new guys can't do any worse, which is not a safe assumption.
Jon Stocco was, like ... good? Stocco, by all outward appearances just another in a long line of uninspiring, within-the-offense types without much in the way of wheels or an arm to recommend him beyond a steady dose of handoffs, left after the '06 season without much fanfare. After all, he'd more or less successfully replaced Jim Sorgi, who'd more or less successfully replaced Brooks Bollinger, and he'd be more or less successfully replaced by the next pasty caretaker(s) in line. How hard can this job be?
Wisconsin Results by Quarterback Since 2000
2000: 8-4 (B. Bollinger, Sun Bowl)
2001: 5-7 (B. Bollinger/J. Sorgi)
2002: 8-6 (B. Bollinger, Alamo Bowl, No. 23 AP)
2003: 7-6 (J. Sorgi, Music City Bowl)
2004: 9-3 (J. Stocco, Outback Bowl, No. 17 AP)
2005: 10-3 (J. Stocco, Capital One Bowl, No. 15 AP)
2006: 12-1 (J. Stocco, Capital One Bowl, No. 7 AP)
2007: 9-4 (T. Donovan, Outback Bowl, No. 24 AP)
2008: 7-6 (A. Evridge/D. Sherer, Champs Sports Bowl)
Stocco was probably vastly underrated in 2005-06, especially, not only for going 20-4 as a starter but also for quietly bailing out the terrible defense in '05, delivering an outstanding 38:15 TD:INT ratio over both seasons and finishing behind only Troy Smith (2006) and Troy Smith and Drew Stanton (2005), respectively, in pass efficiency among Big Ten quarterbacks, with numbers that would have led the conference in 2007-08.
After a slow start, Sherer was very much in this role late last year, when he helped rally the Badgers to a 4-1 finish in the regular season after four straight losses in the first half of the Big Ten schedule -- although how much that has to do with his quick improvement, as opposed to playing Illinois, Indiana, Minnesota and Cal Poly in those wins, is debatable. But if not for a very ill-timed holding penalty (and later an even worse-timed time out by his head coach -- see below) at Michigan State, he would have been under center for the longest winning streak in the conference after mid-October.
Where have all the deep threats gone? Contrary to its plodding reputation, Wisconsin hasn't lacked for big-play receivers over the years, and 2005 and 2006 were good years for downfield threats: In '05, Brandon Williams and Jonathan Orr both averaged more than 17 yards per catch and combined for 14 touchdowns; in '06, Travis Beckum, Paul Hubbard and Luke Swann all averaged more than 14 yards per catch and accounted for 15 touchdowns. The Badgers averaged more than 14 yards per reception and well over eight per attempt both years.
Contrast that with 2007, when Swan and Hubbard were injured for most of the year and the team's yards per catch dropped half a yard, to 13.6, and especially last year, when Beckum was injured midway through the year and the quarterbacks struggled to keep the only reliable downfield threat, David Gilreath, consistently involved. The good news on this front is that leading receivers Gilreath, Kyle Jefferson, Isaac Anderson and Nick Toon all return along with tight end Garrett Graham to form what should be one of the two or three best receiving corps in the conference. The bad news, again, is that there's no guarantee anyone will be able to deliver the ball with any consistency.
The secret of sneaking up is timing. The 2004 team missed eventual conference champ Michigan; the '05 team didn't have to deal with a bear of an Ohio State squad that finished No. 4 in the final polls; the surprising '06 team missed the dominating Buckeyes that went wire-to-wire as No. 1 in the regular season. By contrast, Wisconsin has had to take on Michigan, Ohio State and Penn State the last two years, plus Rose Bowl-bound Illinois in 2006, and is 1-6 in those games -- somehow, they even blew a 19-point hafltime lead against the worst Wolverine outfit ever last year.
The big break this year? No Illinois or Penn State, which should guarantee a winning conference record in itself. (Although here I must insert my longstanding "Purdue Rule": If the best thing you can say about a team is which other, better teams it doesn't play, that is not a team you want to endorse.)
Bielema is in over his head. Please note that that's not an official statement of fact, since I think Bielema's seat is not nearly as hot as some people seem to think and he's already proven capable of handling the pressure of a major job -- it's hard to complain about a coach who was 21-5 and finished in the polls in each of his first two seasons.
But you can argue that those were really Barry Alvarez's teams, and the four-game conference losing streak in October -- made worse by the collapse against Michigan and the bonehead timeout at Michigan State in November that extended the slide to five losses in six games, both games the Badgers statistically dominated and should have won -- combined with the embarrassing effort in the bowl game put him in a hole. Alvarez is no longer shying away from the term "hot seat," even if he's restricting it to hypothetical situations. ("What happens if he goes 7-6 again?") It's good for Bielema that Alavarez seems to view the close calls as a positive --
"You had 18 seniors, a lot of experience and three games that could have gone either way," Alvarez says. "You had Ohio State on the bubble, Michigan was beat and you had Michigan State beat. You win two of those three and you're where you're supposed to be."
-- because blowing three fourth quarter leads in the final minutes is generally considered a negative. And by the same token, Wisconsin won uncomfortably close games against Fresno State, Minnesota and Cal Poly, or the season may have spiraled completely out of control. I don't think that's where many Badger fans think they're supposed to be, and as he suggests himself, if this season goes as expected -- that is, with no really notable changes on offense and significant attrition from the defense, more or less like last season -- Alvarez may not be looking at the Rorschach test the same way by Thanksgiving.