We're counting down the weeks until kickoff by profiling a different Big Ten team each week. We decided to switch up the order to reflect 11W's predicted finish for the upcoming season, which can be found here and we'll also reach out to fellow bloggers for their inside opinion on important matters.
This week we shift our eyes towards one of the great college cities, Madison and their beloved Badgers. There are many questions surrounding this team and if the weather gets unusually warm in October and November, it's coming from the seat of Bret Bielema.
Whisky returns 11 starters from a team that went 7-6 last year, including a 42-13 whooping in the Champs Bowl against FSU. The schedule sets up nice for the Badgers to have a chance at a return to a January Bowl game, but the talent is unproven, especially at QB and the jury is still out on Bielema's in-game decision making.
COACHING: After starting off 12-1 in his first season, BB has slipped to 16-10 in the last two years, prompting our boys over at Bucky's 5th Quarter to believe his seat is warmer than the MSM wants to admit.
I think the seat is getting hotter than the media will ever admit. Everyone always says, "Bielema is Barry Alvarez's guy so he won't get fired any time soon." There's no doubt Alvarez can be a stubborn guy and he'll stick with his man, but the fans paying for the tickets have a very powerful voice and if Bielema repeats any of the awful coaching mistakes he made last season then his seat will be scorching whether Alvarez likes it or not.
OFFENSE: Dustin Sherer led the Badgers in all passing categories last year and is penciled in as the starter right now, but he will get pressure from redshirt freshman Curt Phillips, who impressed the Badger coaches and fans this past spring. While Sherer has a better understanding of the offense, Phillips is a shifty athlete, who scored on the ground and in the air during the spring game. Beilema might take a page from Tressel, going with the senior to start the season, but letting the kid play more as the season progresses.
The running back spot is stocked as usual in Madison. Gone is PJ Hill, who thought the best way to the NFL was entering the draft early and going undrafted. But back is bruiser John Clay, who reeled off 884 yards on 155 carries last year and will look to improve upon his 5.7 YPC during his sophomore campaign. If Clay can keep his weight below the 250 mark he likes to flirt with, he could lead the B10 in rushing and creep towards a 1,500 yard season.
If Clay needs a snack break, Zack Brown will fill the role admirably. Brown averaged 5.5 YPC last season, but found himself as the third option. The junior is also able to catch balls out of the backfield, so Wisconsin could use both of these guys at the same time or as change of pace.
The receiving corps has the potential to be the best unit in the conference, returning 6 of their top 7 from last year, including their top 3. TE Garrett Graham lead the way with 40 catches for 540 yards, as the wide-outs were hit hard by injuries. David Galreath emerged as a dual threat last year, gaining 520 yards receiving and 309 yards rushing. He could be the best kick returning in the league, so teams will have to account for him where ever he lines up.
Cleveland Glenville product Kyle Jefferson returns from his injury riddled, 14 catch season in 2008. He is joined by fellow junior Isaac Anderson, who was third in receptions and yards, but both may lose their spot Bucky's choice for breakout in 2009.
Sophomore wide receiver Nick Toon. He's the son of Badger legend and former NFL wide receiver Al Toon and he can catch the football. He showed flashes of potential last season, but was never really given a fair shot. Toon will be a starter this season and should have a breakout year.
The O-Line will need to gel quickly if this offense is going to utilize all of their potential weapons. The Badgers have to replace 3 starters, who take 121 career starts with them, but will be anchored by LT Gabe Carimi, who earned 3rd team all-conference last year. Junior center, John Moffitt will return to the position he started 13 games at last year. Whisky does have some experience coming back to battle it out for the other 3 positions and when they roll out their starting 5 in September, they should average 6'5" and 310+ pounds.
DEFENSE: This unit will be Wisconsin’s achilles heel all season. They return 5 starters from a squad that gave up 23 points a game and allowed 32+ points in each of their last 3 games. They lose 4 of their top 6 tacklers and might be weak at D-Line for the first time in years.
They will be anchored by Jaevery McFadden, who paced the team with 84 tackles last year. He played some of the season with a cast on his hand and will move to his preferred WLB spot. He will be flanked by 2 new starters with not a lot of experience, so teams may run away from his side.
Not only will Bielema be breaking in 2 new backers, he has just 1 returning starter on his line, O’Brien Schofield, a senior DE who lead the line in sacks last year with 5. The rest of the group had a combined 1 sack and doesn’t have much depth. However, one name Bucky’s 5th thinks we should keep an eye on is J.J. Watt, who has already made a name for himself in other lines of entertainment.
Sophomore defensive end J.J. Watt. He had a great spring and the coaches love him. Watt got himself mixed up in a love triangle on MTV's "College Life" and we can only hope his decision making skills in football are better than the ones he showed on reality television.
I thought the secondary would be a strong point of this Badger team, but after talking with Adam and Eric on Monday night, they weren’t sold on the talent of the 3 returning starters. Jay Valai will lay some wood and has the one safety position locked up, but the other spot could be up for grabs between Shane Carter and Chris Maragos. At corner, Nile Brinkley lead the team with 4 picks last year and Aaron Henry returns from a torn knee ligament to man the other side of the field. All in all, the Badgers have 6 players with 6+ games starting experience in the secondary, but they may get exposed if the front 7 doesn’t learn quickly.
KEY GAME: Sept. 26, Michigan State: Wisconsin’s didn’t steer away from their usual OOC scheduling practices, slating Northern Illinois, Fresno State and Wofford all at home to start the season, so the Big Ten opener, also in Madison, will be huge for the Badgers. They follow up the Spartan game with trips to Minnesota and Ohio State, before facing Iowa at home. If Wisconsin loses against Sparty, they could be 1-2 in the conference going into the Iowa game.
BEST-CASE: Let’s go back to the local experts.
The best case scenario is probably a 10-2 regular season record and another trip to the Capital One Bowl. The schedule is in the Badgers' favor (they skip Penn State and Illinois this season) and some of their tougher Big Ten games are at home. 8-4 is probably more realistic, but 10-2 can't be ruled out.
WORST-CASE: This is why this year is so crucial for Bielema, the worst case should be 8-4, but I could see them potentially slipping to 6-6. After the above mentioned games, Whisky closes out the season with home games against Purdue and Michigan, while going to Indiana, NU and Hawaii on December 5th. This team has some talent on offense, but if Bret mishandles some in game decisions that cost the Badgers a win or two, Barry may have to think long and hard about the direction his program is taking.