This is it, folks. Our summer previews have come to an end (there were many more of these over at LBU, which you should check out at the bottom of this post) which means football season is, literally, just around the corner. In fact, today is the start of the Big Ten Media Days in Chicago.
In today's Summer Snapshot, we had on out to Madtown for a visit with the Wisconsin Badgers. With the recent troubles in Columbus, Wisconsin has emerged as the near-consensus favorite to win the Big Ten this season. With strong talent at all positions, and one hell of a dynamic quarterback stepping in, it could be another repeat trip to the Rose Bowl for Bucky.
We shall see.
The Past Few Seasons...
Wisconsin wasn't very good when Barry Alvarez took over in 1990. Through his first three seasons at the helm, Alvarez's Badgers won only 11 total games. But the team was improving. It would be proven the following year, when Wisconsin shocked the Big Ten to finish 10-1-1 winning the Rose Bowl against UCLA. It was the beginning of more than a decade of success in Madison with Alvarez in charge. His smash-mouth football featured the nation's premier running game almost annually, highlighted by the 1999 Heisman Winner, Ron Dayne. From 1993 through 2005, Alvarez led Wisconsin to 10 seasons of eight or more wins and three Rose Bowl victories, including two straight in 1998 and 1999.
The success was unprecedented at Wisconsin.
And just as the Badgers had completed their best season record in years (10-3), Alvarez stepped aside, anointing assistant Bret Bielema as the next head coach. In what could be described as one of the best changes of command anywhere, the Badgers went 12-1 in Bielema's first season. With expectations then set extremely high, Wisconsin somewhat disappointed the next two seasons, winning "only" 16 games after starting out the 2007 season ranked in the top-5 nationally. Questions emerged as to whether Bielema was in fact the correct choice to replace Alvarez. His teams were getting worse, not better. The 7-6 record in 2008 only compounded issues.
However, by 2009, Bielema had a roster full of his own players. Though they were similar to the skill sets Alvarez recruited, a coach with players he signed himself has a much greater feel for his team. With a run game and offensive line second to none in the Big Ten, and a defense able to hold its own against almost anyone, the wins started coming. Over the next two seasons, Wisconsin racked up 21 wins, including one very impressive bowl win over Miami(FL) and another excruciating loss to Texas Christian in the 2011 Rose Bowl. This is the Wisconsin everyone knows. Now, if they can only keep it going like this...
What to Look for in 2011...
The team got a big--no, it was a huge break--when former North Carolina State quarterback Russell Wilson transferred to Wisconsin earlier this summer. Wilson threw for more than 8,500 yards while in Raleigh. In 2008, Wilson was named the Atlantic Coast Conference football Rookie of the Year and became the first ever freshman quarterback named to the All-ACC first team. NCSU released Wilson from his scholarship when the Colorado Rockies of the Major League Baseball selected him in the 2010 draft with the 140th pick. But baseball didn't pan out, so Wilson needed a new home. Madtown, it was meant to be.
Good thing for Wisky that pretty much the rest of the offense returns. If I told you Wisconsin lost a 1,000-yard running back, you'd assume that was going to really hurt the run game this year. Wrong. You see, when you come within four yards of having THREE 1,000-yard running backs in a season, losing one of them isn't such a big deal. Wisconsin gets back Montee Ball (996 yds in '10) and James White (1,052 yds in '10) who combined for 32 touchdowns. They shouldn't have much trouble doing that again, as even with the loss of two All-American offensive linemen, virtually four of five starters return from last year's offensive line. The only weak spot on the line is likely to be at left guard, where said AA John Moffitt went to the Seahawks. That's the one position on the line that does not have an experienced player returning. Nick Toon also returns as the top pure receiver. And though they lose a great tight end in Lance Kendricks, just having Toon back should be enough for Wilson to be comfortable.
The defense is another story. The talent is there, just as it is for most Big Ten teams this year. But can that talent be turned into production when it matters most? The defensive line returns three of four, so no big story there. The linebackers are a bit more intriguing, however. Mike Taylor has been hampered by injuries since 2009, while Chris Borland is in the same boat. They've both missed a ton of time. But when they're actually on the field, they're dynamic. Both return, healthy for now. Borland was the 2009 Big Ten Freshman of the Year. In the secondary, half the unit is gone, but that's not necessarily a crushing blow. Antonio Fenelus (1st Team All-Big Ten '10) and Aaron Henry (2nd Team All-Big Ten '10) return, which should help the unit get by any inexperience issues at the other corner and safety spots.
|09-10-2011||Oregon St.||Madison, WI|
|09-17-2011||N. Illinois||Chicago, IL|
|09-24-2011||S. Dakota (FCS)||Madison, WI|
|10-22-2011||Michigan St.||East Lansing, MI|
|10-29-2011||Ohio St.||Columbus, OH|
|11-26-2011||Penn St.||Madison, WI|
|12-03-2011||B1G Championship||Indianapolis, IN
Both specialists return. Kicker Philip Welch was a freshman All-American in 2008. Punter Brad Nortman earned honorable mention All-Big Ten last year.
Wisconsin couldn't pull a Penn State when scheduling Oregon State, as the Beavers will host the Badgers (lots of rodents around these parts) next season in Corvallis. But with UNLV up first on a Thursday night, Oregon State is the perfect measuring stick for Wisconsin. Oregon State should be a much improved team over last year's 5-7 disappointment. Cruising through what should be the next two easy games, Nebraska comes into Camp Randall for a huge Big Ten opener, the very first Big Ten opener for the Cornhuskers.
Wisconsin going undefeated is like rain in the desert, so even if the Badgers can get through the first six without a loss, that hardly means I'm ready to declare them 12-0. It will likely mean that Wisconsin should be favored in all the rest of the games,. But with its track record to lose at least one game each year, and lose one more to a team it shouldn't, especially when expectations are very high, watch for this team to finish around 11-1 or 10-2 this season. Of course, that's assuming Wilson and the offense click, and the defense can hold its own. The opponents are fairly spread out on the schedule, so there aren't the "murderer's row" situations, like the one Penn State must face.
Past editions of Summer Snapshot 2011: