Thursday, September 02, 2010

College Football 2010: Wisconsin

Yes, we're doing a College Football Preview again. Yes, you know I love Phil Steele's work. Order from his plethora of preview options here. I'm also armed with The Sporting News College Football 2010, and I picked up the Blue Ribbon College Football Yearbook this year, too. I've also done research through local newspapers and school websites to try to get the most up-to-date information on the teams.

I don't have any fancy quotes or sayings or anything. Simply put, there is a lot of reason to be totally excited about this Wisconsin team.

That alone is reason to dread the upcoming season.

Wisconsin hasn't wilted in the face of expectations like some other schools have over the years -- COUGHCALCOUGH. They aren't going to go 4-8 because ESPN's Christian Fauria picked them to -- gasp -- win the national title.

Of course, they could finish 7-6.

Last year, little was really expected. The Badgers needed to find a new starting quarterback, there were concerns all over the defense, and they weren't sure who their top wide receivers were.

While the Champs Sports Bowl is hardly a fought-for destination on the bowl schedule, Wisconsin turned heads by going there and beating a good Miami team in one of the better non-BCS bowls that was played last year.

It might not seem that way, but it was the kind of game that could springboard the Badgers to something more significant in 2010 ... something that could finally make people think Bret Bielema actually knows what he's doing, and he isn't just riding Barry's significant coattails.

Quarterback Scott Tolzien earned the starting job last summer, and he proved it last fall. Tolzien was accurate, relatively efficient, and flashed some big-play ability in his right arm. By completing over 64 percent of his throws, topping 2,700 yards passing, and posting a pretty good 16-11 touchdown-interception ratio, Tolzien gave the offense a chance.

He gave John Clay a chance, too. Boy, did the big man run with it.

Clay averaged over five yards per carry, running for over 1,500 yards and scoring 18 touchdowns on the ground. He's no threat in the passing game, but Clay is a beast for opposing fronts to deal with. Not unlike other big Wisconsin backs, Clay has muscle and bulk, but he also has enough speed to get around the corner and elude defenders in the open field. The presence of Montee Ball allowed the Badgers to keep Clay under 300 carries, despite his often-dominating presence. He wasn't worn down or run into the ground like some backs, and that will only help him in the future. Ball is a bowling ball out there, but he also has some quickness, and he might have more upside as a receiver than Clay does.

Nick Toon emerged as UW's No. 1 receiver a year ago, topping 800 yards. For his next trick, Toon will need to bring his play up a notch, making himself a legitimate 1,000-yard threat and helping Tolzien be a better quarterback. These two will form Wisconsin's most lethal third-down connection. The tight end factory has churned out another good one in converted wide receiver Lance Kendricks. The senior has a huge frame and can move in the open field, ala former Badgers Travis Beckum and Owen Daniels. Kendricks will join them in the NFL soon. The Badgers have depth at receiver with Isaac Anderson, Kyle Jefferson, and David Gilreath. But unless Gilreath can become more of a threat, Wisconsin really does lack the downfield threat many teams have. It's not the most important thing to this offense, but if they could find a game-breaking receiver, it would make all the difference in their ability to really open up opponents.

Wisconsin's offensive line is what it is. Big, tough, physical, but not particularly athletic or sexy. There are only two senior starters -- center John Moffitt and left tackle Gabe Carimi. Both were first-team All-Big Ten a year ago. Guards Kevin Zeitler and Travis Frederick could be that good, and right tackle Josh Oglesby has a ton of talent. The Badgers also have impressive depth along the line, as guys like Bill Nagy, Peter Konz, and Jake Current all have starting experience and could probably start for many major college teams. Just not this one.

There are missing pieces on the defense, most notably leading tackle Jaevery McFadden and sack leader O'Brien Schofield. Safety Chris Maragos is also gone. None of the three will be easy to replace.

At linebacker, UW is probably best-equipped to deal with the losses. Sophomore Chris Borland came in halfway through last season and never failed to impress, garnering Freshman All America honors despite only starting five games. He posted 10.5 tackles for loss and showed a boatload of potential. Sophomore Mike Taylor has also impressed when he's gotten to play, and middle linebacker Culmer St. Jean is a good and steady player.

End J.J. Watt is the only returning line starter, so that's where Bielema and coordinator Dave Doeren have the most work to do. Redshirt freshman tackle Jordan Kohout looks the part, and end Louis Nzegwu should get plenty of playing time. They're a long way from the group that helped the Badgers hold opponents to 88 yards per game on the ground in 2009, but the line won't be terrible, either.

Cornerback Niles Brinkley is a very good player, and sophomore Marcus Cromartie will force himself into the lineup eventually. Safety Jay Valai had a strong 2009 season, and converted cornerback Aaron Henry should take over for Maragos at free safety.

With three of four starters back, the secondary should look very strong again, provided the pass rush gives them something close to the help they gave last year. Wisconsin posted 37 sacks last year -- at least one in every game -- and they need something similar this year. No secondary is good enough to be hung out to dry by an anemic pass rush. That's going to be a key cog in this Badger team ... the ability to get to opposing quarterbacks without sending the house at them.

Special teams
Both kicker Philip Welch and punter Brad Nortman are back. Welch was good on 17 of 24 kicks last year after a strong freshman year. He has to get better as a junior. Nortman is pretty good, having averaged a net of nearly 36 yards per kick last year. The Badgers need Gilreath to do more as a kick returner. The coverage teams are generally pretty good with little to complain about. There are too many returning players here not to see significant improvement.

I hate how Wisconsin schedules. Like clockwork, they get a game with a middle-of-the-road team from a major conference (Arizona State), a home game with a downright bad team (San Jose State), pretend to take on a challenging road trip (UNLV), and bring in some I-AA (FCS, whatever) flavor (Austin Peay). Ugh. 4-0. Easy.

(We hope.)

The Badgers get Minnesota, Ohio State, Indiana and Northwestern at home, and Michigan State, Iowa, Purdue, and Michigan on the road in league play. By any metric, they probably won't beat both Ohio State and Iowa, but I think they'll get one win there. The other home games should be wins, two of them -- Indiana and Minny -- by double digits. The game with Purdue should be a win, but Michigan and Michigan State should be toss-ups when they're played.

For Wisconsin, it's probably a best-case 11-1 season, but that's best-case. That doesn't always work out, as we know. That said, even if they lose a couple games they probably shouldn't, the Badgers are still looking at nine or ten wins this year, and that's a good run of back-to-back seasons for Bielema, who was heavily maligned in Madison after the 7-6 disaster and near-Cal Poly loss of 2008. He appears to have used the lessons learned from that campaign to make himself a better coach and Wisconsin a better program.

It's hard not to respect the man for that.

When the fall is over, Wisconsin will have either proven last year to be a fluke, or they will have re-established themselves as a Big Ten title threat.

There is no in-between.

Enjoy the ride.

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