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Sunday, August 28, 2005

(check out the philosophy/system behind the preview here. Also forgive this one for being somewhat less thorough... time weighs heavily on me at the moment and I figure shorting the Michigan preview is Not An Option.)

The Story

Wisconsin was the Enron of college football last year. It experienced an unprecedented stock explosion based entirely on smoke and mirrors and then imploded spectacularly at the end, leaving pissed off investors/cheeseheads wondering what happened.

Okay, okay, Wisconsin wasn't entirely built on mirrors. They had a defense that was spectacular, finishing in the top ten of every major category except rushing (scoring 6th, passing 7th, pass eff 5th, rushing 31st, total 9th). But the emphasis is on had. The entire defensive line is gone. Three quarters of the secondary is gone, including the talismanic Jim Leonhard. The linebackers... well, they're back, but they're lonely. Wisconsin's defense isn't going to plunge of a cliff, but it's not going to be a unit that can prop up an offense as terrible as Wisconsin's was last year.

So that ugly offense will have to improve significantly for the Badgers to replicate their 9-3 record from a year ago. That'll be a tough task. Anthony Davis is gone. Brian Calhoun should be an adequate replacement but there's no depth at tailback. John Stocco was awful a year ago. The offensive line has a couple good pieces but does not appear to be an intimidating unit as a whole. It would appear that the last year of Barryball is not going to be a vintage one.

Unit By Unit

Rating: 1. John Stocco was a mess last year and it would be surprising to see him make it through this year without getting in a serious quarterback controversy. I may have a distorted opinion of him due to limited viewing--Michigan did not play Wisconsin last year--but I can't understand how he's the starting quarterback of a program with a pulse. Stocco completed 52% of his passes and threw just 9 touchdowns to 7 interceptions. Wisconsin finished dead last in the Big Ten in scoring and passing offense and finished second to last in passing efficiency (the only team worse was the Penn State horror show). Nationally they were 103rd in passing and 99th in efficiency.

And the thing is, I kind of like Wisconsin's wide receivers. More on them later, but at the least they're competent. The line wasn't especially good but it wasn't especially bad, either. The reason that Wisconsin was totally impotent throwing the ball falls squarely on the shoulders of Stocco. He'll probably improve with experience, but Stocco has a long way to go. A really, really long way.

Predicting a quarterback controversy obligates one to discuss the backups. There are two. Sophomore Tyler Donovan is one of those (ugh) mobile types. He threw all of three passes last year but rushed for 117 yards on 11 carries. Redshirt freshman Bryan Savage is reputed to be more of a pocket passer. Neither had a bang-up offseason but chances are one or both will see the field at some point in the fall.

Running Back
Rating: 3. Anthony Davis is gone but Colorado transfer (and Wisconsin native) Brian Calhoun is poised to step into Davis' diminutive and oft-injured but damned exciting shoes. Calhoun appears at first glance to be a lot like Davis, a slashing runner generously listed at 5'9" who has a lot of buzz but hasn't really managed to translate it to the field. Davis couldn't do it because of frequent injuries. Wisconsin has to hope desperately that Calhoun doesn't succumb to the same, because if he goes down their prospects immediately get very grim. Backup Booker Stanley is a big power back who goes down at the slightest hint of contact, a fundamentally useless runner who will give you exactly what the line gets you and no more. Last year he banged out 3 yards a carry and was replaced by fullback Matt Bernstein for long stretches of time. He's terrible.

Bernstein is an interesting player, a 270 pound fullback who became the primary ballcarrier against Penn State a year ago and pounded out over 100 yards. He's a thumping blocker and the best fullback in the Big Ten this year.

Wide Receivers & Tight Ends
Rating: 3. This is a consistently underrated group, probably because it is also consistently underutilized. Darren Charles is gone but the two starters--seniors Brandon Williams and Jonathan Orr--should be able to replace him; Charles only caught 25 passes last year. Orr burst on to the Big Ten scene a few years back as a freshman with 842 receiving yards, a Badger freshman record, but has been star-crossed to the max since then. Last year he only caught 13 passes. He needs to assert his authorita. Stocco needs all the help he can get.

Tight end Owen Daniels, a converted quarterback, is one of the more underrated players in the league. He caught 25 passes last year, averaged over 15 yards a reception, and was generally an excellent player when called upon. He isn't big enough to be a great blocker, but he's a solid collegiate tight end.

Offensive Line
Rating: 3. A pastiche of highs and lows is the Badger line. Center Dominic Raiola and tackle Joe Thomas are both good players (Thomas is an excellent one) who are on the Lombardi watch list to open the season but there are questions at the other three spots, all manned by new starters. Two little-used fifth year seniors step into the guard positions and then there is a vast expanse of inexperience. The projected starter at right tackle, Kraig Urbik, is a redshirt freshman. There isn't a backup with a snap of playing time outside of sophomore Marcus Coleman. Any injury will very likely see true freshmen draw into the starting lineup.

Don't expect this unit to destroy anyone but the feebler defensive lines in the conference will yield to it. Pass protection might be a bit of an issue if Urbik struggles.

Defensive Line
Rating: 2. Who knows? All four starters are gone, all were drafted into the NFL. There's good news--DTs Nick Hayden and Justin Ostrowski were a highly-sought recruits and could be stars eventually--and bad news--starting defensive end Jamal Cooper is 217 pounds; the entire line is composed of freshmen and sophomores; Ostrowski is injured and out "indefinitely." I'd be lying if I told you I could predict how effective this unit is. What I do know: like Iowa, Wisconsin is going to go through a lot of growing pains early in the season. Hayden's just a sophomore and the other DT is converted end Jason Chapman, a redshirt freshman.

The defensive ends are undersized, obviously. Cooper is lighter than some safeties. It's hard to imagine he'll be able to hold up against the run and he doesn't have Antaj Hawthorne next to him distracting linemen and longer. There's a lot of figurin' to do here, and the answers may not come until it's too late. This will be a year of major transition.

Rating: 4.
The one unit on the defense that returns relatively intact. Backup Josh Cribbs was lost because he OMG CAN'T READ, but everyone else returns. OLB Dontez Sanders is the headliner. He racked up 5.5 sacks and 10 TFLs a year ago. He's slightly undersized but is fast enough to slash past blockers and make plays in the backfield. Wisconsin's new DL will have to make sure he stays clean, though. A guy that size has a tough time shedding blocks. MLB Andy Crooks started intermittently as a freshman and is a sturdy run-stopper but has issues in pass coverage. He's not a big play guy. Strongside linebacker Mark Zalewski had 11.5 TFLs last season and is the favorite of the coaches.

Defensive Backs
Rating: 2.
A huge question mark. Three starters depart and the returner, senior CB Brett Bell, tore his ACL in January. Bell has been a maddeningly inconsistent player to date, blessed with physical ability that made him a high-level recruit coveted by many but sometimes incapable of putting said physical ability in the right place at the right time. The ACL tear further throws his status into question. Players are notoriously slow to get right from those and Wisconsin will be leaning heavily on Bell to shut down the opponent's top receivers.

Senior Levonne Rowan, the nickelback a year ago, will start opposite Bell. Past him, however, there's almost no experience. Wisconsin will be relying on redshirt freshmen and a single sophomore, possibly far more than they would like if Bell can't get back up to speed or Rowan does not adapt to the starting role. Cornerback should be a nervous thing for Badger fans.

The safeties are both new. Walk-on superhero Jim Leonhard finally graduated and it's hard to envision the Badgers no missing him badly. Leonhard was small but an absolutely great player for the Badgers, a ballhawking, reliable, smart safety that made mgoblog compare him to Michigan safeties and thus want to cry whenever he made a big play, which was often. The new guys have all of eight tackles between them.

The theme here is massive inexperience. It's not wise to assume they'll be terrible--Alvarez has earned that, at least--but it's no wiser to think there won't be a moderate to severe dropoff here.

Return Game
Rating: 2. Another place where Leonhard, who averaged 12.7 yards a punt return, will be missed. Brandon Williams was the primary kick returner a year ago, but was unthreatening. They've got to find someone, and it can't be Calhoun. Risking him in the high impact word of kick returning would be foolish when Stanley and his 3 YPC are the only replacements.

Rating: N/A. Mike Allen graduated but won't be dearly missed. It's mgoblog policy not to speculate on kickers, who are as reliable as communist teenagers.


When Wisconsin added Bowling Green to the schedule it didn't know what it was getting itself into. The Falcons have constructed a consistently strong MAC program and are coming in with an experienced quarterback who lit up every team he faced last year. This is going to be either a dogfight or a Falcon blowout. I'm leaning towards the latter. The rest of the nonconference schedule is manageable but there are two potential landmines: a game at North Carolina and a season-ending trip to Hawaii that Michigan State came home from last year seriously pissed off. There's no Timmy Chang, but the Rainbows Rainbow Warriors Fightin' Whatevers have the sort of passing offense that will probably be effective against Wisconsin this year.

Wisconsin has the good fortune of missing Ohio State and Michigan State this year. The schedule opens with a home night game against Michigan, which has owned Barry Alvarez. If you believe the emotion of Alvarez's last year and the frenzied, drunk Madison night crowd will cause Lloyd Carr to go into a testicle-free shell, then you believe Wisconsin will stay within two touchdowns. Nothing about this Wisconsin team matches up well with the Wolverines. Two relative breathers against Indiana and Northwestern follow before a tough closing stretch versus Minnesota, Purdue, Penn State, Iowa (with a game against Illinois sandwiched somewhere in there).

Keys to the Season

Calhoun. Calhoun must prove himself a good-to-great running back and he must remain healthy or there's no telling the depths the Wisconsin offense could sink to. There's no backup. The offense line looks iffy. The passing game died about ten years ago. The defense won't be capable of bailing the Badgers out time and again like it did last year.

Dude that guy was named Erasmus. And he's gone. There is a real possibility that Wisconsin's pass defense falls off a cliff. There's an all-new defensive line, a shallow, fragile, inexperienced secondary, and no chance Wisconsin repeats its top-10 pass defense performance of a year ago. The difference between a respectable unit and a total disaster is the difference between a bowl and an ignominious season-ending loss to Hawaii, and it'll come down to how much pass rush the Badgers get. Last year they had a fabulous one--they'll need it again this year.

"Get your head out of your ass." I assume John Stocco heard that phrase or something semantically similar hundreds of times last year. It's hard to throw accurately with your head in your ass. Wisconsin is going to need radically improved quarterback play this year to compete, and none of the backups have distinguished themselves in any way. The Badgers brought in Paul Chryst specifically to improve their long-moribund passing game. He's got to play Loeffler here or the Badgers are going to be kicked in the head repeatedly.


Worst Case: Well, I've predicted it down below, basically. Wisconsin is not going to be good this year, and they open up with their wonky secondary against the wrong team in Bowling Green. There's a definite bottom tier in the Big Ten this year featuring Indiana, Illinois, newly-screwed Northwestern, and Wisconsin. Wisconsin isn't going to drop more than one of those games, and they'll win at least two out of conference. They'll be at least 4-8, cold comfort indeed.

Best Case: Calhoun stays healthy and Wisconsin puts together a typical Alvarez tank offense. The defensive line comes together quickly and the defense holds itself at a respectable level. Stocco becomes inoffensive. They're still not going to be great. There's too much inexperience and just plain badness at too many key positions for the Badgers to be much of a factor, but they could swing a 7-5 record if things come together.

mgoblog says... Wisconsin overachieved last year and is ripe for a major fall after losing the best parts of its team and returning the very questionable ones. John Stocco is one of the weakest starting quarterbacks in the Big Ten, prone to errant throws and bad decisions. Brian Calhoun will probably be pretty good but the line will have a weak spot or two and grinding, powerful touchdown drives will be few and far between. Wisconsin could live with that if Erasmus James and company were due back, but they aren't.

The Wisconsin D is due for a significant dropoff from last year, when the Badgers finished in the top ten in nearly every defensive category. Leonhard, Hawthorne, James, and Starks are all gone. Bielema and Alvarez have a history of putting together solid units, so you have to cut them some slack, but there's almost no chance the defense approaches last year's productivity in any way.

That's a recipe for disaster in this year's Big Ten, which is strong like bull. It's a recipe for disaster against Bowling Green, which has badass Omar Jacobs. Barryball's long and noble reign is probably going to end without a bowl. 5-7, 2-6 Big Ten, 8th place.