Friday, August 04, 2006

Big Ten Football Previews - Wisconsin Badgers

Editor's Note: This is the sixth in a series of my annual summer Big Ten football previews. Stay tuned for the next review at a time and date TBD...

Team: Wisconsin Badgers

Past Predictions/Results:
2005 Prediction / actual: 8-4, 4-4 (T-5th), Alamo / 10-3, 5-3 (T-3rd), Capital One
2004 Prediction / actual: 7-4, 4-4 (T-5th), Alamo / 9-3, 6-2 (3rd), Outback
2003 Prediction / actual: 10-2, 6-2 (T-2nd) / 7-6, 4-4 (T-7th)
2002 Prediction / actual: 8-5, 4-4 (T-6th) / 8-6, 2-6 (T-8th)
2001 Prediction / actual: 8-4, 5-3 (4th) / 5-7, 3-5 (T-8th)

Returning Starters: 3 offense, 6 defense, 2 kickers

Key Returnees: QB John Stocco, WR Marcus Randle El, LT Joe Thomas, DE Joe Monty, DT Nick Hayden, LB Mark Zalewski, SS Joe Stellmacher, CB Jack Ikegwuonu, PK Taylor Mehlhoff, P Ken DeBauche

Key Losses: RB Brian Calhoun, WR Brandon Williams, WR Jonathan Orr, TE Owen Daniels, C Donovan Raiola, LB Dontez Sanders

Looking Back ... The end of an era. Can we finally consider Wisconsin a major player in D1 college football? There might not have been much to cheer for before a former Lou Holtz assistant Barry Alvarez took over the program in 1989, but he sure built a program to reckon with in his 16 years as the boss. He took Wisconsin to Rose Bowls, had a Heisman winner, sent oodles of players to the NFL and most important – won and won the right way.

2005 was no different than most others for Alvarez. Expected to be decent but not great, the Badgers won eight of their first nine games and sent coach out a winner with a nice Capital One Bowl victory over Auburn. The defense wasn’t as good as usual, but the offense was sometimes spectacular. Were the Badgers that good (again) because they gave their beloved head coach, who they knew was hanging up the headphones for good, unbelievable effort, or were they really that good? Maybe a little bit of both, but shouldn’t we have learned by now that Wisconsin should be respected as a football power in the Big Ten?

Outlook - Offense ...2006 may see a changing of the guard of sorts. A season ago, it was the big play abilities of Brian Calhoun and Brandon Williams that carried the Badgers to offensive explosion after offensive explosion en route to a ten win season. This year, savvy signal caller John Stocco is back, but none of the major, impact skill players return. Will it be a year of rebuilding or will we all be surprised?

Despite having to replace four skill players, the Wisconsin offense at least brings back a seasoned veteran to kick off the Bret Bielema era. John Stocco is the unquestioned leader of this offense and is going to have to step up if the Badgers hope to realistically contend for the Big Ten title this fall. This is Stocco’s third season as a starter and he is equipped to do the job. He’s often overlooked due to the other tremendous quarterbacks around the conference, but the Badgers would struggle to hit a .500 mark without his experience in the mix. Tyler Donovan is a decent backup but in my mind, any success for this offense will center on Stocco.

This is where it all starts to get really fuzzy for the red and white. Brian Calhoun took his game to the NFL and with him went a boatload of rushing and receiving yards, not to mention a bevy of touchdowns. That begs the question, who will take over? It also gets anyone who has followed the Badgers to respond – when hasn’t this program plugged in a guy capable of rushing for 1,000 yards? The best candidates are P.J. Hill and Jamil Walker. Both possess a lot more size than Calhoun meaning a switch to power running may be in store. Then again, keep the name Lance Smith in mind. He is a speed back out of Ohio that just may break into the playing group sooner than later. Also, don’t forget junior fullback Chris Pressley. He is a punishing blocker and a better than average ball carrier.

If the backfield situation is fuzzy, the receiving corps picture might be considered. Brandon Williams and Jonathan Orr as well as tight ends Owen Daniels and Jason Pociask are gone and while there is some talent available, the projected starters hauled in a meager two catches last season! The best bets to step up and take over the load are juniors Marcus Randle-El and Paul Hubbard. After that Jarvis Minton and Luke Swan are in the mix. Sean Lewis and linebacker convert Andy Crooks are battling it out at tight end. If not for the potential, things would be really bleak for the Badgers when it comes to the receiving corps. However, there might be just enough talent there and desire to be the next go-to guy to make this an area of pleasant surprise to the coaching staff and fans this fall.

One area you never question with Wisconsin is the offensive line. Sure, center Donovan Raiola has departed after what seems like a decade of anchoring the middle of the line, but when you return NFL talent like Joe Thomas, things can’t be that bad. Thomas might be the best offensive tackle in college football and he will lead a polished young group to battle each and every game. Guards Kraig Urbik and Andy Kemp are the next potential greats to protect a Wisconsin QB while versatile center Marcus Coleman and tackle Eric Vanden Heuvel have experience as well. There isn’t a lot of depth on the pine, but the size and ability of those that are available make this a definite strength for the Wisconsin offense. Just what a senior signal caller, looking to break in some new skill talent around him needs…

Outlook - Defense ... Roles are reversed this time around. Last season, it was the defense that was the big question mark. It was a very un-Badger like season with the Wisconsin defense giving up 23.8 points per game and struggling to stop the run as well as get after the quarterback. However, all of the growing pains suffered while young players learned on the job should pay dividends this fall, starting with the front four.

There is depth, talent and experience along the defensive front. Junior tackle Nick Hayden and senior end Joe Monty anchor the group but sophomore tackle Jason Chapman may wind up being the star of the group. Look for better pressure of opposing quarterbacks if ends Matthew Shaughnessy and Jamal Cooper can maintain their somewhat wiry frames. Justin Ostrowski is at the crossroads of his career, in between being a bust and growing into a reliable player that becomes a star. When push comes to shove, all the beatings this group took last season should play to its advantage when September rolls around. Don’t be surprised if this is one of the better defensive lines in the conference at the end of the season.

As strong as the front four appears to be, the linebacking corps might be every bit as good – if not better. The loss of Dontez Sanders hurts from a leadership aspect, but senior Mark Zalewski is primed to take on that role. Outside of Zalewski, one possible issue is the lack of size in the playing group. Then again, that means there is plenty of speed and speed means playmaking ability. Sophomores DeAndre Levy and Jonathan Casillas fit into that group. Paul Joran, O'Brien Schofield and Elijah Hodge are all capable backups of what should be a solid, if not spectacular corps of linebackers.

The razzle-dazzle of the defense will likely come from the secondary. Senior safeties Joe Stellmacher and Roderick Rogers anchor a very, very good defensive backfield. Senior Johnny White and sophomore Shane Carter provide depth at both spots. The real potential star though is sophomore cornerback Jack Ikegwuonu. Blessed with size and speed, he had a natural nose for the ball and causing timely turnovers in ’05 and will be counted on for even more this fall. Fellow sophomore Allen Langford holds down the starting spot on the other side and is a physical, if not lock-down corner. If this group can best last year’s production, it could be a very nice season in Madison.

Outlook - Special Teams ... Probably the overall strength of this team. Wisconsin is solid from the kicking to coverage to return teams. Placekicker Taylor Mehlhoff is very reliable and has a big leg. Punter Ken DeBauche is a game changer in terms of the field position battle. Look for big plays out of this group to decide a pivotal game or two this fall.

9/2 – Bowling Green (Cleveland)
9/23 - at Michigan
9/30 - at Indiana
10/21 – at Purdue
10/28 – ILLINOIS
11/11 – at Iowa
11/18 – BUFFALO

Key Games: 9/23 – at Michigan, 10/14 - Minnesota, 11/4 - Penn State, 11/11 - at Iowa

Prediction ... The out of conference slate is a breeze. Anything less than 4-0 will be puzzling and a huge disappointment. That means the bowl positioning will come from how things go in conference play. Wisconsin misses Michigan State and Ohio State, not bad considering the beating the Spartans last put on the Badgers in 2004 or the fact that OSU is preseason number one in the nation. I suspect that the Badgers could do better than I predict based on some of the foes I have them losing to, but when all is said and done, it will be a nice 8-4 start for Coach Bielema and a berth in the Alamo Bowl.

OOC: 4-0
B10: 4-4 (wins over Northwestern, Minnesota, Illinois, Penn State)
Overall: 8-4, T-6th in the conference, Alamo Bowl berth


BigTenSportsFan said...

Folks, I'm expecting big things in Madison out of Brett Bielema this season. Give a mind like that a talent like John Stocco, one of the greatest home crowds in all of sports, and the motivation coming off a BCS snub last season, and this has the makings of something special.

A.G. said...

Stocco has knee surgery, may miss some time:

Aaron said...

If Stocco out this team will for certain flounder.
They were already suspect at TB AND WR'S and this with new coach will hurt maybe even my predicts, though hard game is MI early and a easy schedule overall could lose aga. MINN. if he is not back.
5-3 or 4-4 non conference not that hard and a likely bowl for them.
Hate to rain on Wisc. parade but nothing special with that many skilled players gone and OUT!