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2011 Preview – Wisconsin Badgers

WISCONSIN BADGERS (Last Year = 11-2, T1 in Big 10)


Wisconsin went back to their usual “always a bridesmaid, never a bride” act last season. In HC Bret Bielema’s first season back in 2006, the Badgers went 12-1 and finished ranked 7th. After a couple of off years, Wisconsin was back at 10-3 in 2009 followed up by last year’s 11-2 run which ended with a berth in the Rose Bowl, but a loss when they got there to TCU 21-19. Wisconsin would finish the season ranked #7. When you consider that Wisconsin went 11-2, won the Big 10 and went to the Rose Bowl, it would be considered a fantastic season. It was to a degree, but Wisconsin came pretty close to running the table at 12-0. When you get that close there has to be a little bit of a disappointment at the end of the day.

The Badgers entered the 2010 season as a dark horse National Title contender. Ranked 12th heading into the season, Wisconsin drew Ohio St. in Madison which meant that the Big 10 title was likely to be decided at Camp Randall Stadium. Wisconsin got off to a fast start by destroying their non-conference opponents in their first 4 games. However, in Game #5, they traveled to East Lansing ranked #11 to take take on the 24th ranked Spartans. Despite being a 1-point favorite, Michigan St. handed Wisconsin a 10-point defeat, knocking the Badgers to 4-1 and a #20 ranking in the polls. Despite that loss, Wisconsin didn’t let it affect their play because they ran off 7 straight wins to win the Big 10 and finish the year 11-1. They had a close scare at Iowa City in a 31-30 victory over the Hawkeyes, but outside of that game, Wisconsin completely destroyed the rest of the Big 10. Wisconsin would earn a berth to the Rose Bowl, but that would end in disappointment as TCU beat the Badgers in a close one 21-19. The Badgers would finish the season 11-2 and ranked #7. It really was a great year considering how well Wisconsin ran the ball and how good QB Scott Tolzien & DE JJ Watt were last season. Still, Wisconsin couldn’t quite get over the hump to be a legitimate national title contender. Maybe this year will be the year.


Wisconsin loses quite a bit on offense starting with QB Scott Tolzien. Some people aren’t making much of Tolzien graduating before former NC State QB Russell Wilson is going to start this season, but Tolzien was vastly underrated. Remember that this was a senior QB who completed 73% of his passes for 2500 yards & 16TD! Wilson is a playmaker and had a good career at NC State, but Tolzien is going to be hard to replicate in consistency alone. RB John Clay ran for 1,012 yards & 14TD which is a ton of yardage, but Wisconsin also returns James White (1,052 rushing yards/14TD) and Montee Ball (996 yards/18TD) so the loss of Clay probably won’t hurt that much. Wisconsin also loses their leading receiver from a year ago TE Lance Kendricks who caught 43 passes for 663 yards & 5TD. Kendricks was a 2nd round pick of the Rams and he’s becoming a great pass catching TE in the NFL so you can see how big a loss Kendricks is. Wisconsin also loses WR David Gilreath. The Badgers also lose significant contributions from the offensive line. LT Gabe Carimi & LG John Moffitt. Both players amazingly enough were 1st Team All-Americans! Carimi was a 1st round pick while Moffitt went in the 3rd round. Wisconsin has a reputation of having gigantic offensive linemen that dominate the run game. Still, losing Moffitt & Carimi are big enough losses to affect their run dominance at least a little bit.


We obviously start with the fantastic RB combo of James White & Montee Ball who combined for 2,048 rushing yards & 32TD! That’s insane! They’ll miss John Clay a bit, but not that much if Ball & White make those kind of contributions again in 2011. The other skill players returning are WR Nick Toon & TE Jake Byrne. Both players were highly touted coming out of high school that really never lived up to their potential. Toon is 6’3/213lbs while Byrne is 6’4/253lbs. Both guys have great size for their position, but for whatever reason they haven’t exploded all that much. The Offensive Line returns C Peter Konz, RG Kevin Zeitler, and RT Ricky Wagner. Konz & Wagner were Honorable Mention All Big 10 players. There is a lot returning here actually, but the guys that left were so good that it seems the Badgers are losing more than what they might actually be losing. If Toon emerges and the running game keeps running wild, it might not matter who returns!


I don’t think there is much room offensively for freshman to make an impact. One guy I’d keep an eye on is rFR WR Chase Hammond. He’s 6’5/206lbs which his incredible for size at receiver. The Badgers aren’t hurting for size at wideout with Toon being 6’3 and Jared Abbrederis being 6’2, but Hammond would be an even bigger matchup problem for opposing corners. True freshman AJ Jordan is another WR that could make an impact. The 6’1/175lbs receiver was pretty highly touted and gives Wisconsin another weapon on the outside.


Wisconsin averaged a ridiculous 41.5ppg last year which was 5th in the nation! Most of that success was wrapped up in Wisconsin’s absoultely dominating rush offense. The Badgers averaged 5.5ypc and 246 rushing yards per game which ranked 12th nationally! The 5.5ypc ranked 7th nationally! The last time Wisconsin had these kinds of rushing numbers, Ron Dayne was winning Heisman trophies! It’s difficult to think Wisconsin can replicate those types of numbers. John Clay is gone and 2 1st Team All American linemen (Moffitt & Carimi) left as well. That doesn’t mean Wisconsin still doesn’t have plenty of weapons. Here is where I think Wisconsin might be a little suspect offensively. Russell Wilson is coming into the situation after playing for NC State. His calling card is his scrambling ability and making plays on the run. The problem with Wisconsin though is that they need a game manager. Wisconsin has no problems running the football. James White, Montee Ball and the offensive line will see to that. I wonder if Wilson will buy into that philosophy? I think Wisconsin’s offense regresses a bit. The 42ppg is simply too high. The Badgers will average more in the 33-35ppg range this season. I think Tolzien is going to be missed A LOT more than people anticipate.


The big loss on defense here is DE JJ Watt. The 6’6/290lbs giant was a dominant force on the edge for Wisconsin and a 1st round draft pick of the Houston Texans. Watt led the team in sacks, tackles for loss and QB hurries along with being 2nd on the team in tackles. Watt was simply a beast and he’ll be sorely missed as would any D-Lineman who was a 1st Team All-Big 10 player. Wisconsin also loses a couple of LBs in WLB Blake Sorensen and MLB Culmer St. Jean. Those LBs were 1st & 3rd respectively in tackles for the Badgers meaning the Badgers lose their top-3 tacklers. The secondary loses CB Niles Brinkley & SS Jay Valai. Losing Watt is a blow, but like the offense, despite the unit losing 5 players, it doesn’t look that horrible. The losses at LB seems significant, but Wisconsin welcomes back MLB Chris Borland who was Big 10 Freshman of the Year in 2009, but missed 2010 because of injury. Valai is a tough loss too, but Wisconsin should be able to absorb the loss.


The big return here is MLB Chris Borland. As a true freshman in 2009, Borland was a 1st Team Freshman All-American with 54 tackles, 5 sacks and 5.5 tackles for loss. Borland actually had more sacks that Watt did in 2009. At 5’11/235lbs, Borland is a specimen physically. They do lose Culmer St. Jean at MLB, but Borland is more than up to the task to take over in this 4-3 scheme. Helping him out will be SLB Mike Taylor who was a 2nd Team All-Big 10 LB. Taylor was 2nd on the team behind Watt in tackles for loss and could combine with Borland to give the Badgers a couple of players more than able to be 1st Team All-Big 10 players. The D-Line welcomes back DE Lous Nzegwu, DT Jordan Kohout and DT Patrick Butrym.The D-Line has OK size, but nobody is overly dominating. It’ll be interesting to see how well Nzegwu does now that he’s the main guy rushing the passer. The secondary welcomes back CB Antonio Fenelus. Fenelus was a 1st Team All-Big 10 player last year and led the team in interceptions and passed defended last year. FS Aaron Henry was a 2nd Team All-Big 10 player. Henry was solid in pass coverage helping out the corners. While the big uglies up front don’t look dominating, Wisconsin has a strong back-7 that could be dominating if guys step up.


True freshman LB Jake Keefer was highly touted in the 2011 Class. Borland & Taylor are embedded at LB, but the SLB spot is open and Keefer could possibly make an impact. I think rFR Warren Herring could be interesting at DE as he’s 6’3/266lbs. True freshman LB Derek Watt could also be in the mix at 6’3/220lbs. Wisconsin does have some holes to fill due to losses, but in some odd way they don’t have a lot of room for freshman to step up and make a significant impact. In some ways I suppose that’s a great thing. This is a team that doesn’t have to rely on freshman to keep on moving forward.


The Badgers averaged 20.5 points per game allowed last year which isn’t fantastic but it was their best mark since 2006. Interestingly enough, Wisconsin’s combined record for 2006 & 2010 is 33-3! Despite the losses, it does seem like Wisconsin should be pretty good defensively. The Borland/Taylor combination at LB should more than offset the loss of Sorensen/St. Jean. The loss of JJ Watt and Jay Valai are big losses, however, so I think Wisconsin’s defense goes down a notch. It’s really amazing what a player like Watt means to a defense. At 6’6/290lbs, Watt is your typical 3-4 DE which is what he’ll play for the Houston Texans, but his motor is high enough that he doesn’t have to be an edge sealer stopping the run. He can get to the QB which is another dimension entirely. At the collegiate level the guy pretty much had to be double teamed constantly. Wisconsin doesn’t have that kind of player replacing him. I think Borland will be after the QB more than you’d expect, but Watt is simply a BEAST. For that reason I think Wisconsin’s defense falters a bit and the move into the 23-26 range for points allowed per game. It won’t matter too much because the Badger offense is going to score and control the clock with the running game, but it’s too difficult to lose a player of Watt’s caliber and actually improve.


According to Phil Steele, Wisconsin has the easiest schedule of any team in the Big 10. That could be a big problem for Wisconsin down the stretch if strength of schedule comes into play for BCS purposes. If Wisconsin somehow goes undefeated, yet so does an SEC or Big XII school, I’d guess Wisconsin probably gets shafted. Wisconsin starts their schedule with 4 straight non-conference games against UNLV, Oregon St., Northern Illinois (in Chicago), and South Dakota. Wisconsin isn’t going to have any problems beating those 4 teams to start 4-0. Week #5 is going to be crazy as Wisconsin kicks off their Big 10 schedule with a home game against Nebraska. I’m calling for Wisconsin to lose that game. I know it’s at home, but I think Nebraska’s defense is going to be such that they can do a good job of stopping the run forcing Nebraska to throw the ball and I think they’ll have trouble. After Nebraska, Wisconsin gets a bye week before playing Indiana. They won’t need it to beat the Hoosiers, but afterward they’ll travel to East Lansing to play Michigan St. I think the Spartans are a bit under the radar and although Michigan St. is coming off a home date with Michigan while Wisconsin takes it turn thrashing Indiana, I have Sparty taking this one at Spartan Stadium. Michigan St. beat Wisconsin here 34-24 last season and I think Michigan St. has gotten better while Wisconsin has gotten just a touch worse. I do think Wisconsin rebounds and wins out though beating Ohio St. (road), Purdue (home), Minnesota (road), Illinois (road), and Penn St. (home) to finish the year.

The last home game against Penn St. could be absolutely crucial. Going into this season finale for both teams, I have Penn St. & Wisconsin both at 9-2, but while Wisconsin is 5-2 in Big 10 play, Penn St. is 6-1! The winner of this final game literally cashes their ticket as winners of the “Leaders” Division and play in the Big 10 championship game. I have Wisconsin winning the game because they are the home team, but still it’ll be one of the better, if not best game of that week as it has far reaching implications for the Rose Bowl.


That puts Wisconsin at 10-2 when the dust settles and a rematch with Nebraska in the Big 10 championship game for a berth in the Rose Bowl. That’s a great season and it gives Wisconsin a chance to get to back-to-back Rose Bowls. At 10-2, Wisconsin will once again be one of the best teams in college football, but not quite elite enough to get into the national championship discussion. That doesn’t mean it’s not a possibility. I have them losing to Nebraska & Michigan St., but those are imminently winnable games for the Badgers. I think a couple of things are worth keeping an eye one. The first is how Russell Wilson fits in with the overall philosophy of the offense. Wisconsin simply has too good of a running game not to focus in on it heavily. How Wilson fits into that scheme will be interesting to watch. The other thing to watch is how the defense plays without Watt and the two LBs, Sorenson & St. Jean.

I have harped on Russell Wilson a bit here, but he does give Wisconsin a different look offensively than they’ve had in awhile. I’m not sure how it fits in together, but it’ll be interesting to watch. Maybe he’ll do a lot better fitting in than I think he will. Regardless, Wisconsin is a double-digit win team which makes them a national title contender.


August 28, 2011 - Posted by | Predictions, Previews, Wisconsin

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