Monday, July 23, 2007

Other people's previews, part 2

The Badgers find their way into the countdown: Rivals.com says Wisconsin is the #8 team in the nation, and while they very astutely single out the receiving corps for praise, declaring Paul Hubbard "underrated," they also take P. J. Hill down a peg, saying he's the most overrated player on the team. Maybe that's not a bad thing -- after all, someone has to be the "most overrated" -- but I think what gets me is that they knock him for being injured toward the end of last season. Is that really a basis for deciding a player is overrated? I'd probably have singled out Elijah Hodge for that dubious award myself -- seems to me he's riding the name recognition of his widely-praised brother a wee bit. One of the things I most appreciate about the Rivals preview is that they leave the door open for a Badger BCS berth without a conference title; most people give me the impression that they believe that UW will need the automatic berth to get invited to one of the big-money bowls, probably fueled by lingering memories of last year's "snub." Overall, this is an excellent preview.

Penn State blog There Is No Name On My Jersey, whose name celebrates the Nittany Lions' tradition of being either too lazy or too cheap to hire a seamstress, insists on making fatal mistakes of judgment and re-tasting the sour grapes of the season gone bye:
Bielema and Wisconsin are on my shitlist for the abuse of the clock in last years game. It was a close game and the wasting of the clock was not in the spirit of the game. Yes it was cheating. Yes, it still pisses me off.

Incorrect! It was not cheating, and it was just as much "in the spirit of the game" as taking a knee is. Perhaps there's a little bitterness because Wisconsin has a young coach who continues to innovate within the rules where PSU has a living legend who, despite his considerable accomplishments, should've been gently "retired" a decade ago? Possibly.

How do I know it's not cheating? Because the NCAA rulebook (PDF) includes this provision, in Rule 3, Section 4, under the heading "Unfair Clock Management:"
ARTICLE 3. The referee shall order the game clock started or stopped whenever either team conserves or consumes playing time by tactics obviously unfair. This includes starting the clock on the snap if the foul is by the team ahead in the score. The clock will start on the ready-for-play signal after an illegal forward or backward pass that conserves time for Team A.
The officiating crew had the power to stop this if they thought it was an illegal tactic. But they didn't. So it wasn't. And EDSBS thought it was a ballsy enough move to declare Bret Bielema Person of the Year, and you know how Orson and Stranko aren't generally prone to hyperbole. (Some have also claimed that Bielema's tactic may have hastened the death of the hated clock rules, giving us more football to watch. Penn State fans, you're welcome.)

That said, their Badger preview fails to find P. J. Hill overrated; indeed, he is compared to a grotesque, overly-muscular dog, which is something. Go and read.

The Diag has a preview of the quarterbacks in the Big Ten. Obviously, Chad Henne finds himself in the #1 spot (does anyone have a preview where Chad Henne isn't declared the best QB in the Big Ten? Because that preview is insane), and coming in second place is, of course, Kellen Lewis of the Indiana Hoosiers.

Now, I admit that I didn't watch enough Indiana or Illinois football last year, but I did watch the Badgers play both teams, and let me tell you: Juice Williams impresses me a whole hell of a lot more than Lewis. For one, Lewis-to-Hardy is something opposing defenses picked up on about 18 months ago, and it's unlikely that anyone is going to disregard it this year. Meanwhile, Zook has been picking up considerable talent, and the role players around Williams will likely make the Illini offense more formidable than their Hoosier counterparts. (Of course, Zook has never really been the type of guy who actually develops the talent he snares, so the whole point is likely moot, but you see what I'm saying here.)

The Wisconsin QBs check in at #5 on the list, just ahead of Juice and right behind turnover machine Curtis Painter of Purdue and the oft-contused Anthony Morelli of Penn State. I expect the UW quarterback to eventually find himself at #2 or #3 in the conference, just as long as we don't have to bust out the unfortunate nickname I just made up ("Allan Average") midway through the season. Whoever lines up under center for Wisconsin will have Hubbard and Swan as go-to guys and Travis Beckum as probably the best safety valve in the entire nation. With Hill keeping the pressure off, the guy who winds up chucking the ball has a good chance at success.

Finally, the mgoblog preview of Penn State is up, and toward the end this snippet of commentary is offered:
Even though I am deeply skeptical about Morelli and the Nit offensive line, the comparison that is foremost in my mind is Wisconsin. The teams were virtually identical in 2006, stiff defenses coupled with mediocre or worse offenses heavily reliant on running the ball.

The Badgers are a trendy pick for Big Ten champs based on their 12-1 2006, but replace Bowling Green with Notre Dame and rejigger the Big Ten schedule to include Ohio State and you're probably looking at 10-3 and more reasonable expectations for a team that didn't prove all that much last year. Unit by unit on offense:

* QB: PSU. Even if Morelli was meh, he has a year of experience over Donovan/Everidge.
* RB: Wisconsin, but they have similar depth issues and Scott has one-year wonder upside.
* WR/TE: Penn State. Beckum is all the Badgers have; Penn State has Quarless, two guys who would be fine #2/#3 players, and at least the hope Williams lives up to his potential, plus Bell.
* OL: Maybe a push based on the similarities -- uninspiring starters returning from last year's team; top ten LT off to NFL -- but Bob Palcic fought in 'Nam and Wisconsin doesn't have a failed LG playing LT this year.

I figure the defenses will be near mirror images. The secondaries are a wash if not a slight PSU advantage -- more faith in AJ Wallace than Allen Langford -- and the presumed Wisconsin advantage on the D-line is offset by what should be one of the nation's premier linebacking units. If you consider the skill positions even, you're picking between the Wisconsin OL's advantage over PSU's line and Morelli's advantage over whoever Wisconsin throws out there.

My point is this: if you're looking for a darkhorse challenger to consensus favorite Michigan in the Big Ten, this is probably your team. I kind of hate saying that what with JayPa and all, but there it is. The differences between UW and PSU last year laid mostly in the quality of their opponents. The defenses will both be stout, intimidating things; if you made me pick between the offenses I would wince and take the Nittany Lions.
That wincing would be justified; I agree for the most part with the above assessment but find Brian's lack of faith in the Wisconsin receiving corps disturbing. I don't blame him for underrating them, as UW and Michigan locked horns in the conference opener last year, and he probably didn't see much of the progress made by Hubbard and Swan as the season went forward. The fact that Hill and Beckum had more than half of the Badgers' receiving yardage in that game also makes the actual receivers seem all the more suspect. I realize that Brian is a lot more circumspect than this, but our perception of other teams' strengths and weaknesses are tinted by the games our own teams played against them.

Bottom line: I expect the Badger offense to be better than Penn State's, the defenses will be a wash, and a very strong coaching edge has to go to Bielema and his not-yet-past-the-expiration-date nepotism-free bevy of assistants. The Badgers will be the better team next year, have no doubt; it's the venue and the timing that frightens me about the Penn State game, and I think there's a better than 50% chance that the Badgers lose that game. However, I think the smart money is on Wisconsin if you're picking between them and the Lions for a Big Ten championship.