In the end, we saw a new coach, the irrepressible Bret Bielema, make a splash, starting his career with a 12-1 record (good for a .923 winning percentage!) We saw John Stocco become one of the most poised senior quarterbacks in the Big Ten, coming back strong after an injury sidelined him midway through the season. We witnessed a freshman, the tubby P. J. Hill, become the clear frontrunner in one of the most wide-open RB races in Wisconsin history. His path was cleared by big Joe Thomas, the lineman who wound up being the third overall pick in the NFL draft. On the other side of the ball, cornerback Jack Ikegwuonu became the leader of a unit that yielded just 12 points per game ... better than both the heralded Michigan and Ohio State defenses.
All in all, it was a very satisfying season. Thanks to a seamless coaching transition and a dozen victories, 2006 helped make the case that with Badger football, the sky ought to be the limit. Although the Bielema era is just a season old, it appears that we can discard any lingering fears of a return to the sub-mediocrity that preceded Barry Alvarez's tenure. At the very least, this program's going to be trekking to warm-weather destinations every year around Christmastime. But we're not interested in the very least; there's a not-insignificant portion of the Badger fanbase that believes that one of these years, a national championship should be on the radar -- and that year should be coming sooner rather than later.
I can't quite say I'm in that camp just yet. But I do think that Wisconsin fans have the right to expect big things this season. That should become clear as I outline what I believe to be the major storylines to watch for in the 2007 Wisconsin Badger season.
1. Settling the quarterback controversy
It's a rare year when Badger fans don't know who their starting QB will be to begin a season. And yet, here we are. This uncertainty is a luxury, though, as I'm not sure how optimistic people would be if we knew that 2007 meant a full year of 6'1", 187-pound Tyler Donovan backed up by the (by all accounts) raw Dustin Sherer. It's a little worrying to have such a small guy in a key position when every team, at least in the Big Ten, is going to have defenders orders of magnitude larger than that bent on destroying the QB every single down. Donovan is a mobile quarterback, definitely the exception for the Big Ten and Wisconsin in particular, but even as a fifth-year senior, as Jeff Potrykus puts it, "his overall play continues to be marred by curious decisions and errant throws."
Donovan is game-tested, having filled in marvelously during the Iowa game after John Stocco was hurt and, well, I guess I don't feel comfortable with calling the Buffalo game "game experience." You'd think that would be in his favor, but the guy who's competing for his job has actually played in more games. Allan Evridge sat out last year and joins the team as a junior, transferring from Kansas State after the departure of head coach Bill Snyder prior to the 2006 season. I'm not concerned by the middling numbers he put up as a Wildcat, as even good players but up so-so numbers when surrounded by mediocre talent. What you lose in mobility when going from Donovan to Evridge you gain in bulk, and probably arm strength and, eventually, poise. For now though, Evridge has struggled in spring practices.
For now, I think Donovan will be the starter -- but he'll be kept on a very short leash. I don't know an incredible amount about Bret Bielema, but I don't think he's the kind of guy who'll put Donovan out there just because he's been a Badger for five years now; his job is to win football games, and he's going to play the guy who is most likely to help him finish that job. I think that the years of experience that Donovan has had with essentially the same offense is going to be the determining factor in this quarterback race, but if he's not performing, look for Evridge -- maybe before the Big Ten season begins.
2. Picking up where the 2006 team left off
Eleven regular season wins, one loss, and an ugly, gritty victory over Arkansas in the Citrus Bowl. The question before this Badgers is this: was 2006 a stepping stone to an even more spectacular season, or is 12-1 a high water mark for the program?
Several things have to go right for the Badgers this year. They need the quarterback controversy settled, period; that's the single biggest issue for this team. Following that, everyone needs to pitch in and do his part. P.J. Hill needs to be the leader of the offense, even though he's just a sophomore; on an average play, more than half the guys out on the field will be blocking for him, stalling for time so he can use his bulk and his eyes to pick up chunks of yardage. The receiving corps, including Luke Swan and Paul Hubbard, grew up before our very eyes last season and need to continue to improve; the best medicine for a raw quarterback is a WR who can make plays on his own. Travis Beckum at tight end is already being hailed as Wisconsin's best pro prospect; he's a guy other teams will have to worry about.
As for the defense, they need to keep on keeping on. The cornerbacks should be fine, with Jack Ikegwuonu leading the way, and evidently the safety position, while questionable, has found a couple of nice surprises in the persons of Shane Carter and Aubrey Pleasant (who, incidentally, judging by their first names, might actually be girls. They are not helped by being backed up by Kim Royston.) With any luck, the linebackers will stay strong, and the defensive line will continue to improve in rushing the quarterback.
The bottom line for the team is to learn from where they've been and replace the guys who've had to depart.
3. Defining Bret Bielema
After a couple seasons as defensive coordinator and one season as head coach, we know a little bit about who Bret Bielema is. In being picked by Barry Alvarez as the heir to the UW coaching throne, Bielema was pegged as a star, and after the enormous raise he received a few months back, it appears that UW is gunning to keep him here for a very long time indeed.
He's a winner, that's for sure; indeed, he was the first Badger head coach to amass seven wins in his rookie season since the venerable William Juneau managed the feat in 1912. He's a hard-nosed recruiter who can close a deal with a high school kid; he played a major role in recruiting at Kansas State and before he landed the head job in Madison.
Still, we don't know a lot about the guy. It will be interesting to see how he handles the Donovan/Evridge situation; my gut feeling is that he'll be very interested in building continuity, and keeping Evridge for two years is more likely to pay off than a one-and-done stint for Donovan. I also feel that he's a loyal guy, which would seem to bode well for the fifth-year senior, but he's more loyal to a winning game plan than to individual players.
Another area of interest will be that of discipline and academics. Big-time recruit John Clay, the running back out of Racine, is confirmed as having some issues to work out before the season begins; those issues are rumored to be academic in nature, with one source saying that Clay hasn't even been admitted to UW yet. As for discipline, Bielema is in the unenviable position of having his star cornerback working his way through the legal system. Ikegwuonu was arrested in Novemeber but played in the bowl game, which seems to be a pattern for Badgers accused of doing wrong thus far; both Jamal Cooper and Elijah Hodge were suspended from the team last season (Cooper for academic reasons; Hodge had actually been arrested), only to be reinstated immediately before the next game, and James Kamoku received no public reprimand for a vicious, unnecessary twist to the leg of Michigan's Steve Breaston on a special teams play. This is something I addressed previously:
Wrong, coach. You're the new guy on the block so you make an example out of someone who makes an obviously dirty play. End of story. Kamoku needs to be out against Indiana. Even if he is, though, the opportunity to show the conference the type of disciplinarian you are has gone out the window.
I didn't like the reinstatement of Cooper right before the season started. I didn't like the fact that I saw Hodge in the game on Saturday. I don't like the fact anything less than singling out and making an example of Kamoku was the course of action taken in this instance. But what I really, really don't like is the pattern that's emerging. That pattern, so far, indicates that Bret Bielema wants to win football games -- and he's not particularly interested in how that happens or the character of his athletes. Any positive vibe I had from the dismissal of Booker Stanley has dissipated.
Thus far, it would appear that either every Badger is innocent or that Bielema is lax when it comes to discipline. Hopefully Jack Ikegwuonu has to face the consequences of his actions. I like our teams to win, but I dread watching UW become a place where thugs run wild.
4. Racing toward a conference title
It's a wonderful thing to force oneself to be realistic and still see the possibility of a Big Ten title on the horizon. If the quarterback situation is sorted out (big if, I know), UW could be looking at a championship year. The Badgers miss Purdue and Northwestern this year, which is just as well since these are teams that have provided inexplicable struggles for Wisconsin through the years. The two tough road games will be at Penn State and at Ohio State, and unless my predictions are way off, I expect the Badgers to walk out of those two venues victorious. Even though Ohio State always has truckloads of talent, it seems like everyone with game experience chased the NFL money last year (as opposed to that sweet, sweet Ohio State money) and I think they'll be a little bit depleted. As for Penn State, if we can mount any kind of a pass rush, Anthony Morelli is going to be rattled; I really don't think he has what it takes to win the Big Ten. The date to circle is going to be November 10 when Michigan invades Camp Randall; with their all-star offense, Michigan is going to be putting up 40 points a game, but with their utter lack of defense, they might be giving up 40 as well. Mark it -- that game is for the Big Ten title, or at least a share of it.