Thursday, June 28, 2007

Badger Football: 2007 Storylines

2006 is long gone. After walloping non-conference cupcakes and dropping a single conference decision, the John Stocco-led Badgers defeated 2007 Heisman candidate Darren McFadden and the Arkansas Razorbacks for their second Citrus/Capital One Bowl victory in two years.

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.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Blogs to watch

Before I begin to get into football gear in earnest, I'd like to call your attention to a few other places around the internets that might be of some use to you. (For those who are already looking for Badger football stuff, here's a little something: John Clay! Allan Evridge! Tyler Donovan! Bret Bielema! Waaaugh!!)

We'll begin with the creme de la creme, which obviously means the Badger blogs:

* Wisconsin Badger Sports Fan has a fantastic name and has been live since February. Look for all things UW from this site.

* Online since May, Midseason Forum covers much more than just Badger sports. Check out his recent work regarding the impending NBA draft.

* Literally born yesterday(!), Bucky's Faithful is off to a strong start. Get over there and encourage Fest to stick with the blog project!

On to the others ...

* Death Cab for Woody is an Ohio State blog that's full of snark and is touchably soft.

* There are many reasons that you're going to want to look to Hawkeye State for your Big Ten previews this season, not the least of which will be because I once again have no idea what to make of the 2007 Hawkeyes.

* Anything Hoosier, which is possibly actually entitled "IU Sports," makes mention not only of basketball but also Indiana football. Come for the Hoosierdom, stay for the early preseason basketball picks that keep Wisconsin out of the top 5 in the Big Ten!

* Defend the Rock is also a Hoosier blog and has far less to do with Sean Connery than one would suppose.

And finally, there are the Gopher blogs. At this time last year, you couldn't find a single blog devoted to Gopher football, but lately they've been popping up all over. If any more show up, I'll be tempted to go out back with a rake and crack their tiny skulls open. One imagines that this has to do with the Dynamic Duo of Tim Brewster and Tubby Smith. These blogs are all high-quality, which makes me believe that more Wisconsin residents are taking advantage of that whole reciprocity deal than I previously thought.

* Paging Jim Shikenjanski sets the standard for the new Gopher uprising. With 57 posts under his belt since May 16, PJS is sallying forth at a torrid pace. Check this site every day.

* Down with Goldy is down with the Gophers, but not down with Goldy the Gopher. Got it?

* Gopher Gal writes Minnesota Golden Gophers with brevity and aplomb. Good tidbits to be found here.

* The posts at Gopher Nation are thorough and are generally long enough to be enjoyable reads. Plus, if you need a laugh, you can always scroll up to the blog's subtitle, which reads, "We're going to take the Gopher Nation to Pasadena!"

Monday, June 25, 2007

Answering Trev's Questions

The borderline ridiculous questions answered below were devised by the wily Trev Alberts over at Fire Mark May.

Give the more zealous portion of your fanbase a religion. What's this cult following? Feel free to give the splitters a derogatory nickname.

The most passionate fans in all of Badgerdom are those who fulfill all the stereotypes outsiders hold about Wisconsin. They're Wisconsin's biggest fans because they're, well, the biggest fans -- the older gentlemen who've grown obese after gorging themselves for decades on bratwurst, deep-fried cheese curds, and a whole mess of other foods and food-like substances. They drive in from the outskirts of Eau Claire and Manitowoc, find a prime parking spot, and down the LaCrosse Lager and Point like they were water (or, at least, really watery beer). To these portly, sauerkraut-scented gentlemen, I give the name Boozin' Buddhas. They're always so jolly -- are they close to enlightenment, or is that just the half dozen Korbel old-fashioneds they mixed up in the back of the truck?

Bucky dons his Boozin' Buddha gear

Your biggest rival is in town, and College Gameday is your citaaaaaaay... Create a blatant corporate sellout promotion to appeal to the mass unwashed.

Sack of gopher bait, anyone?

Sorry, not very creative. Instead, let's pass out free Hefty bags to the crowd as a tribute to the Golden Gophers' home field. This useful promotional item can be used to pick up plastic Miller Lite bottles after the game, or can aid our Gopher friends in hastening death when they realize the only thing they have to look forward to after yet another loss is a four-hour car ride to an academically-questionable campus located in a patently awful city in which to be young and irresponsible.

Add one local delicacy to your stadium's concessions. Post-tax pricing is optional.

I never buy food at Camp Randall, so I don't know whether they serve cheese curds, but if they don't then WHY GOD WHY.

But the item they really ought to be stocking is the deep-fried pickles from Ella's Deli. Honestly, dill pickles, ranch dressing, deep-frying ... what's not to love?

With an unlimited AD budget, add or subtract one thing to your school's gameday experience that has nothing to do with football.

Good thing the budget's unlimited, because we're razing the engineering buildings, most of the apartments across Breese Terrace from the stadium, and re-routing University Avenue and Campus Drive about half a mile to the north. We're paving half of it for dedicating surface tailgating lots and making the rest of it verdant splendor, perfect for tossin' around the ol' pigskin before the game. The fact is that Camp Randall Stadium is shoehorned into a weird little corner of campus, and all the congregation and mingling has to be done at private residences or establishments of wildly varying quality along Regent Street. Or if you don't want to do that, you have to take the party WAY down to State Street ... a fun place, a nice walk if you're in the mood, but this all adds up to a discontinuous fan presence. Maybe if the kids didn't have to drink their Kool-Aid and Fleischmann's at Chadbourne and instead could carouse with their friends and treasured alumni just steps from the stadium gates they'd actually get to their seats before the second quarter begins.

Coin a hilariously unrealistic stereotype that you would like to "make stick" for this upcoming season.

Bring back "three yards and a cloud of dust" for the Big Ten! No more of this wacky forward-pass flim-flam, Vegas is setting the over/under of the Purdue-Ohio State game to 15.5! When I think Big Ten football in 2007, I want 90% of the action to occur between the 35-yard lines.

Redesign your conference or independent schedule with reckless abandon. Be prepared to include compensation for jilted schools and conferences in your explanation.

This year, the Badgers play the following teams out of conference: Washington State, UNLV, the Citadel, and Northern Illinois. Compared to previous years, this isn't so bad. We'll keep our local MAC school (NIU) and weak PAC-10 opponent (WSU) for starters. We'll expunge that road game at UNLV; we all remember when the freaking power went out at their crap-ass facility, and we're pretty bitter about the whole Big Dance fiasco, so they're gone. Also, the Citadel? Please. D-IAA has no place on this schedule, and horrible D-IAA teams are just plain out of the question. Instead, we'll replace those opponents with two more major conference opponents. What we need to do is travel for one game, but we must be certain that we can win there, and we need to invite a generally-decent team to Madison and smother them at home. So, we'll play an away game at Syracuse ... after all, if that undermanned Iowa team from last season was capable of winning at the Carrier Dome, we'll have no problem. For our home foe, we'll go with a middling Big XII team ... say, Oklahoma State or Nebraska.

The conference schedule is actually very good as well; coming to Madison are Iowa, Michigan, Michigan State, and Indiana, and we travel to Ohio State, Minnesota, Illinois, and Penn State. That means we miss Northwestern and Purdue, both of which register a big fat "so what" from me. The Badgers seem to do pretty decently in Columbus, so the only thing we change is making Penn State visit Camp Randall. In exchange, we play MSU on the road. That makes things a little more favorable for UW.

Following up on your new realignment, blow up the BCS and devise a national playoff system, money grabs and missed exams be damned. Using your new fantasy conferences is optional.

Well, now that (1) defense wins championships, (2) the Big Ten is the best defensive conference in the land, and (3) it's a big deal when Big Ten games feature more than 13 points between the two teams, the parts of the country with short attention spans will be paying minimal attention to college football when our conference's teams grind away national title games with paralyzing 15-play, 88-yard, 11-minute touchdown drives. (For the curious, these are the short-attention-span parts of the country: the East Coast, any region with PAC-10, ACC, or SEC representation, and Texas.) That will allow us to sneak in a twelve team playoff:

* 6 automatic berths: 1 each for the Big Ten, Big XII, SEC, ACC, Big East, and PAC-10 champions
* 6 at-large berths, no restrictions on who can fill these slots (could be a MAC team, Notre Dame, a Mountain West team, and three major conference teams, or 4 Big Ten teams and 2 SEC teams, or anything else!)

The top four teams in the RPI (details of which are not yet clear to me), regardless of whether they won their conferences, get a bye. Then #5 plays #12, #6 plays #11, #7 plays #10, and #8 plays #9. This will give the top teams a chance to let their students take exams, and after four teams are eliminated, they can take exams immediately, leaving only four schools in the whole country with exam conflicts after one week of the playoffs. SO THERE.

Anyway, then #1 plays the lowest remaining seed, #2 the next, and so forth, and this re-shuffling of seeds continues throughout. Finally, after four weeks, we have an undisputed national champ. Well, undisputed by everyone but team #13. But who cares about #13?

Elect one public figure to replace NCAA president Myles Brand. Anyone with proper name recognition is eligible.

What characteristics does the NCAA president need to have? He needs to be reasonable -- he needs to be the type of guy who realizes that providing a star player's family with a million-dollar house or giving a recruit keys to any Escalade in Columbus is a different offense altogether than buying the O-line pizza when they show up to practicing weighing 245 apiece. He needs to realize that football and men's basketball are different animals than field hockey and gymnastics, and those lame sports need to be de-emphasized. He needs to be so rich that he doesn't care who's making what kind of money. And he needs to be willing to throw himself completely into the job ... and we all know the best way to do that is to have something from which you need to escape.

For those reasons, why not former President Bill Clinton? He's been sick to death of Hillary for nearly a quarter century, he can make six figures by shaking hands for forty-five minutes in Manhattan, and he's so manipulative that nobody'll notice that he wrote Title IX out of existence ... they'll all be captivated by that swarthy Southern drawl.

Cow-tipping, UW Hockey-style

Cow-tipping. After beer-pong, Wisconsin's most popular sport. A sacred tradition, a rite of passage, an easy go-to insult for the most slack-jawed out-of-state dunderheads to fall back upon.

Well, it really appears that Badger defenseman Kyle Klubertanz is living the dream. The Anaheim Ducks prospect was fined $200 Thursday for cow-tipping. But, as always seems to be the case with Badgers who run afoul of John Law, the story comes with a humorous, embarrassing twist:

It wasn't an actual cow.

No, it was a cow sculpture, as the Capital Times story helpfully illustrates:

The cow in question is called "Looking for Bucky" and stood, for a longer time than it should've, outside of the Kohl Center during last summer's Cow Parade. Over a hundred of these damned things took up space and helped bring stereotypes to life for an unbearable stretch of months last year, and then almost all of them sold for inexplicable five-figure amounts at a charity auction.

Reading the article, though, it certainly seems that Klubertanz and his nerdy sidekick, Badger alum Jeffery Slinde, picked on the least offensive cow in the vicinity. "Looking for Bucky" was accompanied by "Moo Rah Rah Wisconsin" (groan) and "If You Want to Be a Moosaic, Come Along with Me" (straight up WTF!?). Bill Wineke wrote, "the names alone make one want to damage the cow," and sure enough as I was typing all that in my tippin' shoulder was starting to get that telltale twitch.

So, $200 fine, 30 hours' community service, no mark on the permanent record. And Badger hockey once again gives people all around the internets something to talk about.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Rest in peace, Terry Hoeppner

Indiana coach Terry Hoeppner died this morning after a prolonged battle with brain cancer. He will be missed. Hoeppner seemed like the kind of guy who had a shot at raising Indiana's profile in the football world after a great run as coach of Miami-Ohio. He seemed like a genuinely good guy, and his players definitely respected him.

Here's to IU ... weather the storm, guys. May perpetual light shine upon you, Coach.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Phil Steele might need to submit a hair and urine sample

Picking the Badgers to finish in a three-way tie for fourth in the Big Ten? Come on now! Yes, quarterback is a huge hole to fill, but I suspect Allan Evridge will step in quite capably. Beyond that, the Badgers have every piece of the puzzle: a stifling defensive line, role players in the secondary, wide receivers who are coming into their own, big-booty P. J. Hill powering through a capable offensive line.

Mark it down - the Big Ten title will come down to the winner of the Wisconsin-Michigan game at Camp Randall. Period.

It's an odd, topsy-turvy year, with Steele being so wrong and CFN picking the Badgers to head to the Rose Bowl. Wait and see, I suppose. Wait and see.