by Richard Branch
It’s been roughly 260 days since Badger football was turned upside down. The 2012 Badgers had a revamped coaching staff that never seemed to truly settle in. The team had 1,000 fewer passing yards, averaging 15 fewer points per game than the 2011 squad. Things didn’t work out as planned. After flailing about for 13 games, Bret Bielema abruptly departed seeking greater fame and fortune in the SEC.
Enter Gary Andersen. His straightforward approach and quiet confidence has earned near universal praise. Now it’s time to play some games. With a favorable schedule and a veteran-laden team, expectations are for this team to win immediately. This team does have weapons, but is not without areas of real concern.
Areas of Strength
Replacing a linebacker with 376 career tackles would be an area of concern on most teams, but the Badgers enter 2013 with a loaded front seven. The loss of Mike Taylor (and David Gilbert for that matter) has been largely shrugged off by a defensive front that looks ready to thrive under Dave Aranda.
The group is deep with upperclassmen possessing significant game experience complemented by a sprinkling of youthful flash. The young guns give the otherwise veteran group additional speed and athleticism. The run defense should be very stout; opposing passers should be stressed by an attacking defense coming from multiple directions. This front seven should be a lot of fun to watch.
The Badgers are equally as deep at running back thanks to the rapid emergence of Corey Clement. What was anticipated to be a vaunted 1-2 attack with James White and Melvin Gordon roughly splitting carries could morph into something more akin to the three headed monster last seen in 2010 with White, John Clay, and Montee Ball.
Areas of Concern
Where there is depth in certain areas, there are doubts in others. Perhaps most troubling is at wide receiver. a problem that stretches back to last season, the Badgers are struggling to find a credible compliment to Jared Abbrederis. It appears they never will find one as the 2nd wide receiver won’t be one player but filled by committee.
It was much the same in 2012 when Abbrederis was able to catch more passes for almost twice the yards as the rest of the wide receiving corps combined. The results of fall camp point to much the same situation.
The defensive backfield has a similar problem: a proven veteran leader – this time in Dezmen Southward – looking for help from new starters. Peniel Jean and Darius Hillary have experience as nickel backs, but beyond them three freshmen make up the depth in a youthful backfield. If there are injuries to Jean or Hilary, unproven players will be asked to carry a large burden.
Depth will be an issue on the offensive line as well. The group as a whole is very short on scholarship players, and four of those that they have are true or redshirt freshmen. With the injury to Dan Voltz the line looks seven to eight players deep with the remainder still in development or roster filler.
The Badgers have been fortunate in the past few seasons starting no more than eight different lineman in a single season, but bad luck could stress this position group and derail the offense.
Beyond their depth, the line was also just not that good last year. While serviceable, it simply wasn’t what Madison has grown accustomed to in recent years. The group did not get the push in 2012 that the great lines of 2009-11 were able to. The gaping holes were not there anymore.
The offense looked lost in short yardage situations. Between 2009-11 the Badgers were able to convert 65% of third downs of 3 yards or fewer when running the ball. In 2012 that conversion rate dropped to 52%. The line was a shadow of what it was in the past, stalling drives and keeping points off the board. The line needs to get better for the offense as a whole to improve.
What they will Look Like
With the new staff predicting how the Badgers will play in 2013 is challenging. Few have predicted a precipitous drop. That’s unreasonable to expect given what they have returning roster but it’s equally improbable that Gary Andersen will be able to make this team over instantaneously and turn them into an unstoppable juggernaut.
On offense this team will likely look and feel a lot like the 2012 team did, if a bit more consistent. Despite the new staff, there is stability in that the teaching techniques of the newcomers has been vetted and fully endorsed by the head coach. There is no Mike Markuson in this group. There will be no changes in direction midseason.
They will be able to move the ball on the ground reasonably well. There is too much talent in the backfield for that not to happen. The Badgers have tallied just over 3,300 yards on the ground last season, good for 11th in the nation. They should be able to match that total again this year. The running backs will not hold this offense back and should put up impressive numbers even if the offensive line isn’t much improved over last season.
The passing game is where it gets tricky. Joel Stave is the starter by all accounts and makes the most sense at this point. His ability to threaten defenses deep offsets his propensity for taking inopportune sacks.
However, if what he – and his receiving targets for that matter – showed in 2012 is his ceiling then the passing game can’t be counted on to do much more than keep opposing defenses honest against the run. It won’t be able to move the ball much on its own. That may be enough to make the offense serviceable, but not much more than that. Hopefully Andy Ludwig, with his history of developing quarterbacks, will be able to help Stave build on last year’s experience and become a more effective quarterback.
That is all well and good but – and sorry to rain on the love fest for the new staff – Andy Ludwig is not without questions of his own. Ludwig’s offenses have averaged more than 30 points – what the inconsistent Badger offense did last year – two times in the last five years. While experienced, Andy Ludwig doesn’t bring a recent history of building offensive juggernauts with him to Madison. Perhaps he’s a victim of circumstance at past stops, but an improvement in the offense due to the new man running it isn’t an automatic assumption.
The offense will likely be above average, but not great. The team will probably average 32-34 points per game (generously helped by the first two games of the season). It should hold it’s own but can’t be looked to carry the team in a return to the punishing attacks of the Tolzien/Wilson Era.
If one side of the ball has a better chance of carrying the team this year it’s the defense, but greatness is not guaranteed here either. It’s been said many places, but the new look 3-4 defense the Badgers will employ this year should produce significant results. Dave Aranda will oversee a far more aggressive defense than his predecessor. They will look to get after the quarterback more often and from different directions.
But how significant an improvement is up for debate. Badger fans are looking for a huge jump from the defense this year, but this is probably somewhat unreasonable. Utah State ranked 14th in total defense in 2012 at 322.1 YPG allowed. The 15th ranked team? The Wisconsin Badgers at 322.6. The defense was solid if very vanilla last year; it’s hard to expect huge strides when the group as a whole was already performing at a fairly high level.
It’s even harder to expect considering the secondary is breaking in three new starters. It’s been written here before that the secondary wasn’t the void many made it out to be, but it’s also not elite. The cornerbacks are going to be asked to play a lot of tight man coverage with less help from safeties than they are accustomed to.
It’s likely this more akin to the 2011 edition than the 2012 one; it may be more susceptible to the big play. What’s unknown is if the added pressure the defense brings can offset that problem. The points taken away through forced turnovers need to significantly outweigh the points given up on big plays for there to be marked improvement in the defense from 2012. That is a tall order.
Who They Play
If the Badgers were looking for a good year to break in a new coach, 2013 is probably one of them. Andersen and his staff are afforded what are basically exhibition games to work out any last kinks the first two weeks in UMass – a terrible FBS program – and Tennessee Tech – a terrible FCS program. The starters should be out of those games by the middle of the 3rd quarter.
To ease their road slate, the Badgers travel to Champaign and Iowa City; both programs come into 2013 with questions and are very winnable games. The harder, but not quite top flight, matchups are also largely at home. Purdue, BYU, Indiana, and Penn State are all coming to Camp Randall. The lone exception is a trip to Minneapolis to battle for the Axe.
The hardest games all come early in the season. The Badgers face a tough non-conference test against Arizona State in Tempe and two weeks later go back to back at Ohio State and then host Northwestern a week later.
There is certainly a difficult stretch from mid-September to mid-October with Arizona State, Ohio State and Northwestern, but this schedule overall is very manageable. When the season hinges on three matchups – with the rest of the season being very winnable – a team can’t complain about their prospects.
It’s clear this season will largely be judged by what happens between September 14th and October 12th. B1G teams historically struggle playing on the West Coast, and the Badgers draw a strong Arizona State team that’s looking to jump into Pac-12 title contention this season. Ohio State is a preseason BCS title contender. Northwestern is fresh off a 10-win season and returns basically everyone of significance.
If the Badgers are able to escape with two wins in those three games fans should be very satisfied. If the Badgers can do that the rest of the schedule could set up for an enjoyable first year under Gary Andersen that bodes well for a solid future.
That is not guaranteed. The circumstances of Andersen’s hire complicate things however. Generally a new coach is brought into a program because things are broken and the team is not meeting expectations. That is not the case in Madison.
If anything Andersen is coming in trying not to break anything in a program with a lot of recent success. No matter how deft his touch there will be hiccups as Andersen attempts to put his stamp on the program in his first year. It’s tough for this group to run at 100% right out of the gate.
It’s likely this team will lose at least one game it shouldn’t. Maybe this is the year Minnesota finally takes the Axe back. Maybe Indiana keeps the Badger offense in check for the first time in forever and steals one in Madison. Perhaps Kirk Ferentz rights the ship after a disastrous 2012. Any of those situations or something similar to it seems plausible in a year of adjustment. There will be surprises.
None of this is meant to throw cold water on the enthusiasm Andersen has generated in Wisconsin over the last eight months. It is well deserved. Think of this preview as more a common sense talking to. This program is in a good place and all indications are it’s in good hands too.
Expectations simply need to be measured somewhat. They need to be realistic. They need to be reined in for me as well. My heart tells me this team could be 11-1 going into December. My head tells me 9-3. Let’s see which is right.
Like what you read? Take a look at Max's take on 2013 right here.