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Tuesday, Aug. 23, 2011

This Year the Dreams Go Beyond Rosy

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Last season was close to ideal for fans of the Wisconsin football team. The Badgers rolled to a share of the Big Ten title, thanks in part to one of the program's greatest victories, a 31-18 smackdown of Ohio State in Madison. A loss to Michigan State prevented an outright title, but the Badgers returned to the Rose Bowl for the first time in 10 seasons, bearing the No. 5 BCS ranking. Despite a close loss to TCU, they finished in the Top Ten in the national rankings.

In some ways this season looks tougher. Several major contributors have departed, and in the Big Ten's new divisional setup, a conference title requires an extra victory. But there's plenty of returning talent, a new quarterback who's well prepared and preseason rankings that keep UW in the top tier. It's enough to stir thoughts of red-clad fans flocking to a different January game—the one that determines the national crown.


Frank:
Quick, are the Badgers in the Leaders or the Legends division?

Artie:
Haven't a clue.

Frank:
They're among the Leaders, and the new kid on the Big Ten block, Nebraska, somehow is with the Legends. Which means Nebraska's conference debut Oct. 1 at Camp Randall could be replayed Dec. 3 in Indianapolis for the conference title and a BCS bowl game.

Artie:
The thing is, in college football even more than in the pros, you can't predict very much. For most conference games you can't say, "Oh, that's a lock," or, "That's a loss..."

Frank:
Unless Indiana is involved.

Artie:
Well, yeah, but otherwise injuries play even more of a role than in the NFL because college teams can't find a taxi-squad guy or "street" free agent—not even at Miami or Ohio State... I think. So depth is huger than huge in the college game.

Frank:
The Badgers' divisional games are against OSU, Penn State, Illinois, Purdue and Indiana. Besides Nebraska, their "Legends" opponents are Minnesota and Michigan State.

Artie:
Those back-to-back games against the Buckeyes and Spartans in late October—both on the road, yet—look pretty tough. By the way, why are they going to East Lansing for a second straight year? And from Oct. 22 through Nov. 19, four of the five games are on the road. I smell a conspiracy!

Frank:
UW and Nebraska are the top Big Ten teams in the preseason polls. The Badgers are 10th in the USA Today coaches' poll and 11th with the AP writers, exactly the reverse of the Huskers' rankings.

Artie:
Sporting News has the Huskers ninth and Badgers 10th. Last year it was similar for UW and Iowa, with Ohio State above 'em. But who wound up playing in the Rose Bowl?

Frank:
Let's talk players. This new quarterback, Russell Wilson, who transferred from N.C. State, has some good stats, both passing and running.

Artie:
All the Badger QBs in recent years have been able to run the option. They haven't had a classic five-step drop-back guy for a while.

Frank:
So this is not a radical departure. And Bret Bielema's system is probably one reason Wilson chose Wisconsin. He's only here for this season, right?

Artie:
Yup. Because he's a graduate student after getting a degree in three years, he could play anywhere else right away. At N.C. State he might not have started because they were looking at younger guys, and they thought he'd come into camp late because he was drafted in baseball by the Rockies. He played a little this summer but stopped to join UW.

Frank:
So we know he's versatile and smart.

Artie:
But he better stay healthy! Behind him are Jon Budmayr, a redshirt sophomore, and then a redshirt freshman and a pure freshman—virtually no experience there.

Frank:
How about the running game, the Badgers' bread and butter?

Artie:
Still solid. Not just with Montee Ball and James White, who showed a lot last year, but with the redshirt freshman from Brookfield, Jeff Lewis, and the "true" freshman from Kenosha, Melvin Gordon. Man oh man, they really don't need to pass! The offensive line has some nagging injuries to get over, but should be fine.

Frank:
How's the defense look?

Artie:
They've had some losses, especially J.J. Watt, but there are guys who can step in if they step up. The linebacking is the biggest question mark. Chris Borland, the Big Ten freshman of the year in '09, went down last year with shoulder problems, and Mike Taylor has had knee trouble.

Frank: The four non-conference games start with UNLV next Thursday night. Last year they were fortunate to beat Arizona State by a point.

Artie:
I suppose Oregon State could give them trouble in Week 2, and even Northern Illinois the next week in Chicago. But overall, with that steamroller offense, if the Badgers stay healthy they've got a decent shot at being 12-0.

Frank:
Which would make them No. 1 in the Leaders, then maybe the conference, and then... dare we say it?... a chance to be No. 1 in this country?

Artie:
Hey, why not? There's no reason to rule it out. The higher you start in the polls, the easier it is to move up because you have fewer teams to pass.

Frank:
Assuming, of course, you don't lose.

Artie:
But one loss in a conference game probably wouldn't wreck the dream. In a 12-game season, a lot of teams can stumble.



A Hurricane-Force Odor

Frank: Ohio State had quite a scandal involving "improper benefits," but free tattoos and sold jerseys can't compete with the allegations at Miami. If even a fraction is true, the NCAA should invoke the "death penalty"—complete shutdown.

Artie:
All I have to say about "The U"—make that "Pee-Yew"—is, "Hey, where do I sign up?" Holy cow! Cash, prostitutes, jewelry, clothing, parties on a yacht...

Frank:
All this from Nevin Shapiro, a little nerd who's now in prison for Ponzi schemes? A Bernie Madoff wannabe?

Artie:
He bought his way in, donating big money to the athletic department starting in 2002. Fifty thousand bucks to the basketball program in '08, for instance.

Frank:
And now he's blowing the whistle. How come?

Artie:
He told Yahoo! Sports he felt abandoned by all his supposed pals when he got in trouble.

Frank:
Sounds like a neglected mother. "You never call, you never write..."

Artie:
Shapiro also said the university could have nailed him easily—"If they had hired a private investigator for a day, it would have been the easiest job that guy ever had." Instead, he flew under the radar.

Frank:
Sounds like the radar was turned off.

Artie:
It doesn't say much for Donna Shalala, the Miami president and former UW-Madison chancellor, ain'a?

Frank:
It was Shalala who started all this conference-jumping crap we see today by taking Miami to the ACC in 2003. And why? For the added dough from a conference title game in football.

Artie:
Money talks. Ask Nevin Shapiro.

Frank:
Just as this was breaking, the NCAA Board of Directors announced a reform plan involving tougher sanctions. But it involves academic standards, not the under-the-table stuff. A few weeks earlier the Southeastern Conference—imagine that!—was talking about academics, too. The commissioner, Mike Slive, said the initial eligibility standard should rise from a 2.0 grade-point average to 2.5 in 16 core courses.

Artie:
Of all the leagues to talk about standards. It's just a smoke screen for all the payoffs and perks these players get. The only way to stop it is to hit schools where it really matters—in the pocketbook.

Frank:
But the revenue is so huge, from TV and sponsors and, of course, boosters. For real reform, all the university presidents would have to assert themselves over the athletic corporations that operate out of their campuses.

Artie:
Yeah, that'll happen real soon.

Frank:
Slive noted the scandals at Ohio State, USC and other places and quoted NCAA President Mark Emmert as saying college athletics "has lost the benefit of the doubt."

Artie:
Wake up, fellas! When it comes to corruption, no one has any doubt.

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