By Braden Gall (@BradenGall on Twitter)
It is a perilous balancing act, but for the time being, Bret Bielema and the Wisconsin Badgers have their starting quarterback.
Redshirt junior-to-be Danny O’Brien announced on Wednesday that he intends to transfer from Maryland to Wisconsin following his graduation this spring. After a very public divorce from Terps head coach Randy Edsall, O’Brien will be eligible to play right away for a team that will feature a transfer under center for the second consecutive season.
And for the second consecutive season, the Badgers will likely be predicted to play in the Big Ten title game because of it.
Athlon Sports will sit down and hash out its 2012 NCAA Football predictions in the coming weeks. There are always heated arguments and flying office supplies. But with O’Brien’s decision to head to MadTown, one tough resolution has been made for us.
Ohio State and new head coach Urban Meyer have easily the best roster in the Big Ten Leaders Division. There is no reason to think that the Buckeyes won’t finish with the best record in their half of the conference. However, since the Buck-Nuts are not eligible to play in the Big Ten Championship or go to a bowl game, the second place finisher will be sent to Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis on December 1.
This leaves Penn State, following the darkest scandal in NCAA history and a coaching change for the first time in nearly half-of-a-century, Illinois and Purdue left to compete with the Big Red of the Dairy State. With only seven returning starters in Happy Valley, Bill O’Brien has a steep slope to climb. Illinois returns plenty of talent but is dealing with its own regime change following one of the worst collapses in recent history. Purdue, which will host the Badgers on October 13, returned to the postseason for the first time since 2007 last year and might be the top challenger in the division.
So for the time being, let’s assume Wisconsin returns to the Big Ten title game. Just how good can O’Brien and Heisman finalist Montee Ball be in 2012? Can Bielema win his third straight conference title and get to a third straight Rose Bowl — something that has never happened to Wisconsin? Or are they simply a Leaders Division placeholder in the Oil Drum?
Unfortunately, with or without Danny O’Brien, this will not be an elite U of W team. It will not return to Pasadena. And it will not beat Michigan in the title game. Not without offensive genius and Badger alum Paul Chryst, who left to become the head coach of the Pitt Panthers, calling the plays. Not without three first-team All-Big Ten offensive lineman. Not without top wideout Nick Toon.
And O’Brien is not Russell Wilson.
Wilson was a rare leader who was poised and forced others around him to elevate their game to a championship level — and if not for two blown pass plays in the secondary, the Badgers would have been undefeated in the regular season. He owns basically every single-season, and many career, school passing records at Wisconsin in only one year. His 191.78 QB rating was a single-season NCAA record and he currently owns the NCAA all-time record for consecutive games with a touchdown pass (38 games).
Here were his stats when he left NC State to sign with Wisconsin:
36 games played
Passing: 8,545 yards, 76 TD, 26 INT
Rushing: 362 att., 1,083 yards, 17 TD
Wilson is second all-time in ACC history with 93 total touchdowns, and, after 39 more trips to paydirt and 3,513 yards of total offense, Wilson ended his college career with 13,141 yards of total offense and 132 total touchdowns.
Here are O’Brien’s stats with two years left in his career as he heads to State Street:
22 games played
Passing: 4,086 yards, 29 TD, 18 INT
Rushing: 64 att., 9 yards, 3 TD
O’Brien lost his starting job at Maryland (partly due to a terrible coaching hire by Edsall and the offense certainly missed Torrey Smith) and accounted for one touchdown in his final five games as a Terrapin. He threw more interceptions (10) than touchdowns (7) and, most importantly, his team went 2-10. Wilson was a team captain, topped the ACC in total offense and led the Pack to a 9-4 record in his final season in Raleigh.
Undoubtedly, the Wisconsin offensive line and backfield offer O’Brien a fresh start and a dramatically better situation for success. And this Big Red team should now be the favorite to represent the Leaders Division once again in 2012.
But if Wisconsin fans are going to hold O’Brien to a Wilson-esque standard of statistical and scoreboard success, they will be sorely mistaken.