Athlon's College Football top 25 countdown for 2012 continues with No. 17 Wisconsin. The Badgers must replace quarterback Russell Wilson, but return running back Montee Ball and a solid defense.
Will the Coaching Attrition Catch Up to the Badgers in 2012?
David Fox (@DavidFox615)
The bigger cause for a drop off probably will be the fact Danny O’Brien is not Russell Wilson. We tend to compare the two because they’re ACC quarterbacks who landed at Wisconsin as one-year transfers, but Wilson was far more established than O’Brien, who lost his job last season at Maryland. O’Brien probably will be fine this season, but I’m interested in seeing how the offense develops without the tandem of Paul Chryst and offensive line coach Bob Bostad. I like new offensive coordinator Matt Canada, who was successful in two stints at Northern Illinois and was offensive coordinator of Indiana’s bowl team in 2007. New offensive line coach Mike Markuson is a veteran assistant, who spent his career working for Houston Nutt. At least at Arkansas, he proved he can set the table for a punishing run game. But can he replace the architect of so many great offensive lines for the Badgers? Chris Ash is entering just his second year as the defensive coordinator, but new linebacker coach Andy Buh has proven himself at Nevada and Stanford. Those are only a handful of the new coaches in Madison over the last two seasons, but possibly the most important ones. Coaching staff attrition catch up with any program – even Florida started to take a dip when assistants like Dan Mullen, Billy Gonzales and others left before finally Urban Meyer left, too. Wisconsin has hired a good mix of veterans and new blood to remain consistent, but Bret Bielema would be well-served to keep this group together for a few years. When players start working under three different coordinators or position coaches in four or five years, that’s when problems seem to arise.
Braden Gall (@BradenGall)
There are many reasons that fans and analysts should be bullish on the Badgers in 2012. Wisconsin has a Heisman Trophy running back returning, two All-Big Ten pass catchers returning and yet another powerful front line paving the way. The defense has one of the best linebacking tandems in the nation and a defensive line that should be improved at stopping the run. And possibly the most imperative aspect for defending its Big Ten title? Ohio State's inability to play in the Big Ten Championship game.
However, there are also many reasons those same fans and analysts should be weary of Bret Bielema's attempt at Wisconsin's first-ever Big Ten three-peat. Three first-team All-Big Ten blockers have departed. The greatest quarterback in the history of Wisconsin football is also no longer calling plays and taking snaps. But the biggest void Bielema had to fill was left by six assistant coaching changes, most notably offensive coordinator Paul Chryst.
Chryst, who graduated from UW in 1988, is largely responsible for the greatest offensive era in Wisconsin football history. During Chryst's seven-year tenure as the play-caller in Madison, Wisconsin went an astonishing 70-21 overall with five 10-win seasons and a pair of Big Ten titles. Seven of the top 12 highest scoring teams in Badgers history, including the best four all-time, came under Chryst's leadership. His 2011 offense led the Big Ten in rushing, total and scoring offense. His 2010 team was the highest scoring team in the league. The 2009 edition of the Big Red offense also led the conference in rushing, total and scoring offense. The top five single-season passing seasons in school history were engineered by Chryst. Numerous All-Americans, a Heisman Trophy finalist, an Outland Award winner and a Unitas Award winner dot his resume as well.
Matt Canada appears to be capable of leading this new era of Badger offense, but having to replace coaches every year, including six in one off-season, will eventually impact of the overall effectiveness of the program. The value of Russell Wilson and his departure will play as big a role in the immediate future, but there is no way Wisconsin can maintain its current level of offensive success without Chryst's innovative play-calling.
Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven)
Losing a coach or two isn’t much of a concern, but replacing six assistants is a different story. Bret Bielema has led the Badgers to back-to-back Rose Bowl appearances, but losing top assistants like offensive coordinator Paul Chryst and offensive line coach Bob Bostad will have an impact on the program.
Anytime there is a mass exodus of coaches from a program, it certainly raises some questions. However, credit Bielema for finding solid replacements for the departed coaches. Offensive coordinator Matt Canada did a good job at Indiana and Northern Illinois, while Mike Markuson is a respected offensive line coach. Andy Buh was a solid pickup to tutor the linebackers, while receiver coach Zach Azzanni is a rising star.
In addition to hiring some quality replacements, which team is going to challenge Wisconsin in the Leaders Division this year? Ohio State is the best team in the division, but is ineligible to play in the postseason. Illinois and Penn State would seem to be the biggest threats, but both are breaking in new head coaches. The Fighting Illini has the talent to push Wisconsin, but needs to find a spark on offense and replace end Whitney Mercilus. Purdue is a sleeper to watch, but needs more from its offense.
Although the coaching turnover is a long-term concern, it shouldn’t hurt the Badgers in 2012. Without a clear challenger in the Leaders Division, Wisconsin should make a return trip to Indianapolis in early December. I don’t expect the Badgers to win the Big Ten Championship, but they are clearly the favorite to win the Leaders Division with Ohio State banned from postseason play.
Wisconsin has seen a fair number of assistants leave the past few years, but Bret Bielema is still in Madison, and in my opinion, that's the key as it relates to the coaching aspect here. Don't get me wrong, coaching continuity is great and a wonderful luxury to have, but a big reason why all these assistants have left is because the success they had at Wisconsin opened doors to other opportunities. That success, from a coaching standpoint, starts with the head coach, who is responsible for hiring and overseeing all of his assistants. In Bielema's case, the numbers speak for themselves - 60 wins, two Big Ten titles and back-to-back Rose Bowl appearances in his first six years.
As great a job as Bielema has done at Wisconsin, let's not forget the players. In 2012, it certainly doesn't hurt Bielema and his "new" assistants that they have the likes of Montee Ball, Chris Borland, Mike Taylor, Ricky Wagner, etc. on their roster. No matter how great the coaches are, it's up to the players to execute the game plan on the field.
Wisconsin's goals this season are no different than any other year - win the Leaders Division, win the Big Ten title game, win a BCS bowl. Ohio State is probably the biggest threat the Badgers will need to contend with in their division, and remember the Buckeyes are ineligible for the postseason. That said, no worse than a second-place finish in the Leaders Division to the Buckeyes certainly seems doable for this year's Badgers team. Outside of the Nov. 17 showdown with Ohio State in Madison, the only other tough tests on Wisconsin's Big Ten slate appear to be cross-over games at Nebraska and a home date with Michigan State.
Coaching attrition aside, I think this Wisconsin team is simply too talented and its conference schedule is too manageable for them to slip too far from last season's results. Change, is a good thing, especially when it leads to more success.
Patrick Snow (@AthlonSnowman)
The loss of offensive guru Paul Chryst, as well as line coach Bob Bostad, is definitely significant in Madison. The Badgers running game has been dominant under their leadership, and we saw an elite attack last season with the addition of talented quarterback Russell Wilson. Even with the coaching changes, there is enough talent on the Wisconsin offense — Heisman candidate Montee Ball at running back, receiver Jared Abbrederis, tight end Jacob Pedersen and linemen Ricky Wagner and Travis Frederick — to win double-digit games this season. New coordinator Matt Canada will have to develop UW’s second-straight ACC transfer at quarterback, Danny O’Brien, to reach the lofty status the Badgers have enjoyed recently.
The defense should be solid, with an excellent linebackers group led by Chris Borland and Mike Taylor. That unit finished 13th in the nation in scoring defense a year ago, although defensive backs Aaron Henry and Antonio Fenelus will be missed. Wisconsin has a fairly pedestrian non-conference schedule, but league games against Nebraska, Ohio State, Michigan State and Penn State will be tough. The coaching attrition is a concern long term, but this year’s Badgers have the talent to win the Leaders Division and compete for a third-consecutive Rose Bowl appearance.
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