What were you doing on January 1, 2000?
If you are a Badgers fan, the answer is simple.
Chances are you were watching (and subsequently celebrating) the Badgers’ Rose Bowl win over Stanford on New Year’s Day.
Even if it was eleven years ago, how can Badger fans forget the last time they won (or even made) the Rose Bowl?
Behind the superhuman efforts of one of the best college running backs of all-time, Ron Dayne, Wisconsin willed itself to a program-changing victory over a highly-respected opponent.
The victory represented the third Rose Bowl win for Wisconsin in six years. Many consider the 1999 team (1999 was the actual season the Badgers won the Rose Bowl, not 2000) to be the best in Badgers history and the standard to which all future Badger teams will be measured.
Because of the program’s success in this short span of time, the current Rose Bowl (as well as Big Ten title) drought for the Badgers has been somewhat conspicuous.
Obviously, once you smell the roses, the aroma of the food at the Outback Bowl Steakhouse or sneakers at Champs Sports will just not due.
With Wisconsin’s Rose Bowl drought in mind, let’s look forward to the 2010 Wisconsin Badgers and their prospects for Big Ten title glory.
Can the Badgers win this year’s Big Ten? Furthermore, if the Badgers come in second in the Big Ten, can they still make the Rose Bowl?
Here’s a preview of this year’s team to break down their Rose Bowl (and possible National Championship) potential.
Offense: There are some high rollers on offense and no one fits the bill better than running back John Clay. Since Dayne, there hasn’t been a player returning to the Badgers with so many accolades from the previous season. Clay finished last season with 1517 rushing yards and 18 touchdowns. Those eye-popping numbers earned Clay Big Ten Player of the Year honors.
While opposing defensive coordinators would like to believe Clay has reached his peak, the fact that Clay is going into this season with two healthy ankles might cause second thoughts. After undergoing corrective surgery in the offseason, Clay’s ankles should be able to aid the big back’s cutting ability, an aspect of Clay’s game that was crippled at the end of last season. If Clay is indeed 100% healthy, opposing defenses beware.
Last year, the most improved player on offense was wide receiver Nick Toon. Building on a freshmen year where he caught 17 passes for 257 yards, Toon broke out in 2009 with 54 receptions for 805 yards. If the redshirt junior stays committed to getting better, he could eclipse Lee Evans school-record of 75 receptions in a season. To do so, Toon will have to be more consistent. Either way, Toon will provide his share of highlights in the upcoming season.
The man responsible for delivering the ball to Toon is 6’3 senior quarterback Scott Tolzien. While Wisconsin fans are not used to touting their quarterback as a legitimate game changer (at least in a good sense), Tolzien is just that. Not asked to be a gunslinger, Tolzien quietly picks apart secondaries with the utmost efficiency. Last season, Tolzien threw for 2,705 yards (second-best in UW history) with a passing efficiency of 143.0 (fifth-best in UW history). For Tolzien, efficiency is the key word. In a system where running the ball is a way of life, being an efficient passer is all you need for the Wisconsin faithful to remember you as a “great quarterback.” If the Badgers are in the national picture this year, others around the country will take notice of number 16.
Like every year, it usually starts upfront with the Badgers. This year, the Badgers have another solid offensive line to anchor what figures to be the best rushing offense in the Big Ten. Senior offensive linemen Gabe Carimi and John Moffitt lead a unit that has several future NFL players in the mix. Something fun to watch for will be Carimi’s draft stock. Several NFL pundits believe Carimi is a bonafide top 10 NFL draft pick. Carimi hopes to follow in the footsteps of former Badger great and Outland trophy winner Joe Thomas in this regard.
Offensive MVP: RB John Clay. Based off stats alone, this one is a no-brainer. Barring injury, Clay will eclipse 1,000 yards before the Badgers ninth game. Even with a budding star, Montee Ball, eating into his carries, Clay will put the ball in the end zone at least fifteen times this season. If Clay matches his numbers from last year and the Badgers are a top 5 team at the end of the season, Clay could be adding Heisman to his list of achievements.
Offensive Sleeper: RB Montee Ball. Every good running team is only successful because of backfield depth. Ball provides a great compliment to the 1-2 punch of him and John Clay. Don’t be surprised to see Ball in and Clay out at some pivotal moments this year.
Defense: Last year’s defense was built around the interior line. Losing tenacious tackle O’Brien Schofield will force the Badgers to get more production from some unproven defensive linemen in Patrick Butrym and Jordan Kohout.
Number ninety-nine, J.J. Watt is the game-changer on defense. Watt is Jared Allen-esque in his drive to disrupt the backfield. A converted tight end, Watt displays a rare blend of athleticism and pure power that NFL scouts covet. Watt will face some notable challenges when he faces the offensive line of Ohio State and Iowa back-to-back.
The backbone of this defense will be the linebacking crew. In years past this wasn’t the case, however, this year’s Wisconsin team has considerable depth at linebacker. The most celebrated of the bunch is last year’s Big Ten Freshmen of the Year Chris Borland. Borland is a turnover machine who has a sixth sense of where the ball is at any given time.
Assisting Borland will be the man he used to backup in Mike Taylor. Taylor succumbed to season ending knee surgery last year, thereby opening the door for Borland. This year, Taylor looks to start where he left off last season, when he led the Badgers in tackles through the seventh game of the year. Taylor will miss the season opener at UNLV due to an injury that originally was supposed to sideline him a month.
The guy who will surprise a lot of people this season is Culmer St. Jean. Take my word for it, because you will hear St. Jean’s name early and often. St. Jean will try to build off a solid season in which he was second on the Badgers in tackles. Coming out of preseason camp, St. Jean could be the most improved player on the Badgers, offense or defense. This will be the second full season St. Jean has started at linebacker.
The secondary might not get much respect around the Big Ten, however, there are a lot of younger players waiting to make a name for themselves. Hard-hitting safety Jay Valai is the established leader on this unit and the one player opposing quarterbacks will be watching for. Coach Bielema is very high on two of his unproven cornerbacks, sophomore Marcus Cromartie and junior Antonio Fenelus. Defensive backs Aaron Henry and Niles Brinkley will try and turn around their careers this season. Both Henry and Brinkley have been disappointments for the Badgers thus far.
Defensive MVP: Watt. Essentially, his pass rush will benefit the rest of the defensive line and make the unit stronger as a whole.
Defensive Sleeper: Culmer St. Jean. According to coaches, he’s more focused and determined than ever.
Coaching/Special Teams: Kicker Philip Welch is entering this third year as the starter and he will be asked to make some big kicks in clutch situations. Welch certainly has the leg however last season his accuracy was down at only 70%.
Senior kick/punt returner David Gilreath enters his fourth year on the job. Coincidentally, Gilreath’s numbers have gotten worse each and every year since his freshmen season.
Coach Bielema enters this year with his best team since 2006. The only difference is this year’s team is made up of players entirely recruited by Bielema and not his predecessor, the legendary Barry Alvarez. The Ohio State and Iowa contests will show off if Bielema can take down the top dogs. So far, he has been unable to make a name for himself in big game situations.
Verdict: To make the Rose Bowl or National Championship, the Badgers will have to dethrone Ohio State and Iowa. A new provision in the Rose Bowl Selection Process stipulates that if a team from the Big Ten (or Pac-10) is selected for the National Championship (say Ohio State or Iowa) and a non-BCS team automatically qualifies for the BCS (say Boise State or TCU), that non-BCS team will be selected by the Rose Bowl. In this sense, Wisconsin better win the Big Ten, otherwise, they have no shot at making the Rose Bowl.
Being optimistic, a reasonable prediction for Wisconsin’s 2010 record would be 11-1. Conventional wisdom would support the idea that Wisconsin will split its contests against Ohio State and Iowa and run the table in every other game (the rest of their opponents are much weaker).
So the question is, will the Badgers make the Rose Bowl this year?
Unless Wisconsin can beat Ohio State at home, the answer is likely, no.