Tag Archives: Dave Aranda

The Best Football Games of 2016

It has felt like forever since Alabama knocked off Clemson for the national title. But worry not college football aficionados, it’s getting closer. Spring games are in the books and in just a couple short months, preview magazines will be hitting the shelves. Before we know it we’ll be settling in for another exciting college football season.

I recently listed the best ten games each conference has to offer in 2016, but here I’ve whittled those down to the ten best games to look forward to in 2016. Fans have been looking forward to some of these games for two or three years. Do those games look as exciting now as they did when they were scheduled? Let’s find out.

10. LSU at Wisconsin (Saturday, September 3)

We begin the Top 10 Games of 2016 with the first of four games from the opening weekend (3:30 pm est, ABC). If that doesn’t get you as riled up for college football as spring game attendance numbers do then I don’t know what will. This is the one game where the off-field storylines probably over-shadow the on-field ones. Dave Aranda just became LSU’s defensive coordinator after leaving the same position at Wisconsin. Not only is an SEC team playing north of the Mason-Dixon line a rare occurrence, it’s an SEC team playing a virtual road game, in Wisconsin. Oh, and it’s at Lambeau Field. There have been just a few classic games played there.

9. Oklahoma at Houston (Saturday, September 3)

Oklahoma is getting a lot more than it bargained for, because I’m guessing they didn’t think Houston would be a top 15-type team when this game was announced a couple years ago. A Sooner defense that replaces half of its starters, including its best pass-rushers, will get to face dynamic Houston QB Greg Ward Jr. On the other side, Houston will be starting four new defensive backs and gets to try and limit Heisman contender Baker Mayfield. Expect points, lots of them (ABC, Noon est). And the loser? They leave opening weekend not being able to afford another loss the rest of the way if they want to make the Playoff.

8. Florida State at Ole Miss (Monday, September 5)

The Seminoles and the Rebels doesn’t have quite the same ring to it that some of the other games on this list do, but it could be just as important. The Seminoles will be ranked highly to begin the year, but a loss on opening weekend would leave them no margin for error the rest of the season. The Rebels probably missed their golden opportunity a season ago, but their bid to dispel that notion can get off to a strong start with a win here. A few years of great recruiting classes mean Ole Miss can match up with Florida State talent wise. The Rebels also have a quarterback returning in Chad Kelly,who led the Rebels to wins over Alabama and LSU last year. On an opening weekend that features plenty of intriguing match-ups, this stand-alone game on Labor Day night is the perfect ending.

7. Ohio State at Oklahoma (Saturday, September 17)

These two teams have scheduled tough out-of-conference contests for years, but this one raises the bar. It’s hard to say this game has lost some of its luster when both teams could be ranked in the top 10. As it sits now however, there is a lot more uncertainty between these two programs than fans would have hoped when the game was announced. Having to replace key starters on defense, it will be difficult for Oklahoma to replicate the success it had last year, and it’s hard to know what to expect out of a Buckeye team that brings back just six starting players. All of these factors keep this game from being top five on this list. Both of these teams easily reload, and with Heisman contenders at quarterback in Baker Mayfield and J.T. Barrett, this match-up is still one of the best non-conferences games we’ll see all year (7:30 pm est on Fox).

6. Baylor at Oklahoma (Saturday, November 12)

The shift in the Big 12 has been amazing the past couple years, with Baylor vs. TCU being the game. Oklahoma took back some of that hold with its Big 12 championship last year. With TCU’s season looking much more like a rebuild, it leaves the Bears and Sooners to battle as the conference favorites. Both teams should have potent offenses, and with questionable defenses, this game should provide an entertaining four hours even if both teams aren’t still in the playoff race.

5. Stanford at Notre Dame (Saturday, October 15)

The Cardinal and Irish played an instant classic last season that Stanford won narrowly, 38-36. It was effectively a playoff elimination game and could be again this season. Stanford will have to replace Kevin Hogan, who won 36 games under center for the Cardinal. That won’t be a huge disadvantage in a 2016 Pac-12 conference that sees a lot of teams having to replace their starting signal-caller as well. Because of this, Stanford will have its sights set on another Pac-12 championship, but this mid-season non-conference game will determine if the conference title or a playoff spot is the Cardinal’s ceiling. On the other side, Notre Dame will be looking to make up for an opportunity lost last year when they came so close to making the Playoff, even after suffering a multitude of injuries at key spots. This game will be their best chance to put a statement win on their resume (7:30 pm est, NBC).

4. Alabama vs. USC (Saturday, September 3)

This is one of the aforementioned games that fans have looked forward to for years, since the day it was announced. Though the Trojans haven’t exactly lived up to their end of the bargain in terms of making this a matchup of playoff contenders, the game is still reason enough to clear your schedule on the season’s opening Saturday night. Alabama may have gotten back to the top of the college football mountain, but the defense was still vulnerable against playmakers, which USC has. Both teams will have a new starting quarterback under center and what a way to break them in. Need one more reason to tune in? These storied programs haven’t played in over 30 years, so who knows when we’ll see it again (ABC at 8:00 pm est).

3. Clemson at Florida State (Saturday, October 29)

It’s the annual “which team is the ACC’s playoff contender” game. Florida State has every starter returning on offense, most important of which is electric running back Dalvin Cook. Clemson has the Heisman favorite in quarterback Deshaun Watson. Both offenses should be great, but this one will be decided by whose defense makes enough plays. The Seminoles’ stop unit has been underwhelming the last couple years considering the talent on hand, and the Tigers’ have to replace five defensive starters who left early for the NFL draft.

2. Michigan at Ohio State (Saturday, November 26)

“The Game” finally returned to national prominence thanks to Jim Harbaugh’s arrival in Ann Arbor. Harbaugh had Michigan ahead of schedule in 2015, but the Buckeyes showed they still had a ways to go, laying the smack down on the Wolverines to end each team’s regular season. This year looks to be different, however. Michigan might be ranked in the top five while Ohio State has just six starters returning. With the Wolverine’s trying to make a playoff push, will it be Urban Meyer’s squad in the spoiler role?

1. Alabama at LSU (Saturday, November 5)

For almost a decade, the winner of this game became an instant front-runner for a spot in the BCS Championship Game or College Football Playoff. This year will be no different. After answering questions about their dynasty potentially falling, the Crimson Tide will have few naysayers this season. With the cupboard as full as it always is for Nick Saban, he’ll be expected to lead Alabama to the Playoff once again. On the other side is LSU, which feels like it’s coming off a disappointing season, even after finishing 10-3. With the most starters in the nation returning (spurring a likely top 10 pre-season ranking), this is Les Miles chance to over-take Saban and get back atop the SEC.

Feature image courtesy Matt Velazquez

SEC Links: Ramblin’ Down That Coaches Highway (and a Bit of Lagniappe)

This week in SEC Links we will focus on coaches, their opinions, their salaries, and their preparation techniques. Also, we will take a look at the buzz around a former NFL legend who could, possibly, be jumping into the coaching ranks.

Bret Bielema (known as “Bert” here at Campus Pressbox) has never been one to shy away from controversial topics and he is keeping true to form this off-season. Bielema is gathering information toward, potentially, allowing undrafted college underclassmen to return to their alma maters if they are not chosen in the NFL draft, which is held each spring. The initial idea strikes me as a good one but there are potholes in that road back to State U as this piece from NFL.com outlines. It will be very interesting to see if this notion takes legs and winds up in the lap of the inept NCAA.

Just down the road in Oxford, MS, the Laremy Tunsil debacle and the oncoming NCAA issues continue to take center stage. As gifted an athlete as Tunsil is, you wonder if Ole Miss head coach Hugh Freeze rues the day he signed Laremy to a scholarship. Freeze now finds himself right square in the middle of this swirling chaos and is taking steps to try and protect himself, and the Rebel program, from potential problems in the event that he is deposed in the lawsuit between Tunsil and his stepfather.

Jump on I-55 and head further down the SEC coaching highway to Baton Rouge, LA where new LSU defensive coordinator, Dave Aranda, is installing his system. Aranda is switching schemes from a 4-3 to a 3-4. Summertime is upon us and this is a critical season in terms of a football team bonding, developing chemistry, and working hard toward the dogs days of August, when fall camp begins. LSU is, most-assuredly, loaded with talent on the defensive side of the ball, and how well Aranda is able to get those defenders on the same page and playing together, will be critical to the success of the Tigers this fall.

We then take I-10 east, to I-65 north, to I-85 north, and find ourselves on the Plains of East Alabama, where the success of the 2016 edition of the Auburn Tigers will depend, to an enormous degree, on the play of these Tigers’ quarterback. John Franklin III is very much in the center of that conversation, and guess who has been tutoring Franklin as of late? Unless you were already privy to this information, I’ll bet you didn’t guess Michael Vick. Well, boys and girls, that’s exactly who, along with his personal quarterbacks coach, Lionel Bozeman, has been tutoring JF III. Does Gus know about this? The thick plottens.

Yes, SEC coaches, be they assistants, or the top dog, have a mind-numbing array of moving parts to piece together in building a football team, and the approaching summer months are no exception. Now, with the whole satellite camp scramble in full swing, it gets even crazier.

So, just how well do the of SEC head men get compensated? Stan Chrapowicki, of Bleacher Report, has taken the SEC head football coaches salaries, and combined them with the compensation of their fellow head basketball coaches, to reveal what SEC schools are shucking out on their revenue-producing sports’ CEOs. The results might surprise you.

I recently alluded to the insane wages that FBS football coaches demand, and when you couple that with the basketball salaries, it becomes truly eye-popping. One could feed a small country with that kind of money. When you throw in how poorly paid the professors of these “student-athletes” are, something is badly amiss.

Lastly, there is a, now retired, NFL quarterback with time on his hands. Will he be joining the staff of an SEC team soon? Hmmmm… Andrew Olson, of Saturday Down South, pries into the matter. I, personally, love the idea. Let’s wait impatiently and see what happens.

110 days remain until Vanderbilt and South Carolina kick it off on Thursday, September 1.

Photo taken by Bird himself

Teams Poised to Improve in 2016

Every year there are teams that under- or over-perform compared to expectations. Sometimes teams are just bad. Whether it’s injuries, a bad record in close games, or an unusually tough schedule, some fan bases find themselves thinking it’s just not their team’s year. It often sets up for that team to exceed expectations the following year. The following teams are ones which I think should improve their win-loss record drastically from last year’s finish.

Maryland Terrapins

The Terrapins were about as bad as any Power 5 team this side of Kansas last year. They only left the field victorious three times and one of those was against Richmond. There are reasons for hope entering 2016 however, and by hope I mean they should at least be competitive in most games. Maryland only returns 12 starters, but one of them is the starting quarterback. Perry Hills isn’t going to be confused for Peyton Manning (ok, pre-2015 Peyton Manning), but he rushed for over 90 yards in four games and gives the offense a dual-threat quarterback that can keep defenses off-balance. Then there’s the schedule. The Terps played Bowling Green and West Virginia in the non-conference last year, two offenses they didn’t have a chance of keeping up with. The 2016 non-conference slate consists of Howard, Florida International, and Central Florida and crossover games against Wisconsin and Iowa have been replaced with much more manageable foes in Purdue and Nebraska. Maryland won’t be battling for a conference championship anytime soon, but with any luck it can find its way to a bowl game this fall.

LSU Tigers

LSU certainly isn’t going to surprise anybody this upcoming season, especially when you consider they are likely to find themselves in the top ten of the pre-season polls. I still think they are a team that could be much better than they were last year. I don’t think the Tigers were as good as their 9-3 regular season record would indicate and to increase their win total by even two games in 2016 would be a significant improvement over the 2015 squad. LSU only has four true road games and most importantly, none of those are in Tuscaloosa. If Brandon Harris can hold onto the starting job, he should improve on a season where he threw only six interceptions. Part of the reason was he spent most of his time handing off to Leonard Fournette, but if Harris can be even an average passer it will make the LSU offense exponentially better. Then there’s the defense, one which looked nothing like the Tigers’ stop unit we’ve come to expect. The Tigers’ run defense was gashed in their three losses. That should change this year with the arrival of new defensive coordinator Dave Aranda. Aranda led a Wisconsin Badgers defense that has been near the top statistically each of the past few seasons. With 18 starters returning, it’s no wonder the Bayou Bengals are on the short list of title favorites in 2016.

Louisville Cardinals

The Cardinals finished a disappointing 7-5 last year after some had pegged them as an ACC sleeper. That was shot down early as the ‘Ville started off 0-3 before rattling off some wins through the easier part of its schedule. The opening game loss against Auburn looks bad, but they only lost by a field goal to both Houston and Clemson, who each finished as top ten teams. The Cardinals could never really get consistent QB play, and that will be the key to a turnaround. Lamar Jackson is dynamic, if not the passer Bobby Petrino is accustomed to. Petrino will lead a 2016 team that returns 18 starters, tied for most in the country. Jackson’s dual-threat ability combined with a defense that should be one of the best in the country provide a team that has the talent to hang with almost anyone on a given Saturday. But the passing game will need to show more consistency if that improvement is going to show up in the win column. With a schedule that will have them favored in at least nine of their games, there are no excuses.

SMU Mustangs

Chad Morris had plenty of success as the offensive coordinator for Clemson, but after leaving to become SMU’s head coach. He had to watch the Tigers march all the way to the title game while enduring a 2-10 2015 season in Dallas. The Mustangs have a lot of things working in their favor heading into this season however. It usually takes time for a new coach to get things going, so the team should see improvement across the board just from being in Morris’ system for the second year. This is especially the case for an offense that returns nine starters, including quarterback Matt Davis. Davis won’t be throwing for 500 yards a game anytime soon, but after the opener against Baylor, he didn’t have a single game with multiple interceptions the rest of the year. The offense should keep the team in games in 2016, when the schedule lightens up quite a bit. Not only did the Mustangs face Baylor and TCU in the non-conference last year, they also had conference games against Houston, Temple, Navy, and Memphis, all teams who were much better than anyone could have anticipated. All six of those teams are on the schedule again this year but Temple, Navy, Memphis, and TCU will all likely be worse than their 2015 editions. With improvements for the Mustangs and the rest of the conference falling back to the pack, we may see Chad Morris’ squad bowling in just his second year on the job.

Featured image courtesy John McStravick

Dave Aranda, LSU and Wisconsin – Another Storyline for the Opening Weekend of College Football

Last week I wrote about one of the marquee games that are to be played on the opening weekend of the 2016 college football season. It’s hard to beat a storyline that includes Alabama, USC and Lane Kiffin. We’re talking about two of the most revered college football programs of all-time and an individual personality in Lane Kiffin that seems to be folklore.

While the Alabama versus USC game is one that should be required viewing for all college football fans, there are other great games that will be worth your attention. One of those undercard games will be played at Lambeau Field when LSU takes on Wisconsin.

When these teams from the SEC and Big Ten square off, it will mark only the fourth time that Lambeau Field has hosted a college football game. The three previous games all involved St. Norbert College with the most recent game having been played on October 29, 1960. Needless to say, this game between LSU and Wisconsin will be the highest profile college football game ever played at Lambeau.

Wisconsin is no stranger to opening their season with a high profile game. 2016 marks the third consecutive season where the Badgers begin their season against an SEC opponent. In 2015 they opened the season against Alabama and their opening weekend game in 2014 was against LSU. The Badgers lost both of those games, but they are no stranger to facing the best to open their season.

In 2016, the Badgers will be in search of the high level running back production that they had become accustomed to and this means that Corey Clement must chew up yards as he gallops into the end zone. Wisconsin will also be replacing Joel Stave at quarterback. Stave was the epitome of inconsistent while leading the Badgers.

If the running back and quarterback positions weren’t enough for Wisconsin to figure out, they will also be breaking in a new defensive coordinator, Justin Wilcox. Wilcox is no stranger to high profile games since he spent the previous three seasons as the defensive coordinator for the USC Trojans. His reward for accepting the Wisconsin job will be devising a game plan to slow Leonard Fournette down. Welcome to Wisconsin, Justin Wilcox.

As for the coach that Wilcox is replacing, well, this is where the storyline becomes interesting. Former Badger defensive coordinator, Dave Aranda, will be starting his first season as defensive coordinator for LSU.

See? That Alabama versus USC game doesn’t have a monopoly on intriguing storylines.

Aranda is one of the up and coming young coaches in all of college football. Before bolting for the Bayou, Dave Aranda spent three seasons in Madison and one at Utah St. While working his way up the coaching ladder, he has had success while appearing on some of the biggest stages in college football. His Utah St. defense helped orchestra upset wins over Utah and Toledo and his defensive input helped guide Wisconsin to a record of 30-10 during his three seasons at Wisconsin.

And now, to open the 2016 season, he faces a Wisconsin program that helped put his name on the map.

This game doesn’t have the same kind of soap opera intrigue as Alabama versus USC. Aranda doesn’t boast a Lane Kiffin type of personality and he’s never been left at the airport. When Wisconsin plays LSU at Lambeau field it will be all about football. The game is at one of the most historic NFL stadiums, it will be for early SEC versus Big Ten bragging rights and it has an intriguing coaching matchup.

March Madness is all well and good, but it’s time for college football.

E-mail Seth at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @SethMerenbloom.


*Featured image courtesy of commons.wikimedia.org

Wisconsin Badgers Early Football Preview

Depending on how you look at it, 2015 was either a solid campaign for the Wisconsin Badgers as they knocked off the University of Southern California 23-21 in the National Funding Holiday Bowl and managed to win 10 games or a disappointment as they still fell short of advancing to the Big Ten Championship, even with a soft schedule. As a Badger myself, I’m happy we did as well especially given the way the offensive line and running game underachieved but felt the team wasted a golden opportunity and it stings knowing how close we were, losing to Iowa and Northwestern by a combined 10 points. Now, the Badgers face a Herculean schedule with a different signal caller under center and a new defensive coordinator. Here is an early preview of the upcoming season.

2016 Schedule

Next to Ohio State, the Badgers are the only team that plays its three non-conference games versus teams that made bowl game appearances last year. Right off the bat, like the past two seasons, Wisconsin opens its schedule with its toughest opponent of the year with an SEC powerhouse as they take on LSU at the hallowed grounds of Lambeau Field. To add to the drama, former defensive coordinator Dave Aranda will be roaming the sidelines for the Tigers. After this epic battle, Wisconsin takes on an Akron team that won the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl and a Georgia State team that played in the AutoNation Cure Bowl.

Then, the real fun comes in with one of the most brutal first half conference schedules ever assembled in recent memory. For the first time since 2012, the Badgers will play rival Michigan State in the Big Ten opener at East Lansing then take a road trip to the Big House versus Michigan, host Ohio State, venture into Iowa and play against Nebraska in Madison, all in six weeks. Wisconsin will be lucky to get through this part with a .500 record and if they can get past rivals Northwestern and Minnesota in the second half, it would make for a very respectable 8-4 record.

Offense

Last season was a transition year for the offensive line as they had a number of growing pains and struggled at times but now with a year of experience, the team hopes the line can regain its dominant form. The only big loss was left tackle Tyler Marz with center Dan Voltz returning and Michael Deiter likely starting at left guard. UW-Stevens Point transfer Ryan Ramczyk looks like the favorite to replace Marz with Beau Benzschawel at right guard and Jacob Maxwell at right tackle. Micah Kapoi also played at left guard a lot last year as well Walker Williams at
right and you can’t forget about redshirt freshman Jon Dietzen either.

At quarterback, despite his inconsistency, Joel Stave was still able to win a school-record 31 games and with him now gone, the Badgers have a big void to fill. Fortunately, they have a player in fifth-year senior Bart Houston, who has shown he has the ability to win games as evidenced in a 24-13 win over Illinois. He played the last three quarters after Stave suffered a head injury and completed 22 of 33 passes for 232 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions. Some of the Badger faithful even felt he should have replaced Stave.

At the same time, the pressure is on Houston to deliver because there aren’t very many other options to choose from. Those slim options include southpaw redshirt freshman Alex Hornibrook, who was committed to Pittsburgh before coach Paul Chryst took the Wisconsin job, true freshman Kare’ Lyles and walk-on redshirt senior Thad Armstrong. Hornibrook received great reviews last spring and could push Houston for the starting job but experience favors the latter as Hornibrook has yet to see college game action.

But no matter who starts, the question remains, can the passing attack replicate or surpass the production of Stave to compliment its rushing game? If anyone can help, it’s Chryst, who was the offensive coordinator from 2005-2011, overseeing some of the most prolific offenses in program history. If Wisconsin wants to slay the Goliaths on its schedule, it’s imperative the passing game is reliable.

In addition to a new quarterback, the Wisconsin Badgers have questions at wide receiver. Last season, Alex Erickson was named to first-team All-Big Ten as he hauled in 77 passes for 978 yards. He is no longer there and next in line is Rob Wheelwright, who showed flashes of potential as he caught 32 balls for 416 yards during the same span, while Jazz Peavy finished with 20 receptions for 268 yards. Can these two receivers turn into a potent 1-2 punch and can the reserves (Reggie Love, George Rushing, and Krenwick Sanders) be a trustworthy commodity as they should get increased opportunities?

Last, the Badgers failed to produce an 1,000 yard running back for the first time since 2005 and Corey Clement, who was once seen as a premier college football back, now has to prove he can stay healthy for a season.

Defense

While the offense deals with a new quarterback, the defense will have to get used to a new face calling the shots with Justin Wilcox taking over the defensive coordinator position after Aranda left for LSU. In Aranda’s last season at Wisconsin, the defense led the Big Ten in scoring defense (13.7 points per game) and total defense (268.5 yards per game) so Wilcox definitely has a tall order to fill. It will be interesting to see how the defense, which will remain a 3-4 alignment, responds to Wilcox’s tutelage because he had success as the defensive coordinator at Boise State, Tennessee and Washington. At the same time, some his defenses in the past have been just subpar like last season at USC (65th overall) even with some five-star recruits.

Next, the defensive line is essentially the same as last year with just the loss of end Jake Keefer. Sophomore Olive Sagapolu will likely be the nose with junior Chikwe Obasih and senior Arthur Goldberg joining him at defensive end while key bench contributers will be tackle Conor Sheehy along with Alec James and Zander Neuville, both of whom can rush the passer.

When most teams lose the Big Ten linebacker of the year, it is almost inevitable that hardships will ensue, but the linebacking corps for the Badgers remains the strength of the defense. Joe Schobert has now departed following an incredible senior season in which he led the team in tackles for loss (19.5) and sacks (9.5) but there is a ton of depth and a wealth of talent leftover that can make this group just as good if not better than last year’s. The primary weapon will be senior Vince Biegel, who ranked second on the team in tackles for loss (14) and sacks (eight) and third in tackles (66). Joining him on the outside will probably be junior Jack Cichy, who can also play inside and showed how good he can be when he had three sacks in one drive against USC in the Holiday Bowl, though we shouldn’t forget about T.J. Watt, who received more reps in the second part of last season. On the inside, sophomores Chris Orr and T.J. Edwards, who led the team in tackles (84) and was named to the to the Football Writers Association of America freshmen All-America team, should be much improved after impressive freshmen campaigns.

However, the tail-end of the defense could be its Achilles heel as three out of four starting defensive backs have moved on including the versatile Tanner McEvoy, who led the team with six interceptions, Darious Hillary and leader Michael Caputo at safety. To add to the dilemma, the remaining trio of safeties (D’Cota Dixon, Leo Musso and Arrington Farrar) combined for just 28 tackles. The only good news is they return starting cornerback Sojourn Shelton and a host of other players who gained some experience last season, including corners Derrick Tindal and Natrell Jamerson and added six defensive backs in its 2016 recruiting class.

Bottom Line

Even with a favorable schedule, the Badgers still dropped two conference games last season, proving the Big Ten is a tough conference to play. Now, with an exponentially harder schedule to go along with new coaches and player personnel on each side of the ball, it could be a long, weary road to travel this year. To be honest, I only see the Badgers winning seven or eight games and will be extremely lucky if they earn nine wins.

Wisconsin Season Review

Coming into the 2015 season, the Wisconsin Badgers were expected by numerous pundits to win the Big Ten West division and earn another trip to the Big Ten Championship to exact revenge for their 59-0 defeat in last season’s title game against Ohio State.

Instead, the Badgers plans went awry due to untimely injuries, most notably a sports hernia injury to lead back Cory Clement and were thwarted with heartbreaking losses in the waning seconds to Iowa and Northwestern. Furthermore, after leading the Big Ten in rushing in 2014, they fell to tenth overall in the conference and failed to produce a 1,000 yard rusher for the first time in 11 years. Yes, they were mathematically in contention all season for the division but were never the frontrunners as expected as they finished third in the West with a 9-3 record. For most programs, accumulating nine victories would be a formidable accomplishment, especially for a first-year coach, but the season left something to be desired.

Now, Wisconsin heads to San Diego for the Holiday Bowl against University of Southern California with an opportunity to end the season on a high note and reach ten wins. Quarterback Joel Stave would definitely want to nab one more victory, making him the Badgers’ record-holder for career wins.

Offense: C+
On paper, nothing significant stands out for this offensively challenged, imbalanced team. The Badgers ranked 58th in passing, 97th in rushing and 84th in total offense. Stave was the model of inconsistency as he threw 11 interceptions to 10 touchdowns, including two picks returned for touchdowns. At the same time, the Badgers severely lacked a home-run hitting, dynamic playmaker in the backfield and Wisconsin’s offensive line couldn’t stay healthy, using seven different starting combinations in 12 games and losing three starters including center Dan Voltz for the year to a knee injury. Also, there were injuries to tight end Austin Traylor and wide receiver Rob Wheelwright, so over half of the original starting offensive lineup didn’t play for long periods during this season. Even so, Wisconsin still has yet to beat a winning team this season (the team’s nine wins have come against schools with a combined 33-75 record). The lone bright spot it seemed was first-team all-Big Ten receiver Alex Erickson, who hauled in 72 catches, more than double what anybody else has on the team, catching five or more passes in eight games. His 924 receiving yards ranked third in the league.

Defense: A
Though the offense sputtered and failed to live up to expectations, the defense was consistently reliable and kept the team in games. The defense ranked No. 1 nationally in scoring defense and No. 3 in total defense, and was especially strong against the run, holding opponents to a conference best 98 yards per game. One of the nation’s most impressive defensive units, this group proved to be a very talented corps with explosive playmaking abilities. Senior Joe Schobert led the defense with 76 tackles on the season, 18.5 for a loss, and 9.5 sacks, in addition to accumulating an interception and five forced fumbles, tying a school record for most fumbles forced this season. Schobert, alongside leading tackler T.J. Edwards (80 tackles) and Vince Biegel (64 tackles) formed a strong, underrated group of linebackers. Dave Aranda’s last three defenses at Wisconsin have ranked in top 7 nationally in total defense and scoring defense and he has never had more than seven returning starters on his defenses. In fact, since Aranda arrived three years ago, the Badgers have given up an average of 17 points per game, second best in the nation.

Special Teams: D+
With the exception of Rafeal Gaglianone’s game-winning field goal against Nebraska and a punt return for a touchdown versus Northwestern that was controversially called back, special teams were a liability for Wisconsin all year long. Its kickoff and punt coverage, kickoff return and field goal numbers (62.5%, 12th in Big Ten, 107th overall) all fall near the bottom of Big Ten schools. Punter Drew Meyer was 12th in the conference for yards per punt at 39.6.

Coaching: B
Even after 12 games, it still is relatively unknown where this Badgers team stands because there are two ways to look at it. Wisconsin could very well have finished 11-1 and be headed to Pasadena for the Rose Bowl, which many fans expected to happen but Wisconsin’s losses to Iowa and Northwestern came after the Badgers did not score from the goal line late in each contest. Yet, it’s a players game and you can’t blame Paul Chryst and his staff for being unable to pull out victories in close games and with all the injuries and inconsistent offense the Badgers had, 9-3 isn’t so bad. The other way to look at it is that Chryst achieved very little despite going 9-3 this past regular season as Wisconsin did not play any of the East Division powerhouses this season, just barely beat Nebraska with a field goal and struggled mightily with a Maryland team that won one league game all season. Needless to say, it’s not overly impressive and the team could very well be 6-win program, which is unacceptable by Wisconsin standards, first year or not. With all these things in mind, the Badgers still managed to make a decent bowl against a storied USC program and for that, they deserve a solid grade.

Image courtesy of Steve Shupe

Wisconsin: Coaching a Turnaround

If you’re a Badgers fan, you likely went to bed the night of October 4 wondering just how bad this 2014 season would spiral out of control. Just over a month earlier Wisconsin had let what looked like an impressive season-opening win over LSU slip through their hands. And now they had just begun the Big Ten slate with an unsettling road loss to Northwestern. Nearly two months later, and after seven straight wins, falling asleep these days tends to be with a smile on your face. The Badgers are the Big Ten Conference’s West Division champs after taking care of its three biggest challenges by winning three consecutive trophy games to set up a showdown with Ohio State in Indianapolis. While Melvin Gordon has taken most, if not all, of the headlines during that stretch, what has been lost in the shuffle is the credit due to the work done on the sidelines. Let’s break it down:

Head Coach Gary Andersen: Andersen’s poise in the face of adversity cannot be overstated. He never seemed to waiver in his demeanor, even when “boo’s” were raining down from Badger Nation as UW fell behind overmatched Illinois 14-7 in the first half. Andersen stayed the course, showing supreme confidence in his coordinators and players, as well as his program. It worked out, too. Everyone, from quarterbacks Joel Stave and Tanner McEvoy to the team manager, bought into the plan that a two-quarterback system could – and would – work for the Badgers. The same impact was seen in his faith that when healthy, this defense could be as good statistically as its predecessor. While momentum built with lopsided wins over Maryland, Rutgers, and Purdue, critics were still clamoring and waiting for the second-year coach to nail down a signature win. He appeared to do that against a then-higher ranked Nebraska, erasing a 14-point first half deficit and watching his Heisman candidate break a FBS record in a matchup with another. He stacked up significant wins by upending rivals Iowa and Minnesota to further hammer home his point that this team was and is fully capable of being a perennial presence atop the Big Ten standings. The lone criticism that remains, is that of his preseason decision to make McEvoy the starter over Stave, simply for the sake of having a dual-threat weapon rather than because McEvoy truly beat out the incumbent. Reports after the fact fully indicated that Stave’s bout with the “yips” was a direct result of learning he had lost the job, not in fact the reason he was replaced. Seeing what the struggles under center caused in the two losses, it only makes you wonder where this team might be had the position been handled differently.

Offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig: While we’re on the topic of offense and the quarterback position, Andersen fully entrusted the decision in who to start, who to play, when to play them, and how to use them to Ludwig. At first it appeared that was uncertain on the answers to all of these questions, yet to his credit, each game saw growth and development in its implementation. No longer are the two redshirt juniors exchanging whole series, but rather, we see McEvoy spell Stave for a specific play – based on circumstance or down-and-distance. And the other frustrations that cultivated from curious playcalling seemed to dissipate  over time. No longer is McEvoy coming in to throw the ball, or Stave removed when he appears to be in a good rhythm. In fact, Stave has begun to make plays with his arm that have allowed Gordon to take advantage of bigger holes and fewer obstacles in the run game. The lone criticism that remains is the decision to run McEvoy on the field with a spread look and only fullback Derek Watt in the backfield. Knowing his limitations throwing and lining him up without Gordon or Corey Clement, makes it easy for opposing defenses to key on a single ball carrier. In fact, that played out over the course of the Minnesota game. The question now is what variation is left for the B1G Championship game?

Defensive coordinator Dave Aranda: The biggest goal set forth for this defense prior to the season was to take advantage of faster players and become more efficient in its blitz packages. It’s safe to say it is working. The 2013 Badgers registered 25 sacks over 13 games, down from 31 the year prior. A similar drop off exists with tackles for loss, going from 77 to 64 the past two seasons. With a dozen games in the books in 2014, Aranda’s smaller and faster unit already has 35 sacks and 80 TFL’s. This is a big reason why the Badgers were the No. 1 ranked defense for a couple weeks late in the season. Aranda has shown a propensity for dialing up the right blitz package, the biggest factor to his team’s success has been the health. Losing Warren Herring and Konrad Zagzebski against LSU, and Marcus Trotter against Northwestern, had dramatic impacts on those contests. Since those three have returned, the Wisconsin defense has been aggressive to the ball and controlled the line of scrimmage over the seven game win streak.

This staff, while supremely confident, has proven it also has the ability to adapt and develop based on the situation at hand. It has four more quarters to show it belongs atop the Big Ten, sending Badger Nation to bed with CFP dreams.

Badger Bites: The biggest storyline entering the Big Ten Championship will be the quarterback play, especially for Ohio State after the loss of Heisman candidate quarterback JT Barrett. Urban Meyer will no doubt have his team ready, especially on defense where the Buckeyes will present the most athletic and physical defense Wisconsin has seen this season. They will need every bit of it to stop the momentum built up by the UW run game. The game will likely come down to what, if any, passing game can be produced by either team.

Prediction: Wisconsin 27, Ohio State 17

Starting to Come Together

Following the events of this past weekend, both in Madison and around the country, let’s first acknowledge one fact: a win over LSU would look pretty good right about now! That said, it would also make the loss at Northwestern way more frustrating than it already is.
Now, on to the extremely impressive win over Maryland, in which two major accomplishments stood out. Defensively that was possibly one of the most dominant efforts in recent memories, and it was nice to finally see a few deep balls completed on offense (with a nod to better play calling by Andy Ludwig with respect to using both quarterbacks).
The defense essentially pitched its first shutout of the season, with Maryland scoring in the final minutes against the Badgers second unit. Prior to the season, all the talk was about upgraded speed and aggressiveness, aspects that were seen sporadically through the season’s first six games. The speed stymied a vaunted Terrapins offense that had been averaging 35 points a game and with big-play weapons all over.
It’s most obvious impact is in the linebacker corps, which strung out every option and stretch play Maryland attempted. Joe Schobert, Marcus Trotter, Derek Landisch, and Vince Biegel were perfect in their execution of disciplined, assignment-oriented football. Brown and running back Brandon Ross, the pitch option, continually found themselves one-on-one with a UW linebacker when they attempted to turn up field. That foursome finished with 21 tackles, 6.5 for loss, two sacks, a forced fumble and its recovery.
Gary AndersenSaturday’s effort also marked the best tackling day, by far, this season. UW was aggressive to the ball collectively, but even more impressive with open field stops. If you want a perfect example, take a look at back-to-back plays by Trotter and Landisch early in the second quarter. Facing a 1st-and-20 due to two penalties, Trotter sniffs out a run play, shoots the gap, and drops Ross for a three-yard loss. Then on second down, Maryland dialed up what looked like a promising screen pass to Ross. However, Landisch fought off the block of an offensive lineman to split the convoy and drop Ross for yet another loss.
It marked the first of seven straight three-and-outs forced by the Wisconsin defense – a stretch that lasted deep into the fourth quarter – and set the tone for holding the Terrapins to 17 yards rushing prior to their final scoring drive late in the fourth.
Along the line, UW welcomed back DT Warren Herring, but it was the speed of young ends like Chikwe Obasih that kept quarterback C.J. Brown off-balance and on the run when trying to the throw the football. As a result, Brown threw wildly all day, and failed to connect with then-Big Ten receptions leader Stefon Diggs until their final offensive play of the game.
The final thought regarding the defense was the aggressive nature with which coordinator Dave Aranda came after Maryland. It was highlighted by numerous calls for safety Michael Caputo to blitz off the edge. The fourth-year junior didn’t record a sack or tackle for loss, but he did force the Terrapin offense into making quicker decisions that typically led incomplete passes. Caputo seemed to have a perfectly-timed feel for the snap of the ball, which might be the result of an extra week of preparation. That said, expect more of this to be dialed up by Aranda and Co.
On the offensive side, coordinator Andy Ludwig seemed to have a better game-plan for how to use his vastly different quarterbacks, especially in regards to Tanner McEvoy. Though Joel Stave still took a majority of the snaps, McEvoy was able use his running ability to pick up two first downs and score on a ridiculous 60-yard play that was aided by tremendous blocks downfield. That touchdown and one of the first downs, came on perfectly executed read-option calls, with the other first down picked up on a scramble during a broken pass play.
As for Stave, he attempted twice as many passes as McEvoy – which is the minimum it should be from this point on – and finished 9-of-15 with two touchdowns. More importantly, Stave and the Badgers finally were able to complete a deep pass. Prior to Saturday, the longest reception of the season by a wide receiver was 25 yards from McEvoy to Alex Erickson against Western Illinois, though the catch was actually made inside of 20 yards from scrimmage (tight end Sam Arneson does have two catches of more than 30 yards this season). Stave and Erickson hooked up for a 43-yard pass-and-catch on the Badgers third play from scrimmage, setting up Melvin Gordon’s first of three touchdowns. Then in the third quarter, the two again connected on a 47-yard strike for a touchdown, making it 31-0. In both instances, Erickson made plays on the football with coverage nearby, an ability that’s been missing from the UW receivers.
In its first ever game against Maryland, the Badgers clicked in all three phases, are healthier than prior to their bye week, and seem to be finding their identity with the toughest stretch of its schedule closing in from the horizon.
Badger Bites (Weekly nuggets about Wisconsin’s next opponent): Both Wisconsin and Rutgers need a win to become bowl eligible when they meet for the first time ever. Rutgers is in the middle of a rough stretch of their schedule. They lost back-to-back games at Ohio State and Nebraska by an average of 28.5 points. In those two losses, the Scarlet Knights defense has allowed more than 600 yards on the ground. They will have another stiff test against Melvin Gordon and the Badgers, as well as the following week against the nation’s leading rusher, Tevin Coleman of Indiana. Coach Kyle Flood is likely hoping a Homecoming weekend crowd will energize his team to spring the upset.

Rainy Day Disposition

A great many storylines developed from the Badgers Big Ten opening 20-14 loss to Northwestern at the “House of Horrors” that is Ryan Field in Evanston. It’s a place that Wisconsin has now lost four straight games at dating back to 1999. In the more immediate present, Saturday’s setback removes UW from any chance at a spot in the College Football Playoff, leaves some work to be done to win the Big Ten West, and more importantly, fully exposed numerous unanswered questions about this year’s team.
Playmakers?
Wisconsin has one: Melvin Gordon. And not that anyone would normally look at the Wildcats roster and peg as many or more than that, but as is the story most often in sports, Northwestern had more players make plays and ultimately won the game. In Wisconsin’s case, Gordon was the only player producing significant and timely plays on a regular basis. He amassed a career-high 259 yards, including three carries of 30-plus yards and a touchdown. But the rest of the offense has failed to step up:

  • Falling just short of calling it a quarterback controversy, the Badgers have a definite quarterback problem. Tanner McEvoy was gifted a support boost by Western Illinois’ will-stop-Gordon-at-all-costs game plan that got people off his back with a solid throwing game. It would not hold up as McEvoy returned to his inconsistent ways. Minus the numbers against the Leathernecks, McEvoy is 32-of-68 (47%) for 346 yards in four games. Even worse, he’s has a 2:1 interception to touchdown ratio. The situation didn’t improve much when Joel Stave returned to the position he manned for the previous two years. Back from a month-long reprieve, the result of a mental and/or physical hiccup to throwing the ball accurately, there was bound to be some rust. What didn’t help was the mental rust he displayed in throwing three interceptions. The first came deep in the Badgers own territory and one play later turned into a game-winning touchdown. The second – and worst – of the three was an ill-advised, forced throw into the endzone on 1st-and-goal from the three. Rather than just throw it away or run out-of-bounds, Stave attempted to fire a strike into a barely existent window to Alex Erickson while on the run. He was picked off by Godwin Igwebuike, ending what should have been multiple tries to cross the goalline and narrow the gap to six nearly two full minutes sooner than they did. And the last one, again to Igwebuike, took the final wind out the sails for any potential Badgers comeback.
  • The wide receiver position, whose general absence we focused on last week, proved to be even less of a threat against a relatively average Big Ten defense. Yes, Kenzel Doe caught four passes, including a touchdown, to become the first receiver besides Erickson to record multiple catches in a single game. Doe and Erickson combined for eight receptions and 79 yards. Not exactly game-changing numbers. What was even more glaringly evident against Northwestern, was the group’s inability to gain separation from NU defensive backs and/or make a play on the ball. Far too often Saturday the Wildcats were able bat down or intercept balls that winning teams with playmakers at WR typically come away with. Not the best of comparisons, but think back to the deep ball Stave threw in stride to George Rushing in the third quarter that got knocked down near the goalline. In previous seasons, that’s likely a ball caught by Jared Abbrederis. Now there is no question it’s hard to compare the freshman to one of the program’s all-time greats, however, the comparison stands in that even this teams veterans are unable to break away deep, leaving coordinator Andy Ludwig with the likes of Rushing as his best option to stretch the field vertically.
  • Almost as frustrating in the first four weeks of the season has been the lack of steady play along the offensive line. This veteran group has dominated at times. This veteran group has vastly underperformed at times. There is no question that Melvin Gordon doesn’t set a career-high for yards rushing without the line – and tight ends – sealing blocks and opening holes for him. Unlike great lines of the past, though, there isn’t that standout guy whom the staff and backs would run behind in a crucial situation. Need two yards on third-and-one, follow Joe Thomas. Got to punch to it from the one for the win, Gabe Carimi or Kevin Zeitler or Travis Frederick will lead the way. There just isn’t that sense with this year’s group, which is odd considering the likes of a Rob Havenstein or a Kyle Costigan. The later made some great pulling blocks Saturday, unfortunately, his biggest contribution to the loss was a questionable holding call that negated a Gordon run to the 2. Instead, Wisconsin punted a few plays later. As for the former, Havenstein, his pass protection was quite woeful. Too often it was the senior’s man who put pressure on Stave or batted down a McEvoy throw. More production in the trenches will be mandatory for the Badgers to have any chance at a West division title.

Fundamentals?

  • Timely injuries have not been kind to the defensive unit in Wisconsin’s two losses. First it was lineman Warren Herring and Konrad Zagzebski in the first half against LSU, then it was linebacker Marcus Trotter and nickel corner Devin Gaulden leaving Ryan Field in the first quarter. It left coordinator Dave Aranda with less instinctual and far less disciplined backups trying to halt Northwestern’s spread offense. Michael Trotter replaced his brother at inside backer and finished with just four tackles. The Trotters were not alone in their inability to stop the ‘Cats. Missed tackles mounted at all levels of the unit in attempts to bring down Northwestern freshman Justin Jackson. Arm tackles, diving attempts, flails and swipes, all came up empty. A far cry from breaking down and wrapping up. Much of the problem came with linebackers and lineman getting caught up in traffic and not filling their appropriate gaps. Or plays like the 16-yard reverse by Miles Shuler for the game-winning score that saw Joe Schobert fail to set the edge and get blocked by quarterback Trevor Siemian. Making matters worse, Wisconsin’s once boastful secondary was unsuccessful in holding on to two interceptions and allowed too many crucial pass conversions. Sound, physical defense is what built successful teams in Wisconsin’s past. Game-long gaps in the Big Ten schedule will make for a long season.

Coaching creativity?

  • Normally I don’t get after too many coaching decisions, but watching the offense come and go Saturday, there is one item I wanted to address. Please stop calling bubble screens. They simply don’t work with this offense and this personnel against Big Ten defenses. I fully understand looking for easy throws to get McEvoy and/or Stave some confidence and a rhythm. That failed to happen Saturday, and in fact, Wisconsin struggled on several occasions to complete this simple pass. The few moments when it was complete, it went for zero or negative yards. Yes, they will work to get positive yards against teams like Bowling Green and South Florida, but there are far better athletes across the ball now. It’s rarely been a staple of success at UW, and this year’s crop of receivers is certainly not capable of turning these into big plays.

This article, like this team and most fans right now, is a bit discombobulated. There are far more questions than easy answers heading into a home game with Illinois. It’s unfortunate, but once again, it’s how the games have unfolded.
Badger Bites (Weekly nuggets about Wisconsin’s next opponent): I’ll keep this short as there isn’t much to say about Illinois (3-3, 0-2). They are coming off a home loss to Purdue. Enough said. They are allowing 33 points a game, and should provide the Badgers with a nice opportunity to find some offensive consistency with the quarterback and receiver positions. It is likely that both Stave and McEvoy will see time on the Camp Randall field, which is more of what everyone expected back at the start of fall camp. Expect more pressure to be put on the receiving corps, as well. Prediction: Wisconsin 33, Illinois 6.

New Badgers Math Equals Defensive Success

Herring
Look at any national, regional, or conference college football season preview, and you’ll see this combination of numbers when looking at the Wisconsin Badgers defense: 3/8.
Yes, technically Gary Andersen’s squad said goodbye to eight starters from 2013 and returns just three this fall.
However, in today’s game of various defensive alignments and packages, those numbers don’t quite tell the whole story heading into the 2014 season.
First, to be clear, Wisconsin did lose eight significant pieces from a defensive unit that finished in the top ten nationally in total defense (7th), scoring defense (6th), rushing yards allowed (5th), and third-down conversation percentage (4th). Those players were lineman Beau Allen, Ethan Hemer and Pat Muldoon, linebackers Chris Borland, Conor O’Neill, Ethan Armstron and Brendan Kelly, and safety Dezmen Southward. That group accounted for 341 tackles, 16 sacks, nine forced turnovers, and one All-American honor.
It’s no secret that few programs have had to recover from that sort of production loss, and the ones that have done so successfully are even more rare.
The key to the Badgers’ ability to be that program stands in the significance of the number 3. It represents a strong secondary with safety Michael Caputo and cornerbacks Sojourn Shelton and Darius Hillary. Looking at their numbers, this group accounted for 129 tackles and seven forced turnovers (Shelton led the team with four in his freshman season last year).
The experience and strength of that trio on the back end will allow defensive coordinator Dave Aranda to be even more assertive with his already aggressive blitzing schemes. Yet it’s the group within the front seven of Wisconsin’s 3-4 defense that will debunk the simple math of “eight starters lost” while executing that forceful approach.
It begins with nose guard Warren Herring. The 6-3, 294-pound redshirt senior has played in 35 career games over the past three seasons, including one start last fall against BYU. A surprisingly mobile space eater, Herring demonstrated his ability to impact a game, especially when the lights shine brightest. In games against Ohio State, BYU, and Iowa, he tallied seven tackles and 2.5 sacks. Behind Herring is nothing but inexperience, with sophomore Arthur Goldberg filling the primary backup role. Goldberg has yet to step on the collegiate gridiron in game action.
The next line of defense is a linebacker corps that is not unfamiliar to the Camp Randall Stadium turf. On the inside are seniors Derek Landisch and Marcus Trotter. Landisch boasts the most experience, with 38 career appearances and three starts, two coming in 2013. The 6-0, 230-pounder registered 33 tackles and a sack, and is the top returning tackler amongst the linebackers. Trotter was able to amass 23 tackles – two for loss – despite struggling to get action behind All-American Chris Borland. That being said, Trotter has one start in his 14 games played. Twin brother Michael Trotter will offer additional support up the middle, though he’ll be adjusting to a shift from safety – a position where he was announced as the starter three times in 2012.
On the outside, Andersen is working closely to mold juniors Vince Biegel and Joe Schobert into a pair of versatile run stoppers and pass-coverage stalwarts. That task should be made easier by the fact that they have three starts in 33 combined games of experience. From a production standpoint, Biegel and Schobert were pretty even and consistent in 2014, with 25 and 24 tackles, respectively. They got after the quarterback with three total sacks (5.5 TFL’s) and performed in coverage with five pass break ups.
Those five will need to be solid, as once again the depth falls off to names you will need to look up should they find their way to the field. Inside backers Leon Jacobs, Ben Ruechel and D’Cota Dixon, along with outside guys Jesse Hayes, T.J. Edwards, and Jack Cichy collectively total 22 game appearances – most coming on special teams or in garbage time.
Finally, there is relatively unheralded defensive end Konrad Zagzebski. With four career starts and three last season, the 6-3, 277-pound redshirt senior possesses the most starts of the expected starters in the front seven. Zagzebski produced 19 tackles with two for loss in 2013. Utilizing that experience will be crucial considering Andersen and Aranda will likely turn to fresh-faced redshirt freshman Chikwe Obasih and Alec James to man the other defensive end position.
Getting back to that number “3” again. Just three starters return, and all are in the defensive secondary. However, Badgers math tells me that the expected starters in the front seven are not new to the task of performing in front of 80,000 fans. They have started a dozen games – a number that bumps up to 15 when you include Michael Trotter – and have all contributed in some fashion, whether on defense or special teams, for each of the past three seasons.
A lot will be made of this unit and its inexperience prior to kickoff in Houston against LSU, and while I agree there remain points of uncertainty, there also exists more proven commodities than some will lead on to.
Let’s just hope the equation that’s produced national numbers for UW remains constant.