Wisconsin Badgers (2000: 9-4)Posted: Monday August 06, 2001 2:33 PM
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Coach and programLast year, the defending Rose Bowl-champion Badgers were a consensus preseason top 10 pick and were poised to dominate the Big Ten and earn a BCS bowl berth. But on the eve of their season opener against Western Michigan, Madison media outlets began buzzing about NCAA violations within the football program.
Badger athletic officials called a news conference just hours before kickoff and announced a series of suspensions that would sideline numerous starters and top reserves from one to three games. Players had admitted receiving illegal discounts on shoes and clothing at the Shoe Box, a local sporting goods store owned and operated by a longtime Badger booster.
The Badgers went on to lose three of their first four in the conference and were in danger of becoming road kill on the Big Ten highway.
But the season turned in a 13-7 victory over a feisty Iowa squad, and then the Badger offense really hit its stride, posting almost 40 points per game in the final three games. Their fifth-place conference record earned the Badgers a slot in the Sun Bowl, where they pulled out a one-point victory over UCLA to put a bright red bow on an otherwise unsatisfying season.
Once the 2000 Badgers got rolling, the amazing talent on display proved that their preseason hype was indeed deserved. But much of that talent must be replaced if this year’s team hopes to reach the lofty expectations that now accompany Wisconsin football.
With only 10 starters returning -- the fewest of his career -- this will be Alvarez’s toughest challenge since he took over the program in 1990.
OffenseIn their Sun Bowl preparations last year, the coaches began tinkering with a spread offense, which was used effectively in spring practice as well. Although he doesn’t want to tip his hand too much, Alvarez said, “The players liked it [during bowl preparations], and it adds a bit to our offense. We’ll continue to experiment with it.”
Alvarez has made it clear in the off-season that there will be no controversy -- his starter will be junior Brooks Bollinger (6-2, 204). His 17-3 record as a starter over the last two years makes it clear why he will get the nod over sophomore Jim Sorgi (6-5, 178), who led the team to comeback wins at Michigan State and Indiana after Bollinger left with injuries.
With Ron Dayne (New York Giants) and Michael Bennett (Minnesota Vikings) going in the first round in the NFL draft in back-to-back years, Wisconsin is compiling something of a reputation as a mini-Tailback U. But this year’s backfield will at least start the season as a three-headed monster because sophomore heir-apparent Broderick Williams (6-0, 207) blew out his knee in spring practice and will miss the season.
The biggest of the backs is Tyron Griffin (6-0, 231), who might be able the team’s secret weapon if it indeed uses the spread offense more frequently. The other two backs sharing time will be Jerone Pettus (5-9, 176) and Anthony Davis (5-8, 185).
The Wisconsin offensive line has produced a 1,000-yard rusher in the last eight seasons, a Big Ten record. They will be hard-pressed to keep that streak alive this year, and not only because it’s unlikely that one back will get enough carries to reach 1,000 yards.
This year the line will be anchored by its only returning starters, cousins Al Johnson (6-4, 280), a junior center, and Ben Johnson (6-7, 319), a junior slated for left tackle.
With Chris Chambers (Miami Dolphins) now going deep in the NFL, the Badgers are going to have to find some more targets if the wide-open offense is going to be successful. The star of the show should be junior flanker Lee Evans (5-11, 190), whose 33 catches and 634 yards were second on the team last year.
Senior Nick Davis (5-10, 183) is better known as a dynamic kick returner, but he’ll be asked to make his mark as a split end this year.
Defense and special teamsAny discussion of the Badger defensive line must begin with Wendell Bryant (6-4, 293). The senior shared the Big Ten Defensive Lineman-of-the-Year honors with Minnesota’s Karon Riley last year and was a semifinalist for the Lombardi Award.
Senior Nick Griesen (6-2, 234) led the Big Ten with 146 tackles last year and he will spearhead the charge at inside linebacker. Griesen was chosen first-team All-Big Ten by the media, led the team with 14 tackles for loss and tied with Bryant for the sack lead with six.
The secondary took a huge hit with the departure of Thorpe Award winner Jamar Fletcher, the nation’s fourth-leading interceptor with seven, and steady-tackling safety Jason Doering. That’s a lot of talent to lose, but senior Mike Echols (5-10, 171) is back at corner and is a preseason All-Big Ten pick.
Punter Stemke’s booming leg and directional punting ability kept opposing offenses from getting decent field position -- in fact, his 42.5 yard net average was a Big Ten record. Sophomore Kirk Munden (5-9, 172) is the leading candidate to replace Stemke, but he didn’t secure the job with his performance in the spring.
Bottom lineThe Badgers catch a scheduling break by missing Northwestern and Purdue this year and getting the two Michigan schools at home. They will have their hands full with non-conference foes Virginia and Oregon -- the Ducks will have revenge on their minds as the Badgers head to Eugene -- and back-to-back games at Ohio State and Illinois in October could prove troublesome.
Wisconsin’s fortunes will likely be decided on how quickly the young players progress, especially the offensive line and the running backs. The defense should be able to keep the Badgers in games, especially if Bryant, Echols and Griesen live up to expectations. The kicking game could cause problems, but any team with Alvarez as coach and two strong quarterbacks has a great shot at a bowl game.