Coach: Barry Alvarez (16th season, 108-70-4) 2004 record: 9-3 (Lost to Georgia in Outback Bowl) Big Ten finish: 6-2 (3rd) 2004 I-A offensive rankings: Rushing: 52nd (160.9 ypg) Passing: 103rd (167.2 ypg) 2004 I-A defensive rankings: Rushing: 31st (124.0 ypg) Passing: 7th (167.3 ypg)
at North Carolina
at Penn State
Depth Chart: Offense
5 returning starters in red
Depth Chart: Defense
4 returning starters in red
Marcus Randle El
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Moments after his team's late-season implosion was complete, Wisconsin coach Barry Alvarez turned P.R. maven and rationalized that his football team had overachieved in 2004.
It was a surprising perspective regarding a team that won its first nine games and had the inside track to the Rose Bowl, before losing its final three contests by a combined score of 103-42. It would result in an interesting offseason debate in UW country.
Parties on both sides of the debate can agree on one point, however. If the underclassmen slated to replace 13 departed senior starters don't surpass expectations this fall, the '05 season could be painful.
UW must rebuild its entire defensive line and three-fifths of the offensive line, and has unresolved issues at quarterback, in the secondary and at linebacker. "We have a lot of guys who are trying to establish themselves, which is good," Alvarez said. "I think that's very healthy. Yet, we have a lot of veterans, guys who have played a lot of snaps. That's a good mixture."
But will it be a winning mixture? Or will the Badgers, who failed to finish above .500 in the Big Ten from 2000-03, slip back into the lower half of the standings?
The most critical offseason change brought the return of assistant Paul Chryst, who coached UW's tight ends in 2002 and served as the offensive coordinator at Oregon State for the past two seasons. Chryst's title is co-offensive coordinator and tight ends coach, but after only a few spring practices it was obvious the offense will have his signature. Chryst was especially vocal and hands-on with the quarterbacks, whose performance has suffered of late. John Stocco started all 12 games last season and enters preseason camp as the starter, but nothing is certain.
Sophomore backup Tyler Donovan, a gifted runner, raised his stock during spring practice and now appears to be the only player capable of pushing Stocco early in 2005. Stocco's assets are arm strength, poise and pocket presence. He must show dramatic improvement on the deep ball and improve his footwork, which causes his throws to sail at times. Three players must touch the ball often -- tailback Brian Calhoun, tight end Owen Daniels and wide receiver Brandon Williams.
A year ago, UW's dominant front four was the foundation of a unit that was nearly impregnable for the first nine games of the season. Today, the line remains the biggest question mark facing defensive coordinator Bret Bielema.
All four starters are gone, and of the projected starters, only end Jamal Cooper appears to be capable of getting into the backfield consistently. The biggest area of concern is the middle, where tackles Nick Hayden and Justin Ostrowski combined for just six stops in 2004.
The outlook in the secondary is equally unsettled. The lone returning starter, senior cornerback Brett Bell, suffered a torn ACL in the offseason. Although he is projected to return in time for the opener, nothing is guaranteed. The staff loves redshirt freshman Allen Langford at one corner and believes senior Levonne Rowan is ready to fulfill his potential on the other side. Junior strong safety Johnny White hits like a linebacker but is uneven against the pass. Junior free safety Roderick Rogers is largely untested, which best summarizes UW's entire defense.
UW's most consistent performer is sophomore punter Ken DeBauche, who seems destined for all-conference honors. Although Mike Allen struggled last season (12-of-21 field goal attempts), he remained UW's best option on field goals. Taylor Mehlhaff will battle walk-on Adam Schober to take over for the departed Allen. Whoever wins the job must provide more consistency. Both return units need makeovers.
In 2004, UW's staff decided to rely on a stout defense and improved special teams. That formula worked for nine weeks as the defense allowed just 82 points and the Badgers went 9-0 before falling apart down the stretch.
Such a plan won't work this season. Given that seven starters are gone from the defense, it is foolish for anyone to think that the unit will be as dominant. That means UW's offense will have to be more productive than it was a year ago when the Badgers averaged 20.8 points per game. For that to happen, the quarterback play must be more consistent and Calhoun must stay healthy and get the ball in a variety of ways. Several unknown players must surprise on defense, too. If those scenarios fail to unfold, the Badgers could have trouble qualifying for a bowl game.