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Thursday, March 29, 2012
Take Two: Danny O'Brien's B1G impact

By Brian Bennett and Adam Rittenberg

Big Ten bloggers Adam Rittenberg and Brian Bennett will occasionally give their takes on a burning question facing the league. We'll both have strong opinions, but not necessarily the same view. We'll let you decide which blogger is right.

Today's Take Two topic is this: What will be the impact on the Big Ten race from quarterback Danny O'Brien's transfer to Wisconsin?

Take 1: Brian Bennett

In my mind, O'Brien's arrival makes Wisconsin the Leaders Division favorite by a slightly more convincing margin. I already was leaning toward the Badgers repeating as division champs, mostly because Ohio State is ineligible to go to the Big Ten title game, because Penn State and Illinois are going through coaching transitions, because Purdue hasn't shown enough consistency yet and because Indiana is, well, Indiana.

Danny O'Brien will have two seasons of eligibility remaining at Wisconsin.
The biggest concern about Bret Bielema's team, of course, was the quarterback spot, which lacked any real experience and was decimated by injuries. O'Brien immediately stabilizes the position and gives the Badgers a veteran presence. But while it's tempting to compare O'Brien's arrival to that of Russell Wilson -- after all, they are both ACC graduate transfers -- we shouldn't. Wilson was already a highly successful, well-decorated quarterback before he ever got to Madison; O'Brien has a career completion percentage of under 57 percent, and he threw 10 interceptions with only seven touchdowns last year. Yeah, you can blame the coaching and system change at Maryland for O'Brien's decline as a sophomore, but isn't he going to go through the same thing at Wisconsin?

Still, O'Brien doesn't have to be Davey O'Brien to help the Badgers win, as they just need someone to make a few plays downfield and manage the game while Montee Ball and the offensive line rule the day. Penn State was also heavily in the mix for O'Brien, but I feel like Matthew McGloin or one of the other quarterbacks can produce similar results in Bill O'Brien's offense, which will likely feature a lot of manageable throws to tight ends and receivers. So the Nittany Lions won't be much worse off. Yet there's no question that the defending Leaders champions just got a little bit better.

Take 2: Adam Rittenberg

Wisconsin might have been the default Leaders division favorite even if O'Brien didn't come to Madison, but his arrival solidifies the Badgers as the team to beat in a year where Ohio State can't reach Indianapolis. The quarterback situation would have been dire in 2011 had Russell Wilson not come aboard, and it might have been just as tenuous this season as only two healthy signal-callers (Joe Brennan and Joel Stave) are practicing right now in spring ball. Wisconsin faces some important road tests in 2012, namely trips to Nebraska, Penn State and Purdue. Having a quarterback with some experience on board could really help.

I agree that it's unfair and likely unrealistic to expect O'Brien to be just like Wilson. They're different players with different skill sets at different stages in their careers. Wilson had a stronger résumé, but unlike O'Brien, he didn't go through a coaching change at his previous stop. Although O'Brien could be closer to the quarterback we saw in 2010, I don't expect him to be the game-changer Wilson was in 2011. I do expect him to be just as sharp in picking up Wisconsin's offense. It would be a surprise if he didn't claim the starting job, just as it would have been a shock had Wilson not led the offense last fall.

Wisconsin can win the Leaders division in 2012 without a first-team All-Big Ten, NCAA record-setting quarterback. It likely could not win the division with a major liability under center. The Badgers have other areas to address, namely identifying a No. 2 and No. 3 wide receiver, an elite pass-rusher and more speed on the defensive side. But their biggest issue was quarterback depth, which is now addressed. O'Brien really could have helped Penn State as well, as the Lions might return the best defense in the division but need much more from their offensive field general. While you might be right about McGloin, I really think O'Brien would have given Penn State a little bit more in Bill O'Brien's offense. Although Penn State should by no means be counted out in the division, Wisconsin will enter the fall as the clear favorite.