Print and Go Back ESPN.com: Big Ten [Print without images]

Wednesday, January 2, 2013
Badgers still see rosy future

By Brian Bennett

PASADENA, Calif. -- After he'd finished all his Rose Bowl postgame media obligations, Barry Alvarez took one last stroll through the Wisconsin locker room to talk to some players. He embraced redshirt freshman Derek Watt and told him, "You're going to be the best fullback in America next year."

Another year, another painful Pasadena memory for the Badgers, who lost 20-14 to Stanford on New Year's Day. But as Alvarez scanned that locker room, he saw enough returning talent to think that Wisconsin can get to a fourth straight Granddaddy.

"We have a very good nucleus coming back next year, a lot of juniors, and they have a chance to be an outstanding squad again next year," he said.

Of course, Alvarez heads back to his athletic director's office today, and it will be up to new coach Gary Andersen to mold that talent for another run. Andersen should have a pretty good idea of the team's strengths and weaknesses after attending some of Wisconsin's bowl practices and then watching Tuesday's game from the sidelines.

Yet transitioning to another new coaching staff might remain the team's biggest challenge for 2013. Andersen has retained running backs coach Thomas Hammock and defensive backs coach Ben Strickland and may keep offensive line coach Bart Miller to oversee tight ends. But other than that, the staff will be entirely new, with two new coordinators. In that regard, it will be like last year's offseason, when Wisconsin lost six assistants, then dumped offensive line coach Mike Markuson for Miller after Week 2.

"Obviously, it's frustrating to lose coaches and have to learn a new offense," quarterback Curt Phillips said. "But I think our guys responded well to that this year. We didn't start off the season like we would like, but I thought rebounded really well and hopefully we can do the same thing next year."

Andersen's job should be made easier by a wealth of experience returning. The Badgers' two-deep against Stanford included nine seniors, but two of them -- Phillips and defensive end Brendan Kelly -- will return for a sixth year next season, assuming the NCAA does the right thing with Phillips' waiver request. Four juniors -- center Travis Frederick, linebacker Chris Borland, receiver Jared Abbrederis and guard Ryan Groy -- submitted paperwork to the NFL draft advisory board, but Borland told ESPN.com after the game that he was definitely returning to school.

Wisconsin returns its top eight players on the defensive line and all but one offensive lineman (Ricky Wagner) if Frederick and Groy stick around. After battling quarterback depth issues for a couple of years, the Badgers should have their fiercest offseason battle there in some time. Phillips, Joel Stave and Danny O'Brien all started games this year and will return, while redshirt freshman Bart Houston should be healthy and thrown into the mix and Jon Budmayr will give it another go.

The team's biggest star, touchdown king Montee Ball, is moving on to collect paychecks. But there's little worry about the running back position, not with James White back as a senior and budding superstar Melvin Gordon should start receiving many more carries.

The two biggest concerns are at wide receiver, where Wisconsin never established a another threat to complement Abbrederis, and in the secondary, which loses three starters. But the Badgers will have a senior-laden team and one that former coach Bret Bielema predicted would be his best before he bolted for Arkansas.

"We're going to have one of the biggest senior classes coming out next year since I've been around," departing senior cornerback Devin Smith said. "A lot of underclassmen were big contributors this year. So I think it's going to be a great team with a chance to get back here next year."

Of course, the Badgers won't benefit from Ohio State being on probation next season, and they'll have to go to Columbus. But they trade Nebraska and Michigan State as crossover division games for Iowa and Northwestern, the latter of which is at Camp Randall Stadium. They will have to solve the riddle of why they lost so many close games in 2012 (six by a combined 25 points).

"We've got to look at it as a learning experience," Frederick said, "and try to figure out what was the same in all those games and what troubled us."

If they can do that, make a successful transition and deal with the monster Urban Meyer is building, then maybe Wisconsin will go for a fourth Rose petal in four years. The Big Ten and the rest of America might not like that, as the Badgers run the risk of becoming college football's version of the 1990 Buffalo Bills.

Ball is the only player to score a touchdown in three straight Rose Bowls, but he understood that his legacy will also include those three straight losses.

"Hopefully, they can come here next year and win it," he said, "which was something I couldn't do."