NCF Nation: Scott Tolzien

B1G takes control of coaching carousel

December, 31, 2014
A coaching change can be crippling. It also can be transformative.

Three Big Ten teams reached coaching crossroads in recent weeks, two by choice -- although most would agree Michigan had no choice but to part ways with Brady Hoke -- and one by surprise. Michigan, Nebraska and Wisconsin all faced key choices but ones which they had some degree of control, which cannot be understated.

[+] EnlargeJim Harbaugh
Bob Stanton/USA TODAY SportsEven though he hasn't coached a game in Ann Arbor yet, Michigan fans would give a thumbs up to the Jim Harbaugh hire.
 There are so many elements where Big Ten teams lack control. They can't move their campuses to areas with higher concentrations of elite recruits. They can't, or more accurately, won't scrap a philosophy where multiple sports matter. They won't plummet academic standards for prospective athletes.

We're in the middle of the Big Ten's meat grinder bowl lineup, filled with virtual road games and Top 25 opponents. That isn't changing, either.

But Big Ten teams still control who they hire to lead their programs. Perhaps more important, they control how they go about pursuing new coaches: How aggressive they are, how much money they invest, how high they aim, whether or not they settle for candidates.

Big Ten fans have answers to these questions, and they should be pleased with the outcomes.

Michigan hit a grand slam in hiring Jim Harbaugh. The Wolverines, striking out on the field but always possessing the ability to swing for the fences, boldly pursued and ultimately landed their top prize. Harbaugh is a proven winner at both the college and pro levels who galvanizes both recruits and fans. There are no sure things in college football -- Michigan's 11-year Big Ten title drought is living proof of that -- but Harbaugh is the right man at the right time to get the Wolverines on track again. He's an immediate upgrade.

Mike Riley and Paul Chryst aren't regarded as grand slams, at least not yet. But both are the types of hires to move their respective programs forward.

Riley has two primary qualities that should serve him well as Bo Pelini's replacement at Nebraska. First, there are no conduct concerns with him. Conduct matters to Nebraskans, and rightfully so. Pelini's post-firing rant to players made it clear that a toxic relationship with administrators played a bigger role than his team's big-game flops against Wisconsin, Ohio State and others. Riley gets along with everyone. There's no baggage.

Riley and his assistants also bring experience that should serve them well in Lincoln. Pelini's penchant for hiring or promoting younger coaches sparked criticism during his tenure. The grumbling didn't abate when Nebraska repeatedly allowed touchdowns on its opponents' first possession or made curious calls, like ditching Ameer Abdullah on the final two plays of a promising fourth-quarter drive in Saturday's National University Holiday Bowl loss to USC. Nebraska's shortcomings aren't all on the staff, but Riley provides a foundation of consistency and player development that should work at a program that has underachieved in the Big Ten.

Chryst didn't light it up in three years at Pittsburgh (19-19), but he brings several traits that Wisconsin sorely needs, chiefly a knack for developing quarterbacks. Everyone remembers what Russell Wilson did in 2011, Chryst's final year as Wisconsin's offensive coordinator. But Chryst's work with Wilson's predecessor, Scott Tolzien, stands out more. Unlike Wilson, Tolzien was nowhere near the finished product when he arrived at Wisconsin. Tolzien ended his career as an All-Big Ten selection.

If Chryst fosters similar improvement with veteran Joel Stave or another Wisconsin quarterback, the Badgers will be in great shape to defend their Big Ten West Division crown in 2015.

Chryst's deep roots at Wisconsin also serve the program well. He understands the academic standards, which are some of the most rigorous in the Big Ten and which played a significant role in driving Gary Andersen to Oregon State. He knows how the Badgers must recruit and play to reach their peak. And unlike Andersen and Bret Bielema, Chryst won't be lured away easily. A program shouldn't hire a coach simply because he sees it as a destination, but Wisconsin is too good to keep having coaches leave. In Chryst, Wisconsin lands a strong coach who can address the program's primary weakness and wants to stick around for a while.

As written here earlier this month, the Big Ten must effectively control the controllable elements -- in this case, the coaching carousel -- to upgrade its overall product. At first blush, Michigan, Nebraska and Wisconsin have done so. Nebraska and Wisconsin acted quickly and decisively, while Michigan pulled off the biggest coaching coup in recent Big Ten history by plucking Harbaugh from a San Francisco 49ers organization that he restored to excellence.

The remaining Big Ten postseason performances, particularly Ohio State's in a Playoff semifinal against Alabama, ultimately will determine whether the league succeeded or failed in 2014.

But the Big Ten already has notched a huge win. Its coaching ranks are better than they were when December began.

The new leading men should help the Big Ten in its ultimate pursuit: reclaiming control of the national discussion.
There was slightly more suspense about Wisconsin's quarterback situation this summer than last, but not much.

Much like with Russell Wilson in 2011, the Badgers didn't bring in graduate transfer Danny O'Brien to sit on the bench. O'Brien, who started 17 games for Maryland the past two seasons before transferring to Wisconsin in June, will lead the Badgers' offense in the season opener Sept. 1 against Northern Iowa.

Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema made the announcement via Twitter, writing, "want everyone to know we are going to start Danny O'Brien in our opener against UNI." Bielema added that senior Curt Phillips and redshirt freshman Joel Stave both "had great camps as well." Joe Brennan, who dropped on the depth chart in recent weeks, is expected to transfer and is no longer listed on the team roster.

The 6-foot-3, 223-pound O'Brien completed 342 of 603 passes for 4,086 yards with 29 touchdowns and 18 interceptions in two seasons at Maryland. He has two years of eligibility left for Wisconsin because he redshirted in 2009 and graduated in three years.

Despite O'Brien's struggles in 2011 in Randy Edsall's offense, he remains the best option for Wisconsin, which has had significant depth issues at quarterback since Scott Tolzien left. Although Phillips' recovery from multiple knee surgeries is admirable and Stave, a former walk-on, made some strides, neither man has the potential of O'Brien, the ACC Rookie of the Year in 2010.

O'Brien stood out during camp, throwing only one interception during the first two weeks. He's not Wilson and likely won't make the same type of impact as his predecessor, but he has made a smooth transition to an offense that brings back some very good weapons, led by running back Montee Ball, a Heisman Trophy finalist.

Will O'Brien be pushed during the next two years? Sure. But he's got the top job and the chance to hang onto it for the next 25 games or so.
Wisconsin fans probably got worried Monday when photos of Danny O'Brien wearing a Penn State jacket at the Nittany Lions' first spring practice began making their way around the Web.

Sure, O'Brien reportedly had enjoyed his visit to Madison during the weekend. But the coveted quarterback transfer was making his second trip to Penn State, which could show off a straight-from-the-NFL offense and a head coach (Bill O'Brien) who weeks ago was working with Tom Brady. Two SEC schools, Ole Miss and Vanderbilt, also reportedly courted Danny O'Brien, the former ACC Rookie of the Year who decided to transfer from Maryland last month.

[+] EnlargeDanny O'Brien
AP Photo/Patrick SemanskyBecause quarterback Danny O'Brien graduated from Maryland in three years, he will have two seasons of eligibility at Wisconsin and can play right away.
Wisconsin had some nice selling points, too: a Heisman Trophy candidate at running back (Montee Ball), Big Ten championship trophies from the past two seasons and a path to success blazed by another ACC quarterback transfer (Russell Wilson). A great college town doesn't hurt, either.

But the Badgers also had four new offensive assistants, including a new coordinator in Matt Canada. They were losing three stud offensive linemen and their top receiver. Despite three consecutive seasons of 10 or more wins, Wisconsin looked like a team that might have missed its window to become elite.

In many ways, Wisconsin had a tougher sell with O'Brien than it had with Wilson.

But by late Wednesday morning, any angst in Badger Land had turned to joy. Danny O'Brien will suit up for Wisconsin in 2012 and 2013.

O'Brien's decision to pick Wisconsin, first reported by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, confirms that the program remains an appealing destination despite the recent transition. While some fans grumbled when Wisconsin signed only 12 recruits in February, they were giddy about the 13th. Penn State would have been a good spot for O'Brien. He had ties to Vanderbilt because of head coach James Franklin. But in the end, he picked Wisconsin.

Here's coach Bret Bielema's statement on O'Brien's arrival:
"We're excited that Danny has chosen to attend Wisconsin. The first thing we did when we were aware of Danny's interest was to try and find out what type of person he was and if he would fit into our program. From our dealings with him and all the things I have heard from those who have been around him, he is a tremendous person and has great character. He had a fantastic visit and our current players who met him came away impressed. Having graduated from Maryland in just three years, you know right away that he is a smart kid.
"As is the case with any player who joins our program, we have not promised Danny anything other than the chance to come in during the fall and compete for the starting quarterback position. He understands that and is excited for that opportunity."

There are several reasons Wisconsin should be excited -- and relieved -- about this addition.

  • The Badgers currently have only two healthy quarterbacks practicing this spring in Joe Brennan and Joel Stave. Neither is proven in games, and there are no guarantees that Jon Budmayr or Curt Phillips will be ready to go by the fall. People will mock Wisconsin for taking another transfer quarterback, but there's really no downside to this move. The Badgers need bodies at the quarterback spot.
  • Unlike Wilson, who played just one spectacular season in Madison, O'Brien has two years of eligibility left after graduating from Maryland in three years. Should he win the starting job this fall, he could establish some continuity under center for a team that hasn't had too much of it in recent years other than Scott Tolzien.
  • Wilson said former Badgers offensive coordinator Paul Chryst was a huge factor in his decision to pick Wisconsin over Auburn. Chryst is no longer at UW, leaving to become Pitt's head coach, but the program still appealed to O'Brien more than several others in major conferences. This is a good sign.

Moments after Wisconsin announced O'Brien's signing, Ball tweeted, "Danny o brien just messaged me this.. 'let's do this'... it shall be done then my man. #wiscONsin."

The Wilson comparisons will be made, but it's unfair to expect O'Brien to replicate what No. 16 did. O'Brien is a different type of quarterback. He struggled last season at Maryland, throwing 10 interceptions and seven touchdowns and lost his starting job. Then again, he thrived for the Terrapins under coach Ralph Friedgen in 2010 and didn't seem to fit with what the new staff wanted.

O'Brien clearly is a sharp guy, and he'll have to quickly absorb Wisconsin's offense, as Wilson did last summer.

It's not ideal for a program to take graduate quarterback transfers in consecutive years. But injuries have left Wisconsin in a unique position, and you can't fault the coaches for trying to get better. The Badgers undoubtedly got better Wednesday.

While it's unlikely the transfer trend continues beyond 2013, Wisconsin has reached a level of success as a program that when it needs personnel help, it can attract good prospects.
It was a move Wisconsin had to make, but one that didn't come without risk.

Any addition to a successful operation, especially at a position of unique importance, has the potential to create friction and factions. Wisconsin attributes its success in the past two decades to the Wisconsin Way, a blue-collar approach rooted in player development, fundamental play and hard work. The majority of Wisconsin recruits fit the philosophy. Some, like in all programs, do not.

[+] EnlargeWilson
AP Photo/Andy ManisWilson threw 33 TDs last season en route to being Big Ten Quarterback of the Year for the Badgers.
Wisconsin couldn't afford having Russell Wilson fall into the latter category.

The Badgers knew they were getting a great talent in Wilson at a position -- quarterback -- of great need. But the other things, the intangibles that can take a team to another level or tear it apart, left some reasonable doubt.

No more.

"I don't think it could have possibly gone smoother," Wisconsin linebacker Chris Borland said. "He's the exact guy we try to recruit, character-wise. He's the type of player you can afford to bring in as a transfer. ...

"He fits in here so well."

Granted, it's easy to say all this after watching Wilson in his first four games as a Badger.

He has completed 75.8 percent of his passes for 1,136 yards with 11 touchdowns and one interception. He ranks second nationally in quarterback rating (218.4) and 17th in total offense (311 ypg). He's on pace to throw 32 touchdown passes, 11 more than the team record. He has added a new layer to an offense -- Wilson averages 12 yards per pass attempt, tops among FBS quarterbacks with at least 50 attempts -- that shattered almost every team record in 2010. He has fans and media types brainstorming the last time Wisconsin had a quarterback like this.

But it's Wilson's personality, not his passing, that has his teammates and coaches buzzing.

"You knew of him as a player, but when you're around him every day, you understand the work he puts into it and the way he approaches things," offensive coordinator Paul Chryst said. "He comes every day looking to get better. He's competitive, he's hard on himself, works great with the players. All the things you can’t necessarily see on film are areas he excels in."

Wilson has been a national story for months, as many chronicled his route from NC State to minor league baseball and eventually to Wisconsin. His hot start has thrust him -- fairly or unfairly -- into the Heisman Trophy discussion a year after another quarterback transfer (Auburn's Cam Newton) won the award.

"One area that's surprised me is how well he handles all that's going on around him," Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema said. "People are starting to talk Heisman, people are trying to anoint him king, and all he does is keep giving credit to his players, his coaches, his offensive line, his daily preparation. And it’s not a false bravado, either. ...

"Russell Wilson believes in what makes you good every day, and that’s what he sticks to."

Wilson didn't have to change himself to adapt to his new team. By all accounts, he approached football the same way at NC State.

If anything, his visit to Madison in May brought some relief. The Wisconsin players weren't foreign to him.

"I noticed the high character here," he said, "the work ethic here."

The big questions after Wilson arrived on campus in July surrounded how he'd fit in with the Wisconsin offense and how fast he could make the adjustment. Although Chryst adapts to his players, he runs a proven scheme that piled up points and yards in 2010.

The if-it-ain't-broke adage applied, no matter who was playing quarterback.

"No doubts at all about how good he was," running back Montee Ball said of Wilson, "but I had a little doubt about how fast he was going to pick up the playbook."

By the end of camp, "he was teaching us," Ball said.

"It's what I expected," Wilson said, "maybe a little bit more in terms of how well everything's gone so far. But at the same time, I had full confidence in learning the offense, confidence in the guys I was playing with. That's why I came here."

Many folks outside America's Dairyland are already tired of the Wilson hype and point to the competition he has faced thus far. Wilson has yet to face an FBS defense ranked higher than 70th nationally, although, to be fair, he's partly responsible for those low ratings.

But Wisconsin didn't bring in Wilson to beat UNLV, Oregon State, Northern Illinois and South Dakota. Wilson didn't come to Madison to beat those teams.

He came to play elite opponents in national showcase games on grand stages.

Nebraska? Check. Saturday night on ABC? Check. Camp Randall Stadium? Check.

We'll find out a lot about Wilson this week against the eighth-ranked Huskers, who boast a star-studded defense that will finally be at full strength.

"The main thing is playing relaxed and playing with confidence," he said. "The preparation has really prepared me for a big game. Playing quarterback, you have to make sure the other 10 guys are on the same page, playing with confidence. There’s going to be storms, but you have to weather the storms."

Nebraska's speed on defense jumped out to Wilson when he watched tape of the Blackshirts. The feeling is mutual.

"He can do it with his arm, he can do it with his feet," Nebraska safety Austin Cassidy said. "Any time you can go up against arguably the best quarterback in college football, that's obviously going to be a very good test."

After acing the first four weeks, Wilson's biggest tests await.
A potential reunion with the Wisconsin Badgers crossed Dave Doeren's mind even before he became Northern Illinois' coach.

As he mulled NIU's offer in December, Doeren, then the Badgers' defensive coordinator, called his boss and friend, Wisconsin head coach Bret Bielema.

[+] EnlargeDave Doeren
Peter G. Aiken/US PRESSWIRENorthern Illinois coach Dave Doeren will play his former team as the Huskies take on the Badgers.
"Bret and I were talking about whether I should or shouldn't take it, the pros and cons, this and that," Doeren recalled. "And I started laughing. I said, 'One of the deals is I've got to play two schools where I've worked, Kansas and Wisconsin. That sucks.' That's the negative to it when you look at being friends."

Bielema knew it would "put an interesting spin on everything."

"I still called the AD, did everything I could to help him get that job," he said. "It was something Dave had earned."

The positives of the NIU job won out, and Doeren accepted. After facing Kansas last week, he'll lead his Huskies team against Bielema and the seventh-ranked Badgers on Saturday afternoon at Chicago's Soldier Field.

Doeren's familiarity with Wisconsin's players and coaches could help Northern Illinois as it prepares for the game. Then again, the Badgers aren't known for tricky schemes. They do what they've always done, and they do it well.

"They're playing so well right now, I don't know if being there [previously] really helps," Doeren said. "They're a really talented football team. Obviously, I have some insight into their players, so that does help, but schematically, whether you were there or not, when you play Wisconsin, you're going to know what they're going to be in.

"You've just got to be able to stop it, and they take pride in that."

While Doeren saw Wisconsin's offense every day in practice the past few years, he's not as familiar with the man calling signals for the Badgers. Quarterback Russell Wilson, who transferred from NC State this summer, has been brilliant in his first two games for Wisconsin, ranking second nationally in passer rating (237.6) and completing 27 of 34 attempts (79.4 percent).

Doeren says Wilson is "like having Tolzien who can run," referring to former Wisconsin quarterback Scott Tolzien, who completed 72.9 percent of his passes in 2010 but wasn't known for his foot speed.

"You've got that extremely confident, intelligent leader that knows how to manage the game," Doeren said, "but now when things break down, he can run for touchdowns. ... The athletic dimension he brings when things break down is something they haven't had since Tyler Donovan."

Wisconsin's ground game remains its M.O., and Northern Illinois' young defense ranks near the bottom of the FBS against the run, allowing 556 rush yards and six touchdowns in its first two games against Army and Kansas. If the Huskies can't stop Wisconsin's run attack Saturday, they'll have "no chance," Doeren said.

What gives NIU hope is an explosive offense led by senior quarterback Chandler Harnish. The Huskies have scored 91 points in their first two games and Harnish ranks among the top 10 nationally in both passer rating (197.96) and total offense (339.5 ypg).

Although Wisconsin comes off of a shutout against Oregon State, it lost starting cornerback Devin Smith to a season-ending foot injury. The Badgers lack depth at corner and could be vulnerable against the pass.

"Our skill is very good, our quarterback is playing well, tailbacks are all running hard when they're in there and we have a veteran O-line," Doeren said. "To me, that is where we match up well."

Doeren recruited Badgers defenders like safety Aaron Henry and linebacker Kevin Claxton. He considers Bielema and co-defensive coordinators Chris Ash and Charlie Partridge among his best friends.

"It's part of the deal," Doeren said. "You're going to run into guys that you're friends with and coach against them. You recruit against your friends all the time.

"It's not the most fun thing to do, but it's something you do quite a bit."

Halftime updates from around Big Ten

September, 10, 2011
We've reached the halfway point of the early games around the conference.

Let's check in.

Toledo-Ohio State: The dominance Ohio State displayed in its opener hasn't been there today, although the Buckeyes rallied to take a 21-15 lead at halftime. Tim Beckman has his Toledo squad geared up against his former team, and the Rockets are attacking Ohio State decently through the air. Buckeyes quarterback Joe Bauserman hasn't been nearly as sharp today (10-for-19 passing), but the coaches clearly want to get him comfortable before next week's trip to Miami. Unless the score widens, don't expect to see much of Braxton Miller. Tight end Jake Stoneburner and running back Carlos Hyde continue to be bright spots for Ohio State's offense, while breakdowns in the kicking game are also continuing to surface.

Oregon State-Wisconsin: Unlike the opener, where everything worked, Wisconsin has had to be creative to spark its offense today. That's where Russell Wilson comes in handy. Oregon State sold out against the run early on and had success stuffing the Badgers' backs. Wilson has responded by dissecting the Beavers' secondary. He has completed 12 of 14 passes for 124 yards and three touchdowns, including two to Jacob Pedersen. His accuracy continues to impress me, as I thought Wisconsin would have a drop-off after losing Scott Tolzien. The defense also has responded against a limited Oregon State team, which can't get anything going on the ground. Wisconsin appears to be in total control.

Iowa-Iowa State: After a strong start, Iowa finds itself deadlocked at 10-10 in a place (Jack Trice Stadium) where it has struggled under coach Kirk Ferentz. Marcus Coker's fumbling issues continued following a good first-quarter surge, and his turnover set up Iowa State's only touchdown. Coker can be one of the Big Ten's better backs, but he has to hold onto the football. Iowa's new-look defense seems to be struggling a bit against quarterback Steele Jantz (great name) and running back Shontrelle Johnson, who averaged 8.4 yards a carry in the first half. Stay tuned as this one should be very interesting.

South Dakota State-Illinois: Everything is clicking for the Illini, who look like they'll once again have one of the nation's top rushing attacks. Quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase has been a greater threat on the ground, and he's getting help from Jason Ford, Troy Pollard and dynamic freshman Donovonn Young. An experienced offensive line deserves credit, too, as Illinois already has 227 rushing yards. The defense has held South Dakota State to two first downs and only 54 total yards.

Florida Atlantic-Michigan State: After a sloppy opener, the Spartans have cleaned up their act in a big way. What a half for Pat Narduzzi's defense, which held FAU to one first down and just 26 total yards. The defensive line has been stellar, and Michigan State is capitalizing on excellent field position and converting for touchdowns. It's already a big day for receivers B.J. Cunningham (5 catches, 73 yards) and Keshawn Martin (6 catches, 68 yards), and the run game has provided a spark. Up 27-0, Michigan State can get its reserves plenty of time in the second half.
You couldn't have scripted a much better Wisconsin debut for quarterback Russell Wilson.

The NC State transfer led eight Wisconsin possessions, all of which led to scores and seven of which ended in the UNLV end zone. He completed 10 of 13 passes for 255 yards and two touchdowns, numbers that would have been even better had he hit two open tight ends in the first half. And while Wilson showed mobility in the pocket and the ability to extend plays, he also took off twice, recording a 46-yard touchdown and a 16-yard scramble. With this offensive line, Wilson shouldn't hesitate to run the ball when he sees fit.

Although UNLV's defense is bad, Wilson's accuracy bodes well for Wisconsin, which figured to see a drop-off after losing Scott Tolzien (72.9 percent completions in 2010). The Badgers also had more explosion plays than I expected, especially with passes and long runs after catches by Montee Ball, James White and Bradie Ewing. Wilson definitely can check down the ball and expect big gains.

Wilson certainly earned the right to wear a headset before the end of the third quarter as Wisconsin cruised to a 51-17 win. Just a terrific debut for a guy who looks like an excellent fit for a Big Ten title contender.

The concerns for Wisconsin coming out of tonight's game rest with the defense. The Badgers struggled against the run in the first half and allowed two sustained touchdown drives after halftime. There didn't seem to be enough sustained aggressiveness.

The Badgers didn't have a shut-down defense in 2010, but they made big plays. Top playmaker J.J. Watt is gone, so who fills the void? Chris Borland would seem like the top choice, but he might not be as effective at middle linebacker than he was on the outside as a freshman in 2009. Wisconsin could really benefit from a lineman taking a big step like Watt and O'Brien Schofield did the past two seasons.

There's a lot of time to work things out on defense, and coordinator Chris Ash will demand a better effort when Oregon State comes to Madison on Sept. 10.

We devoted a lot of attention to Russell Wilson's transfer to Wisconsin last week. That was for two reasons: A) He's kind of a big deal. He has many leather-bound books, and his apartment smells of rich mahogany. And B) It's the middle of summer.

I think the Wilson news is huge and makes the Badgers the Big Ten preseason favorite. But I know many of you disagree and think that is overstated, especially for a guy who is arriving in July who doesn't know any of his teammates.

[+] EnlargeRussell Wilson
AP Photo/Gerry BroomeNot everyone thinks Russell Wilson's move to Wisconsin guarantees a landmark season for the Badgers.
Well, we like to be fair and balanced around here. Colleague K.C. Joyner has an Insider article on TuesdayInsider predicting that Wilson might struggle at quarterback for Wisconsin. Joyner says the move looks overhyped and will be ultimately disappointing.

Two major reasons why he comes to this conclusion:

  • Joyner says Wilson was mediocre in 2010, ranking fifth in the ACC in yards per attempt (6.8) and sixth in passer rating (127.1). "If he wasn't a dominant quarterback in his conference last season, why is it automatically assumed that he will be an elite passer this year?" Joyner asks. "This would be a valid question in any respect, but Wilson also will have to acclimate to a new playbook and new coaches, and will be joining a squad that lost three of its top five pass-catchers to graduation."

  • Wilson doesn't compare favorably to the man he's replacing, Scott Tolzien, in some key categories. Tolzien averaged 9.2 YPA and had 165.92 passer rating last year while leading the Badgers to the Rose Bowl. Tolzien's numbers on all downfield throws were much higher than Wilson's in 2010. Wilson only matched or exceeded Tolzien on short throws.

In short, Joyner says the expectations are simply too high around Wilson.

"Wilson won only 11 conference games in three seasons with the Wolfpack," he writes. "The chances that he will automatically run off seven or eight conference victories in an even tougher league or guide his team to an unbeaten season on the way to a berth in the BCS title game seem quite low."

We shall see.
The conventional wisdom is Oregon State's already formidable trip to Wisconsin on Sept. 10 became even more daunting Monday with the Badgers' addition of quarterback Russell Wilson, a transfer from NC State who passed for 8,545 yards and 76 touchdowns in his career with the Wolfpack.

Maybe. Makes sense. Wilson, who has one year of eligibility remaining and can play right away because he has already graduated, is a dual-threat quarterback who also has, by the way, played baseball in the Colorado Rockies' minor league system after being a fourth-round pick last year.

[+] EnlargeNC State's Russell Wilson
Scott A. Miller/US PresswireDoes the addition of Russell Wilson give Wisconsin a bigger advantage over Oregon State?
Further, the Badgers' play at quarterback was mediocre to bad this spring, with no one stepping to the fore to replace Scott Tolzien. Wilson, it would seem, is an instant upgrade, even over Tolzien. Wilson completed 58.4 percent of his passes for 3,563 yards with 28 touchdowns and 14 interceptions and rushed for 435 yards and nine touchdowns last season. Tolzien's 2010 numbers, though good enough to get the Badgers to the Rose Bowl, don't even compare.

The general feeling is this makes Wisconsin the Big Ten favorite. Which makes the Beavers look like road kill, right?

Again, maybe. But we live in a world of unintended consequences. There are no sure things, and the unexpected often happens.

For one, Wilson will be learning a new offense with new teammates with only a month or so this summer and fall practices to prepare. That's not easy. Sure, he's a veteran college QB. But he'll still be the new guy -- not unlike incoming freshmen.

His first order of business? Decisively beating out Jon Budmayr, Joe Brennan and Joel Stave. If Wilson is only marginally better, or if there's doubt within the team that he earned the starting job, then things could get prickly in the locker room.

The ideal situation for Oregon State would be for Wilson to not get a warm-up game before the Beavers come to town. That's not the case. Not only does Wisconsin open against UNLV, it also has a couple of extra days between that Thursday, Sept. 1 opener to iron out the kinks and get ready for the Beavers.

Oregon State opens its season against Sacramento State, giving it a preseason game in which to get in rhythm without revealing a lot. The Beavers certainly should be able to get more from the Badgers-Rebels game film than Wisconsin will from the Sac State film.

Wilson should make the Badgers better, but it's reasonable to believe he will be better as the season matures than he is early-on, when he's still figuring out the offense and his teammates. So Oregon State has that going for it.

With or without Wilson starting, the Badgers will be heavy favorites when Oregon State visits. The Beavers are coming off a 5-7 season with lots of questions and they do not own a distinguished record for starting fast. They've, in particular, suffered a few bad nonconference whippings on the road in the early-going -- see ill-fated trips to Louisville, Boise State, Cincinnati and Penn State.

The conventional wisdom will write this one into the Oregon State loss column before it's played, and the Badgers' addition of Wilson makes it less risky to do so in pen rather than pencil.

Right? Well, maybe. Let's just say lots more folks figure to tune into the Wisconsin-UNLV opener than before.
I hope you enjoyed all the polls on Thursday and Friday. They're an exciting new feature on the blog and will appear more in the future. It's a great way to gauge how Big Ten fans are thinking.

Although I'm limited to five options -- and many of you were ticked at the ones I chose -- I'll keep trying to give the best sampling for each given topic.

There were some interesting things that stood out about both days of polling. Let’s start with the Thursday polls, which were …
The "Most Improved" vote was interesting. Clearly, Nebraska fans are reading the blog as quarterback Taylor Martinez received the most votes, ahead of Penn State running back Silas Redd and Illinois quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase. While Martinez could be dangerous if he stays healthy, my pick is Scheelhaase, who should build off of a solid freshman season and become more of a complete quarterback.

The Big Ten had six players selected in the first round of the NFL draft, but you went with Ohio State quarterback Terrelle Pryor as the toughest player to replace. It can be attributed in part to the lack of proven depth behind Pryor. I'm a little surprised Illinois' Corey Liuget didn't get more votes. The Illini will really miss Liuget on the interior. I took some heat for including Wisconsin quarterback Scott Tolzien among the choices, but his value to last year's team cannot be overstated. He was the difference between an 8- or 9-win team and a Rose Bowl participant.

Although Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson is adjusting to a new offensive system, most of you think he'll repeat as Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year. Northwestern quarterback Dan Persa finished a distant second, followed by Michigan State quarterback Kirk Cousins. Robinson certainly has the ability and the name recognition to win the award again, although no Big Ten offensive player has done so since Indiana running back Anthony Thompson (1988-89).

You affirmed your belief in Robinson by selecting him as the Big Ten's top impact performer, ahead of Nebraska defensive tackle Jared Crick, Iowa cornerback Micah Hyde and Northwestern quarterback Dan Persa. Hyde certainly made an impact when he was on the field last fall. Persa is another guy who really shapes games.

Nebraska hasn't played a game as a member of the Big Ten, but I wouldn't be surprised if a Huskers player is named preseason Defensive Player of the Year. Not only does the Big Ten lose a bunch of decorated defenders to the NFL, but the Blackshirts also return several established stars. You seem to agree as Nebraska linebacker Lavonte David and Crick received the most votes, followed by Michigan State defensive tackle Jerel Worthy.

I'll have reaction on Friday's poll posts a little later today, so stay tuned.
The 2011 season could produce the most wide-open Big Ten title race in recent memory. Projecting the league champion is no easy task, but I have faith in you to do so.

Ohio State has won or shared each of the past six league titles, but the Buckeyes will face a set of unique challenges to keep their streak alive. Starting quarterback Terrelle Pryor and four others are suspended for the first five games. Coach Jim Tressel also is scheduled to sit out the first five, and some are questioning whether The Vest will be on the sideline at all this fall. All this comes after the departure of a sizable and decorated senior class. And still, you can make a good case for Ohio State once again winning the league.

Wisconsin and Michigan State shared the Big Ten title in 2010, and both teams enter the season with high hopes. The Badgers must replace four All-Americans and standout quarterback Scott Tolzien, while Michigan State needs to upgrade its line play. Both teams face multiple road tests, especially Michigan State, but both are in the title mix.

Nebraska enters the Big Ten with an immediate chance to compete for a crown. The Huskers boast the league’s most accomplished defense, and if a new offensive system produces enough, Bo Pelini's squad could be hoisting a trophy Dec. 3 in Indianapolis.

The league's top four teams have a bit of separation on the rest, but another squad like Iowa could make a surprise run to a title.

Now it's your turn to weigh in on the 2011 Big Ten champ.
At long last, polls have arrived for the Big Ten blog. Here's your chance to weigh in on the big questions around the conference, so please take advantage.

Let's kick things off with a look at the most difficult Big Ten player to replace in 2011. Every team loses some key seniors, and seven Big Ten underclassmen declared for the NFL draft. The league had six players selected in the first round of the draft, each of whom could be categorized as irreplaceable.

Then again, while Wisconsin will have a tough time filling in for All-American defensive end J.J. Watt, the No. 11 overall pick in the draft, quarterback Scott Tolzien, who was undrafted, might be tougher to replace. Several Big Ten defenders leave major voids, including All-American Ryan Kerrigan from Purdue and Illinois defensive tackle Corey Liuget.

The league's toughest player to replace might see the field this season. Ohio State quarterback Terrelle Pryor will be eligible to play Oct. 8 against Nebraska, but his presence certainly will be missed during a five-game suspension to begin the fall.

Some teams are in better shape to replace their stars than others, but there are a handful of Big Ten players who definitely will be missed. It's your turn to weigh in.
The bowl season exposed the Big Ten as a league that lacked depth. Spring ball suggested things could change in 2011.

The Big Ten should have quite a few good teams this season. Nebraska enters the conference after recording back-to-back 10-win campaigns. Teams such as Wisconsin, Michigan State and Iowa have established consistent success. The arrow could be pointing up in places such as State College, Evanston, Ann Arbor and Champaign. And until the results change on the field, Ohio State is Ohio State.

So here's the problem: There might not be a great team among the cluster of potentially good ones.

Absent from the past three BCS national championship games, the Big Ten lacks a bona fide title contender coming out of the spring. League commissioner Jim Delany and others acknowledge that leagues are judged by national titles, and right now the Big Ten doesn't look as if it will be competing for one.

Every good team in the Big Ten wears some warts coming out of spring.

[+] EnlargeOhio State Buckeyes quarterback Terrelle Pryor
Reese Strickland/US PresswireTerrelle Pryor and the Buckeyes will face many challenges in 2011.
A cloud of uncertainty hovers above Ohio State, and it has little to do with who will replace quarterback Terrelle Pryor and four other players during the first five games of the season. The day before its spring game, Ohio State received a notice of allegations from the NCAA detailing potential major violations committed by coach Jim Tressel. Ohio State self-reported Tressel's transgressions in March, and Tressel increased his suspension to five games to go along with a $250,000 fine. But the prospect of additional penalties from the NCAA is very real. Tressel and top school officials likely will appear before the NCAA's Committee on Infractions on Aug. 12, just weeks before the season.

A Buckeyes team that has dominated the Big Ten under Tressel faces its most difficult challenge during the coach's sparkling tenure. It must block out the distractions and keep the focus on winning. Ohio State also must find early-season substitutes for Pryor, top receiver DeVier Posey and the other suspended players, in addition to replacing quite a bit of production on defense.

Despite all of these hurdles, Ohio State likely will be selected as the Big Ten preseason favorite.

Nebraska enters new waters and is poised to make an immediate splash. The Huskers reportedly think they have a championship-level defense, and players such as defensive tackle Jared Crick and linebacker Lavonte David make it easy to believe. But the Huskers must make significant upgrades on offense and began the process this spring with mixed results. Although quarterback Taylor Martinez and others drew good reviews in spring ball, Nebraska's offense remains a question mark as an absolutely brutal schedule beckons.

Wisconsin and Michigan State shared the league title with Ohio State in 2010, but the Badgers and Spartans will be challenged to reload, not rebuild. This spring, the Badgers began the process of replacing four All-Americans and All-Big Ten quarterback Scott Tolzien. While Wisconsin should be solid along the offensive line and on defense, the quarterback spot is a concern, after projected starter Jon Budmayr and two freshmen struggled in the spring game. Like Wisconsin, Iowa must replace a group of stars, and while the Hawkeyes seem most comfortable flying under the radar, they need bodies at spots such as defensive line and receiver.

Penn State had a more spirited spring after Joe Paterno challenged the team's toughness. The coaches liked what they saw from top quarterbacks Rob Bolden and Matt McGloin, but the Nittany Lions must upgrade their play on both lines to regain their 2008 form.

Northwestern, Michigan and Illinois return dynamic dual-threat quarterbacks and veteran offensive lines. But all three teams face questions on defense, and in Michigan's case, players are adjusting to a new staff and new systems on both sides.

Purdue coach Danny Hope raved about quarterback Rob Henry and the team's overall speed this spring. The Boilermakers could be a surprise team, but they must replace All-American Ryan Kerrigan and limit the major mistakes that have been their downfall. Jerry Kill and Kevin Wilson set the tone in their first springs at Minnesota and Indiana, respectively, but both coaches face significant rebuilding jobs.

The spring provided clues the Big Ten will be good league in 2011. And while the league should avoid another early January disaster, it has a lot of work to do in the coming months to send a team to the Big Easy on Jan. 9.

Big Ten draft bargains

April, 28, 2011
During my Big Ten chat Wednesday, Dan from B1G Country asked about any NFL draft bargains from the conference this year.

With the draft set to begin Thursday night, I thought this would be a good time to look at some Big Ten players who might benefit teams in the middle or later rounds, or even as free-agent pickups.

Here's one potential bargain from each Big Ten squad (heights and weights according to ESPN's Scouts Inc.).

Randall Hunt, G, 6-6, 318
The skinny: Hunt anchored a formidable Illinois offensive line that helped Mikel Leshoure and others run wild in 2010. He shut down Baylor's Phil Taylor in the Texas Bowl and brings a sturdy frame to the interior line. Hunt wouldn't be a bad choice in the later rounds.

James Brewer, T, 6-6, 323
The skinny: I'm hesitant to call Brewer a bargain because he could be off the board early in the draft. Indiana had another tackle, Rodger Saffold, taken with the first pick of the second round in 2010. Brewer has the size to be good at the next level, and if he's still available on the third day, he'd be a nice pick.

Derrell Johnson-Koulianos, WR, 5-11, 202
The skinny: The character questions are there, but DJK was an extremely productive player at Iowa and could be a nice late-round addition for a team. He's a strong route runner with good speed and good hands, and he can stretch defenses. If a team is willing to take a bit of a risk, it could be rewarded.

Stephen Schilling, G, 6-4, 308
The skinny: Schilling played a ton of football at Michigan and helped the Wolverines to a record-setting offensive performance in 2010. His measurables might not blow teams away, but he's a smart, solid lineman who could be a nice addition in the middle to later rounds.

Eric Gordon, LB/S, 5-11, 224
The skinny: Overshadowed by fellow linebacker Greg Jones for much of his career, Gordon quietly produced at an extremely high rate for Michigan State. You could argue he was the Spartans' best linebacker during the second half of the 2010 season. Gordon turned in an impressive performance on pro day and would be a nice pickup late in the draft or as a free agent.

Adam Weber, QB, 6-3, 221
The skinny: Some Gophers fans might scoff at this, but I always felt Weber got a raw deal during his college career. He played for three different offensive coordinators, never complained about it and still set a bunch of team records. While his junior season was a disappointment, Weber did some good things last fall and drew respect around the Big Ten. Not a bad pick in the later rounds.

Eric Hagg, S, 6-1, 209
The skinny: Hagg is a playmaker, as he showed with a team-high five interceptions plus a school-record 95-yard punt return for a touchdown against Texas. He also brings versatility to the table, having played a safety-linebacker hybrid role last fall for the Blackshirts. Hagg has played on an elite college defense and would be a good get in the middle to late rounds.

Quentin Davie, LB, 6-4, 238
The skinny: Davie entered the 2010 season as a solid NFL prospect and started off strong but disappeared at times down the stretch. He made big plays throughout his career and boasts good size as an outside linebacker. Davie could help a team as a late-round or free-agent addition if he gets back to his 2009 form.

Dane Sanzenbacher, WR, 5-11, 182
The skinny: If I were an NFL general manager, I wouldn't hesitate to draft Sanzenbacher. He lacks ideal measurables but makes up for it with football intelligence and a fearless approach to the game. Sanzenbacher has great hands and became Ohio State's top threat in the red zone this season. He stood out at the Senior Bowl and would be an excellent pick in the middle rounds.

Evan Royster, RB, 5-11, 212
The skinny: Royster is a patient runner with good vision who could thrive in the right situation at the pro level. His slow start to the 2010 season is a concern, but he picked things up down the stretch and boasts a productive college résumé. If a team needs a running back in the late rounds, Royster would be a nice choice.

Keith Smith, WR, 6-2, 224
The skinny: There's risk here as Smith comes off of tears in two knee ligaments, but a team could get a major steal if the Boilers receiver can stay healthy. He has the size to excel at the pro level and might have been the Big Ten's top receiver had he stayed on the field last season. Smith is a class act who has a chance to be a solid NFL receiver.

Scott Tolzien, QB, 6-2, 209
The skinny: He might never be a full-time starter in the NFL, but teams certainly can benefit from having Tolzien on the roster. He's an extremely smart player who makes up for mediocre measurables with superb intangibles. Tolzien is accurate and efficient, and he'll prepare harder than anyone. If a team needs a quarterback in the later rounds, Tolzien would be a great pick.
MADISON, Wis. -- Wisconsin loves to describe its program as "not sexy," but the label is becoming less and less accurate.

After the Badgers made their first Rose Bowl appearance in 11 seasons, nine members of coach Bret Bielema's staff received inquiries from other teams. Defensive coordinator Dave Doeren landed the head-coaching job at Northern Illinois. Two assistants, John Settle and Greg Jackson, left for posts in the NFL. Offensive coordinator Paul Chryst turned down a lucrative coordinator offer from Texas to remain with his alma mater.

[+] EnlargeBret Bielema
Jeff Hanisch/US PresswireCoach Bret Bielema leads a Wisconsin program that has churned out a lot of elite players in recent seasons.
The inquiries also are coming Wisconsin's way, as decorated recruits from "coast to coast" -- particularly running backs and offensive linemen, two position groups where the Badgers have flourished -- express interest in the program.

"They're getting recruited by heavy, heavy people in their area," Bielema said. "We haven't had that number of people respond from outside our area."

Wisconsin is pushing for a $76.8 million athletic performance center that would include new locker rooms and training facilities and an upgrade for the McClain Center, the team's indoor practice facility. Although Wisconsin has remained in the top half of the Big Ten on the field, it needs a boost with its facilities.

So, is Wisconsin bringing sexy back? Perhaps on the surface, but the program hasn't changed at its core.

"The only reason we're at the level we're at is because we maximize what we are," Bielema said. "Our staff, our players and our administration recognizes why we've had this success and not to deviate from that plan just because there might be better things out there.

"We're going to build this new facility, but bigger isn't always better. It's about the components and how functional it is and what it stands for."

The Wisconsin Way will be put to the test in 2011 as the Badgers lose more standout components than any other Big Ten squad. Gone are four All-Americans -- defensive end J.J. Watt, tight end Lance Kendricks and offensive linemen Gabe Carimi and John Moffitt -- the 2010 Johnny Unitas Golden Arm award winner in quarterback Scott Tolzien, the 2009 Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year in running back John Clay, and other key contributors.

Other than Ohio State, every Big Ten team has struggled to reload in recent years. Can the Badgers buck the trend in 2011?

"Here, we really have to develop our players where they're really good their last 2-3 years," co-defensive coordinator/defensive line coach Charlie Partridge said. "We feel like this is a developmental program, and we're proud of that."

No position group better demonstrates the philosophy than the defensive ends Partridge coaches.

In 2009, O'Brien Schofield went from anonymous to first-team All-Big Ten, finishing second nationally in tackles for loss (24.5) and tied for sixth in sacks. Watt began his career as a tight end at Central Michigan and finished it as one of the nation's best defenders. He's projected as a first-round pick in this week's NFL draft and could be the first Big Ten player selected.

There are other examples of Badger reloading. Wisconsin has produced at least one 1,000-yard rusher in each of the past six seasons. Carimi and his predecessor at left tackle, Joe Thomas, both won the Outland Trophy as seniors.

"People from the outside looking in, they've never heard of these names so they assume they're not any good," Bielema said. "We try to have people waiting in the wings. I remember when no one knew who Lance Kendricks was, or Gabe Carimi, or John Moffitt or Scott Tolzien or J.J. Watt. We were able to develop those guys, bring them through and the results were what you saw last year.

"It's our desire to have a championship every season, but sometimes you're not going to have the personnel to accomplish that. What you want to do is remain competitive, stay in the top level of our conference."

Bielema thinks Wisconsin has a chance to be just as good on defense.

Although Watt leaves a major void, the Badgers boast unprecedented depth at defensive tackle and more overall depth along the line. The secondary returns All-Big Ten cornerback Antonio Fenelus, playmaking safety Aaron Henry and others with experience. If linebacker Chris Borland stays healthy after missing most of 2010 with shoulder injuries, the midsection will be solid.

Leadership shouldn't be an issue as both Henry and defensive tackle Patrick Butrym are stepping forward.

"I'm sure a lot of people out there are counting us out," Henry said. "I could care less about flying under the radar. I just want guys to go out there every week and leave a statement, that we are Wisconsin football, we do play hard-nosed football and we're going to play every snap like its our last."

[+] EnlargeMontee Ball
Jeff Hanisch/US PresswireRunning back Montee Ball, 28, returns to a talented Wisconsin backfield along with speedy James White.
The bigger questions come on offense, starting with the most important position on the field. Jon Budmayr understudied for Tolzien in 2010 and, barring a major surprise, will move into the starting role. Budmayr, who had his ups and downs this spring, must not only display efficiency but remain healthy as there's no proven depth behind him.

Wisconsin once again will lean on a run game expected to be among the nation's best as backs Montee Ball and James White, the 2010 Big Ten Freshman of the Year, both return. Although three starting linemen depart, the coaches are excited about who will fill the gaps.

"There's questions for any team, what they can and cannot do," Ball said. "That's why we keep grinding every day so we can show everybody what we're capable of doing."

At Wisconsin, there's no other way. The Badgers aren't a team that can simply show up and win, a fact reinforced last season.

"The thing we did best was we practiced so well during the week," Butrym said. "The one time we didn't practice well was [before the Michigan State game]. It was a Thursday and it was very sloppy and the end result of that was a loss."

Butrym admits the poor practice made him "a little paranoid" about sniffing out signs of complacency. So far, the attitude is good.

"We definitely have to earn it," Henry said. "Ohio State's still in the conference, we added Nebraska, Iowa's still in the conference. Guys know nothing's going to be handed to us."