Submitted by Jim Hurley on Saturday, October 1, 2011 at 9:57 AM
Wisconsin is the seventh ranked team in the nation heading into their much anticipated nationally televised Saturday Night showdown with number eight Nebraska. But, surprisingly little is known for sure about this Badgers team after one month of action.
September was basically a string of glorified scrimmaged against very bad opponents.
Wisconsin opened with a 51-17 cakewalk over UNLV that you may have watched on the first night of 2011 football. That's the same UNLV team who just lost on its home field to Southern Utah 41-16. If you adjust for the stadium sites...Wisconsin may only be a few points better than Southern Utah! Nobody really thinks that. But, that's how hard it is to evaluate games with blowout scores. The Badgers were fairly polite in calling off the dogs against UNLV after jumping to a huge halftime lead. But...beating up UNLV just doesn't prove anything.
Wisconsin next bullied a very bad Oregon State team 35-0. That was the week after Oregon State lost at home to non-entity Sacramento State. The next time Oregon State took the field, they missed the spread by almost two touchdowns to the disappointing UCLA team that was waxed by Texas. Blowouts are nice. But, again, we just don't know what this blowout means. Anyone in the top 30 could do this to Oregon State, particularly in a bad body clock game with a morning start time.
Wisconsin's third win was probably its most impressive. That was a 49-7 rout of Northern Illinois...a bowl team from last year and a projected contender in the Mid American Conference. The Vegas spread was only 15 points in a game that was played in Chicago...but the Badgers won by an impressive margin of 42. Unfortunately, Northern Illinois hasn't been playing to standards in other games. They lost at Kansas as small favorites...and Kansas got obliterated by Georgia Tech. Northern only beat Cal-Poly by 17 points when favored by 22 on the outlaw line. It could be that Northern Illinois isn't going to be as good as expected...so that Wisconsin's rout was just another case of bullying a bad team.
Wisconsin's last pre-conference tune-up was a 59-10 win over South Dakota State. Do YOU know anything about South Dakota State? Same song, fourth verse. Four September scrimmages against teams who may not provide any read at all about what to expect in Big 10 play or the bowls.
Wisconsin may truly be the seventh best team in they country. Given how strong they were last year (playing a Rose Bowl coin flip with talented TCU), and the addition of Russell Wilson at quarterback this season...the Badgers may actually be a legitimate top five team with real BCS championship possibilities if they run the table in the Big 10. Or, they may just be something like 20th best and they've bullied a crap schedule.
We'll know more after seeing Saturday Night's battle with Nebraska...and an October gauntlet that also features road games at Michigan State and Ohio State. You should REALLY be paying attention tonight so you can make informed choices in those other marquee games down the road.
Here's a pathway we can take to project where 2011 Wisconsin really stands in the big picture.
Wisconsin ranked 21st last year in total offense, and 20th in total defense. It's tough to be THAT balanced in this sport...so the rankings speak very well of the program. They didn't impress us as"true" top 10 team last year. By that, we mean that if you threw all the best teams into a steel cage and made them play each other the Badgers would have had enough trouble against all the SEC powers, Oklahoma, Stanford and Oregon, that they probably wouldn't have cracked the true ultra elite. But, it would be very tough to argue that they weren't at least top 20 in the big picture.
Wisconsin only returns 4 starters on offense from last season, which would normally be a big problem. But, they brought in Russell Wilson at quarterback...and a good quarterback can make up for a lot of issues. It's very possible Wisconsin hasn't lost a beat on offense...and there's a chance they'll even turn out to be a bit better once they've faced some real opposition.
Wisconsin returns 7 starters on defense. That's a tweener range where it's hard to project improvement but hard to expect a drop-off either.
You longtime readers know we're hesitant to celebrate the"best" team in the Big 10 because that type of squad has been badly outclassed by the"best" team in the SEC for quite a few years now. And, we also saw that debacle last New Year's when Alabama obliterated Big Ten co-champs Michigan State at the same time Mississippi State was embarrassing Michigan further down the conference ladders. We're not ready to say Wisconsin should be pick-em with LSU or Alabama right now. But...we're okay with them being in the discussion as they head into their challenge games.
What kind of challenge will Nebraska bring?
For now, they're just another mystery team that's played four September scrimmages. Substitute Chattanooga for South Dakota State from off the board. Substitute Washington for Oregon State from the Pac 10 (a less impressive result against a better team). Substitute Wyoming for UNLV from the Mountain West. Substitute Fresno State for Northern Illinois (they played each other in a bowl last year). Did the same guy make the schedule for both teams?! At least you can tell they have similar scheduling philosophies.
As we go to press, Wisconsin is a whopping 10-point favorite. We say "whopping" because that wouldn't normally be expected if the #7 team was hosting the #8 team. You'd expect home team -3...maybe -4 on certain home fields. Clearly the betting markets don't buy Nebraska as a top 10 team at the moment. And, maybe those very same betting markets are telling you that Wisconsin is better than #7.
JIM HURLEY does have some thoughts in this game. Prior to publication deadlines it wasn't certain yet if the Nebraska-Wisconsin matchup was going to be part of the final card. Maybe it will head the listings as our October Shocker of the Month. Maybe it will be part of our dynamite TV Triple Crown (other nominees include: Alabama-Florida, Clemson-Virginia Tech, Michigan State-Ohio State, Texas A&M-Arkansas, and Notre Dame-Purdue). Whatever the final word...you can count on NETWORK clients only getting the very best plays on the board.
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Thanks for being with us here in the NOTEBOOK. If you missed yesterday's preview of Alabama-Florida, you still have some time to check the archives for that other big prime time affair. We'll return tomorrow to preview NY Jets-Baltimore on NBC. Monday's report, as always, will preview the ESPN game (Indianapolis at Tampa Bay this week). We'll try to squeeze in a baseball playoff update next Tuesday because we know there's a lot of you who only get involved in this sport once they're playing for the championship.
Will Wisconsin make a national statement with a big win Saturday Night? Will YOU get your season rolling strong thanks to a big day from JIM HURLEY? We're done badgering you...SIGN UP NOW!