(previous entries in this series include Jamie’s take on Northwestern. We’re just getting started and doing a different Big 10 each week)
With the dusted-off JCB Prop Creating Machine spitting out some numbers to help predict Northwestern’s season last week, the gigantic, non-energy efficient piece of steel is taking a crack at the defending Big Ten Champion Wisconsin Badgers this week.
Over the past decade the Badgers have quietly put themselves on a pedestal next to Michigan and Ohio State as Big Ten dynasties of sorts. While the Badgers’ run hasn’t exactly netted multiple national championships, let alone one title, you’d be surprised to see how Wisconsin has done in the past 8 years. Since 2004 Wisconsin has posted nine wins in seven of those seasons, with two years each at 10 and 11 wins, respectively, and a 12-1 season. Michigan’s similar span went from 1985-1992. The Wolverines tallied nine wins in seven of eight seasons while registering three 10-win years and an 11-2 season. A more recent comparison is Ohio State from 2002-2011. During those nine seasons, Ohio State had double-digit victories eight times, including the 14-0 NCAA National Championship campaign in 2002. The point is simple: Wisconsin is playing with some swagger these days and has created a juggernaut in Madison; expect great things. Here are the props to stat and track for 2012:
Wisconsin wins: Over/Under 9.5
A previous JCB post, using win totals posted by 5Dimes, had Wisconsin’s over/under set at 8.5 with serious juice on the over (-260) and a you’ll-hit-it-big-if-the-plague-hits-Madison under (+180). All things considered, anything less than nine wins for the Badgers will be a major disappointment in 2012 for a plethora of reasons.
Like most teams, the Badgers play three gimme nonconference games with one “challenging” contest. This year’s toughie is a road game at Oregon State. First, give props to Wisconsin for scheduling a home-and-home with a Pac-12 school rather than filling the schedule with a Sun Belt opponent. Traveling cross country in September is never easy. Just ask Lloyd Carr’s Michigan Wolverines. How many times did Michigan travel to the west coast and, despite being a semi-heavy favorite, lay an egg? (2003: 31-27 loss at Oregon; 2001: 23-18 loss @ Washington; 2000: 23-20 loss at UCLA). It shouldn’t be a surprise then to learn Michigan hasn’t played a nonconference game on the West coast since that ’03 Oregon loss. The Wolverines have shown it’s anything but a gimme scheduling a West coach team on the road. Wisconsin has played some cross-country teams on the road in recent years, beating UNLV in Vegas in 2010 (41-21), Fresno State at Bulldog Stadium in 2008 (13-10), and UNLV in 2007 (20-13). (It should be noted that middle Wisconsin team finished a forgettable 7-6 overall, the worst season in recent memory for Badgers fans). The last time Wisconsin played a BCS-West coast school was 2004 when the Badgers beat the Arizona Wildcats, 9-7.
What does this trip down Wisconsin memory lane have to deal with the 2012 projected win total you ask? Put simply, the Oregon State game might be solely responsible for the Badgers celebrating another 10-win season or chalking up another solid-but-not-quite-as-sweet-as-desired 9-3 campaign. It’s the ultimate swing game. Cash in another 4-0 nonconference slate and a very doable 6-2 Big Ten record would hit the over. And, if you take the over and happen to be a Pink Floyd fan you’re more than welcome to belt out these lyrics: “…Money / It’s a Gas / Grab that cash with both hands and make a stash ; New car, caviar, four-star daydream / Think I’ll buy me a football team.”
Now that you’ve stopped singing over there, Roger Waters, realize finishing 6-2 in the Big Ten is no given. The positive is, given recent history, Wisconsin won’t fall short of five conference wins; that’s happened just once in the past seven years – the lowly 2008 season when the Badgers amassed just three Big Ten victories. The schedule sets up fairly nice for the Badgers as Wisconsin doesn’t play Michigan, Iowa or Northwestern in the Legends Division. All three would cause Wisconsin trouble and would be potentially fatal road blocks toward 10 wins. Instead, Wisconsin draws Michigan State, Nebraska and Minnesota from the Legends Division. Only the Nebraska game is on the road and, based on last year’s showing, the Badgers are more than confident. Michigan State won’t be a gimme, obviously. Heck, it’s more likely to be a classic as that seems to be a yearly requirement for the Spartans-Badgers contest. In their own division, only Ohio State is a real threat, though the season finale at Penn State, despite the Nittany Lions’ changing of the guard, won’t be a cakewalk either. So, if we break down the conference schedule the Badgers have four they-should-win-this-game-as-a-loss-would-be-quite-an-upset contests: Illinois, at Purdue, Minnesota, at Indiana. It’s the four above-mentioned games (at Nebraska, Michigan State, Ohio State, at Penn State) that’ll determine what number ends up in Wisconsin’s final ‘W’ column. If we assume Wisconsin beats Oregon State and goes 4-0 in nonconference play, that means a split in the quartet of games is enough for 10 wins. Lose the Oregon State game and the Badgers can only afford one slip-up. Now you see why the Oregon State game is the swing game?
In the end, the Oregon State game won’t just play a huge role in those gambling on Wisconsin’s over/under win total; it’ll play a huge role foreshadowing the upcoming season. I would venture to say the game in Corvallis is fifth toughest game on Wisconsin’s schedule. If the Badgers lose that game, imagining a 3-1 finish between the Nebraska-Michigan State-Ohio State-Penn State quartet is only possible in the Jimmy-Hendrix-pot-clouded mind. The luckiest news for bettors playing the 9.5 number: You can circle September 8 on your calendar: That’s when Wisconsin travels to Reser Stadium in Corvallis and when much of the 2012 Badgers’ story will take shape.
Combined touchdowns between Montee Ball and James White: Over/Under: 41.5
Had it not been for Robert Griffin III (shoot, can I say that now that it’s trademarked?) and the eventual No. 1 pick in the NFL Draft Andrew Luck, Montee Ball’s season would have been more than just Heisman-esque. It would have won the Heisman Trophy. Ball totaled 40 touchdowns, 33 rushing, six receiving and one passing. The 39 non-passing TDs ties Barry Sanders’ single-season record set in 1988**. Some might say Ball can’t possibly duplicate that performance again. They would likely be right as Wisconsin scored 42 or more points in nine of its 14 games last season. The gaudy offensive numbers coupled with a dynamic defense allowed Wisconsin to start playing the ball-control, eat-up-the-clock offense in the third quarter. And don’t think for a minute Ball was just a goal line back; he totaled 307 carries on the season for a robust 6.3 yards per attempt.
Why is James White included in this prop? Here’s a fact: 300-carry college running backs are fairly rare, thus it’s a fair comparison to take a 300-plus carry college running back and saddle him next to a young MLB pitcher who threw 200 innings in his first big-league season. For pitchers, Year 2 typically sees a major decline in productivity due to arm tiredness and, more commonly, arm injuries. Ball’s 307 carries included some big hits and while he probably won’t breakdown in 2012, he could resemble the oft-banged up 2010 version of John Clay. (Clay chronicled a 277-carry, 1517-yard 2009 before injuries limited him to 187 carries in 2010).
Enter Mr. White. The sensational then-sophomore carried the rock 141 times for 741 yards and six touchdowns. White played the role of Lightning in this de facto Thunder-Lightning duo. At worst, he’ll have similar numbers as last season but he’s due to shoulder more of the work load which means he’ll have more than six dates with the end zone. If the Thunder-Lightning combo finds the end zone as much as last year (a combined 45 times) it means the Wisconsin running game is doing its job and taking the pressure off fifth-year Maryland transfer quarterback Danny O’Brien. Russell Wilson, last year’s free agent, err, fifth-year transfer, had a special season. Wilson threw for 33 touchdowns and just four picks, adding an additional six touchdowns on the ground. O’Brien is not, and will never be, Wilson. He’ll definitely be an upgrade over Wisconsin’s past QB carousel of Tyler Donovan and Scott Tolzien types but if he’s asked to lead Wisconsin to comeback victories like Wilson did last season 2012 will be a major disappointment. The last year Wisconsin played without a NFL QB was 2010 with Tolzien. A modest 16-touchdown effort from Tolzien meant the running game needed to carry the team. Carry the team it did as the Clay-Ball-White trio combined for 46 rushing touchdowns. I’ll project O’Brien to hover around the 20-touchdown mark, meaning to match 2010 campaign – which produced an 11-1 regular season before a Rose Bowl loss to TCU – Thunder and Lightning will need to pound the rock into the end zone. The strength of the running game will dictate how the season plays out and the end zone tally will be the ultimate judge.
Sacks allowed: Over/Under 25.5
One of those yearly ESPN stats always shows how Wisconsin’s offensive line would be in the NFL’s Top 5 in terms of average weight. This year will be no different (projected starters have the line averaging 6’5” and 321 pounds). The difference will be the inexperience. Three starters are gone including right guard Kevin Zeitler and center Peter Konz who went in the NFL Draft’s first and second round, respectively. Like most Wisconsin teams, a solid stable of running backs will help mask any offensive line deficiencies. Even with Wilson under center, the team allowed 25 sacks last season. With a less mobile O’Brien in the backfield and an inexperienced offensive line, protection will be a high priority in the offseason.
There are a number of ways to focus on the 25.5 sacks number: If Wisconsin controls the clock by running the ball and scoring touchdowns instead of kicking field goals it limits the number of times O’Brien will be a sitting duck. The more the running game struggles or Wisconsin’s offense as a whole struggles and has to play catch up the more times defenses will be able to pin their ears back and send the extra guy (or two) on a blitz.
In 2010, despite not having Wilson’s mobility in the pocket, Wisconsin’s O-line surrendered just 14 sacks on the season (5.1 percent of drop backs). Naturally, since the O-line was able to pave the way for nearly 250 rushing yards per game it didn’t leave Tolzien vulnerable to many sack possibilities. Replacing three starters makes sack vulnerability a real concern. Another reason to worry, as mentioned above, is the second game on the schedule at Oregon State. The Beavers led the FBS with 44 sacks in 2007 and, while they’ve had issues the past few years, could return to that dominant form at any point; it is always wise to assume Mike Riley’s team will turn the line of scrimmage into a World War III of sorts.
Kyle French, field goal makes and field goal conversion rate: Over/Under 15.5, Over/Under 75%
While the Badgers never touched 80 points last season – it did in an 80-23 victory vs. Indiana in 2010 that, believe it or not, was the opposite of running up the score – a steady diet of 40- and 50-point games were filled with touchdowns. Kyle French and the graduated Philip Welch combined for just eight field goal makes in 11 attempts last season. Thanks to an 82-touchdown season the duo was busy on extra points (Welch went 54-for-55 on XPs while French was 26-for-27).
Wilson’s mobility bailed Wisconsin out on many occasions in the red zone. It would be foolish to assume Wisconsin will only attempt 11 field goals again this season. It’ll probably double that amount and, if that’s the case, French is going to need to be reliable, especially in that 35-50 yard range. Last year’s LSU-Alabama I showed us how field goal kicking can almost cost the best team in the country a chance to actually prove it’s the best team in the country. Alabama’s normally reliable kicker went 2-for-6 on field goal tries in that game and it took a few miracles (Boise State missing another field goal, Oklahoma State gagging at Iowa State, some BCS posturing) for Alabama to get a rematch where it cashed in for the championship. If Wisconsin has championship aspirations – and we’ll set the bar here for another Big Ten Championship – there are going to be a few bouts where the kicking game is key. If French proves to be reliable the way Welch was in the 2010 Rose Bowl season (Welch went 17-for-22 that season, making 8 of 12 field goals of 40-plus yards) then Wisconsin will be in good hands, err, feet.
**Unfortunately for Sanders, not only did the NCAA not “count” bowl game statistics before 2002, but the NCAA unexplainably won’t go back and include Sanders’ and other players’ bowl-game performances. Sanders tallied five more touchdowns (in just three quarters of Holiday Bowl action) for a what-should-be-the-record 44 touchdowns that season.