Football in Madison under Brett Bielema looked a lot like Big Ten football circa 1987, except that Wisconsin was playing the part of the bully, instead of getting wedgies and stuffed into lockers. For most of Bielema’s tenure at Wisconsin the Badgers played well over their Apparent Talent level and managed to win the Big Ten in each of the past three seasons. Never mind that it backed into the conference championship last year with Ohio State on probation. And that the Badgers shared the title in 2010 with Michigan and Ohio State.
The best year under Bielema came in 2011 when Wisconsin plugged senior transfer Russell Wilson, who left NC State after he graduated and was thus immediately eligible, right into its already potent offense. This is a possible example where the Coaching Effect calculated by this model is overstated. Wilson was a super-talented, veteran player, who came along at just the right time to make a good team even better. And he sure did, having an epic season. It helped that his greatest strength, executing in the play-action passing game, also lined up nicely with what Wisconsin’s offense already was very good at doing.
It is worth noting that while Wilson arguably elevated the passing game and certainly filled a hole, replacing a fifth year senior starter (Scott Tolzien, who had a very strong final year in Madison), the Wisconsin offense was already pretty efficient in the passing game (again, especially play action) before Wilson got there. Tolzien had originally been a lightly recruited two star recruit.
The nagging concern that I have about Bielema’s future at Arkansas, where he will debut in a few weeks is two-fold. The first is that he will be coaching in Fayetteville without his former OC (Paul Chryst) and OL coach (Bob Bostad), who were both with him for his entire tenure at Wisconsin, save 2012. It is really hard to ferret out how much of the Badgers’ slide in offensive efficiency in 2012 (from #1 in offensive F/+ in 2011 to #26 in 2012) was due to the loss of these two excellent coaches and how much of it is just due to the natural ebb and flow of college football. My second reservation is that the SEC isn’t the Big Ten.
And then there is this. Is it just sour grapes, or a dark portent for Bielema’s future? I guess we’ll find out starting this fall.
Prognosis: This will be interesting.