Like him or not, Wisconsin was an excellent football program when Bret Bielema was at the helm. And it was like that for far longer than those who just want to give credit to Barry Alvarez’s program-building skills would like.
The Badgers were ranked at the end of every season Bielema finished save one. The running backs just kept getting better, going from P.J. Hill to John Clay to Montee Ball to a quick glimpse of Melvin Gordon. The offensive line was an NFL factory, a far cry from this season’s enigma. The defense spat out J.J. Watt.
The 2011 team may be the greatest team I ever see at Wisconsin. Especially that offense. Good god, that offense.
I’m going to list 11 players who saw regular playing time on that squad: Russell Wilson, Ball, White and Bradie Ewing in the backfield; Nick Toon and Jared Abbrederis at receiver; and Rick Wagner, Travis Frederick, Peter Konz, Kevin Zeitler and Josh Oglesby on the offensive line.
Every player in that group save one was selected in the NFL Draft, including six in the first three rounds. The one that went undrafted was Oglesby, who once upon a time was his high school class’ top offensive tackle prospect according to Rivals.com. Read that again: a five-star recruit was, objectively, that offense’s least talented player. That team might have been the one, Wisconsin’s shot at a national championship.
More so than the professional leagues in any major American sport, coaching matters in college football. When you have a team constructed like that, you probably have a good coach.
The last three years seemed to have proven beyond a shadow of the doubt that Bret Bielema is not a good coach. He walked into a situation at Arkansas exponentially worse than the one he took over at Wisconsin and has done nothing to make it better.
So if Bielema is not a good coach, where did that greatness at Wisconsin come from? If the greatness on Bielema’s teams came from those great offenses, let’s look at the offensive coordinator. Oh hey, Paul Chryst.
It doesn’t take many brain cells to see that Paul Chryst was the engine behind Bielema’s great run at UW. Those teams shone brightest with the ball and things promptly fell apart when Chryst left to take over Pitt, leaving Bielema with Matt Canada for 2012.
Gary Andersen’s departure wasn’t the first time Badger fans were cursing Oregon State, as the Beavers held Wisconsin to 35 rushing yards and a single touchdown in the second game after Chryst went east. The first and third games weren’t much better, as Wisconsin needed a final defensive stand to escape an Appalachian State-ing from FCS Northern Iowa and a missed field goal to avoid an embarrassing loss to Gary Andersen’s Utah State team.
In Bielema’s final season with Wisconsin and his only without Chryst, the wheels came off, as the team went 8-6. The only reason that team isn’t thought of as more of a disaster is its performance in the Big Ten championship game, made possible by not one, but two postseason suspensions in its division and a playbook-emptying effort against Nebraska (a fun conspiracy theory: Bielema and Canada kept the playbook intentionally conservative even after they kept losing, knowing their berth in the championship was all but automatic).
It’s all well and good that Chryst was the offensive mastermind of 2011 and earlier, but it does raise a question: Where is the offense now?
So far, it’s the defensive side of the ball that has made Wisconsin impressive. Since the Alabama game, Wisconsin has allowed three total points in three games. It’s allowing 2.26 yards per carry when you take out quarterback runs (read: sacks). Meanwhile, the offense put up 28 points against both Troy and Hawaii, a total to deliver a comfortable win and raise some uncomfortable worries.
The offensive line is still figuring out both slots of its right side, Alex Erickson is the only reliable receiver, and the running backs still haven’t been able to come close to the explosions of last year. Joel Stave is finally looking reliable, but that seems to be the only real positive to be found. The running game looked good against Hawaii, but it’s going to take a lot more before people can move on from the Alabama disaster.
But Paul Chryst is still Paul Chryst. He walked into a Wisconsin roster left weakened by two years of disappointing recruiting and a confusing offensive philosophy from Gary Andersen and, unlike Bielema, might actually have a chance at building rather than merely sustaining and relying on coaches under him. Having Dave Aranda around to keep the defense strong during the transition has substantially lessened the concerns UW fans should have.
Something worked while Bielema and Chryst were the top figures at Wisconsin from 2006 to 2011. Since switching over to Arkansas, Bielema has been nothing but a negative, and a loud one. Chryst also didn’t shine at Pitt, but his tenure with Bielema at least implies he was the positive in that equation. If that math checks out, we’re about to see one heck of an offense come together as this season progresses, and Chryst will develop into the coach UW can depend on to build for the future.