Wisconsin's defense has been a polarizing conversation subject in 2011. The Big Ten's usual top offensive teams are either not on the Badgers schedule (Michigan, Iowa, Northwestern) or having down-years (Ohio State), making it a tough unit to judge accurately.
Those who (understandably) think first of the losses to Michigan State and Ohio State likely don't have a favorable opinion of the defense. By far the unit's two worst performances of the season, the defense let down the offense first by giving up too many points and then allowing inexcusable touchdowns in both games' closing seconds.
The stats don't lie: the Michigan State and Ohio State offenses, units that rank in the bottom half of the Big Ten in total yards, racked up a total of 756 yards and scored 68 points against Wisconsin's defense. Neither Ohio State nor Michigan State rank in the top 50 in the FBS in total or scoring offense, but they were able to put up quality, winning numbers against the Badgers. Those aren't encouraging statistics, and they provide a valid argument for those who say the Badgers' defense is nowhere near an elite unit.
Still, if one looks at the other games the Badgers played this season, or at the season as a whole, there doesn't seem to be anything wrong with Wisconsin's defense. Mike Taylor and Chris Borland are both playing at All-American levels, and Wisconsin's secondary and defensive line have been solid for the most part. Wisconsin's defense played very well against Nebraska, arguably the best offense on the Badgers' schedule. Their latest performance was one the Badger defense's best of the season; they shut out Minnesota's offense and limited it to only 156 total yards. The Badgers rank fifth in the nation in scoring defense and sixth in total defense. With respect to Michigan State and Penn State, an optimist could argue the Badgers have the best defense in the Big Ten.
So, who's right? Is Wisconsin's defense an elite unit or a mediocre one? Because a high variability of competition is inherent in college football, the answer isn't clear, although I think it's probably somewhere in between the two arguments. Efficiency statistics from Football Outsiders suggest I'm right. Football Outsiders' S&P+ ratings attempt to adjust for strength of opponent by comparing actual output to expected output. Using that metric, Wisconsin's defense is rated 26th overall and sixth in the Big Ten, almost identical to its rank last season.
This is probably a more accurate representation of the Badgers' defense than that traditional statistics provide. The bend-don't-break style we saw last year applies to this year's squad as well, except Borland and Taylor are the playmakers instead of J.J. Watt. The unit played poorly in Wisconsin's losses and as-expected or better in its wins.
Simple as that.
Regardless of your opinion on the Badger defense, you'll probably agree Wisconsin's kickoff coverage unit needs an upgrade.
Echoing what I wrote Wednesday, Jeff Potrykus notes the Badgers now have two players with an outside shot at the Heisman.
Grantland's Shane Ryan wrote an intelligent column in which he gives Russell Wilson support in the Heisman race.
A wild list of predictions appears!
Here's a nice Mike Taylor feature from ESPN's Adam Rittenberg.
USA Today put together its annual table of head coach salaries. Rest assured Bret Bielema is doing pretty well, financially.