This is the fourth in a series of stories breaking down the 2009 Champs Sports Bowl between No. 14 Miami and No. 25 Wisconsin, which will be played Tuesday night at 7 p.m. CT.
Randy Shannon is just 43 years old and in his third year as head coach at his alma mater. He played linebacker for the Dallas Cowboys and served as a position coach in the NFL and as defensive coordinator under Larry Coker at Miami. Shannon is 21-16 in his head coaching career, including 9-3 this season. His teams have improved from five wins in 2007 to seven a season ago to nine this year.
Shannon's teams have a losing record overall in conference play in what is considered to be a weak ACC. They have never finished higher than third in the Coastal Division. Shannon has a 4-6 record against ranked opponents and lost his only bowl game, 24-17, to California in the Emerald Bowl in 2008. His teams are 9-10 away from Land Shark Stadium.
Shannon made headlines for the Hurricanes' tumultuous offseason. Three quarterbacks transferred, including Robert Marve, who started 11 of 13 games for Miami in 2008. Wide receiver Jermaine McKenzie bolted for Memphis and became the fourth member of Shannon's first recruiting class to leave. Shannon also fired offensive coordinator Patrick Nix in favor of keeping a pro style offense, and his defensive coordinator left for Oklahoma State. Despite the turmoil, Shannon, his new coordinators and the remaining players seemed to forge a strong bond and had won three games against top-20 teams by October 3. He should be credited for getting off to such a strong start and putting together a solid season despite an offseason filled with distractions. He seems to have the program on the upswing after a nine-win regular season and some statement victories early on.
Bret Bielema is only 39 years old and in his fourth season at the helm for Wisconsin. He played linebacker at Iowa and was the defensive coordinator for the Badgers before becoming their head coach. He is 37-14 overall, including 9-3 this season. While Bielema's win total declined from 12 to nine to seven in 2008, his young 2009 squad rebounded nicely and is seeking its 10th win in the Champs Sports Bowl.
Bielema has a respectable 20-12 record in Big Ten play. The knock on him is that he can't win big games - just 4-8 against ranked opponents. His teams also struggle away from Camp Randall Stadium. They are 7-10 in that category since 2007, including 0-2 in bowl games.
The Badgers had an interesting offseason, with defensive backs Shane Carter and Aubrey Pleasant suspended prior to the start of the season. Bielema's team nonetheless got off to a surprising 5-0 start before struggling with its only two ranked opponents, Ohio State and Iowa. Still, the Badgers rebounded to win four of their last five in dominating fashion. Of particular note is that Bielema's coordinators, Paul Chryst and Dave Doeren, prepared nearly flawless game plans during the team's two bye weeks. Wisconsin won its two games after extended time off by a combined score of 88-10. Chryst is a holdover from Barry Alvarez' staff and has produced the highest scoring offense in the Big Ten with a first-year starter at quarterback. Doeren has been much more comfortable in his role during his second year as defensive coordinator, and coached a young unit that didn't allow a conference foe to rush for over 100 yards. Bielema deserves praise for leading his team back to respectability after an awful 2008.
Who has the edge?
The head coaches are remarkably similar. Both are young, both played linebacker and both were defensive coordinators at their respective schools before accepting head coaching positions. Bielema's overall record is better, but Shannon's teams have improved every year. Both men helped their teams rebound from uncharacteristic 7-6 seasons a year ago to put up nine wins in the regular season in 2009.
Neither coach can be considered a "big game" guy yet, but Bielema has affirmatively struggled against ranked opponents, particularly on the road.
Schematically, these two coaching staffs are very similar. Both run relatively traditional offenses, using the run to set up the play-action pass. Miami and Wisconsin will both look to establish a strong running game, win time of possession and make a few big plays in the passing game. Defensively, both teams will try and force turnovers. Bielema's staff, despite its youth, has more experience with its own personnel.
The Verdict: Miami. The Hurricanes get the slightest edge possible here. Until Bielema's track record against quality opponents away from the confines of Camp Randall improves, it is hard to believe in his ability to coach his team to an upset of the #15 team in the country in Florida.