Perception is reality. It's as true today as when you first discovered it in college. The Wisconsin Badgers are 4-2 and look like they're going to go to yet another bowl game. But if you ask a Badger fan if this team is meeting expectations, there's likely to be some sort of chortle, sigh or torrent of swears.
Yes, it's like Peggy Lee sung about. Is that all there is? I consider myself one of the more patient and relaxed and process-trusting Badger fans, and even I can't paint sunshine and lollipops on where this season is right now. And again, there's a bowl game in Wisconsin's future. It may be one where we make like a Republican on the campaign trail and slay taxes, but there's a bowl game in the future.
If you're talking about someone whose past history doesn't include multiple stops at schools where good teams got worse or someone who decided he'd rather not work for Bill Snyder? Firing just seems irrational. That being said, we do have some concerns. But to get to why there's a feeling of concern, we have to understand just why there's been such expectations this season.
1. Melvin Gordon behind a veteran offensive line.
I mean, you have four returning starters and three returning seniors. That feels like it should be a good line to run behind. And when you have a transcendent talent like Melvin Gordon getting those carries, the Badgers should do some things that other teams just can't. Like run for all the yardage. All of it.
2. The Schedule
The defensive line seems thin. Yeah, but did you see that schedule? Who's going to be the quarterback? Bro. They get past LSU, they don't need a quarterback. What if the receivers don't emerge? Come on, that's like saying we're gonna lose to Northwestern.
Let's be honest: about 70 percent of the "Wisconsin as preseason playoff contender" meme was based on the fact that the schedule was easy. Beat LSU, and there's no way Wisconsin would possibly lose until the Iowa game. Ergo, this team is a playoff contender, and Gordon will get the Heisman for it. Alas, that's probably not happening. Lousy Dak Prescott.
Anyway, let's go position-by-position and see where the Badgers fall short, where the Badgers are meeting expectations... and I think I might give Andy Ludwig a little credit. I know, I'm scared, too.
Quarterbacks: As the season goes on, we may find out that Joel Stave is who he is. A B- quarterback who can lose the plate every so often. Is that enough for everyone here? No, but that's fine if he's somewhere in the Stocco-Sorgi class of quarterbacks --ol' Bielema never was much for recruiting. He'd rather look for a transfer and see if that worked out. It worked really well one out of three times.
Tanner McEvoy is in a weird spot. As it stands, he would be a better fit for the team if he ran routes at receiver or went and played giant-sized center field as a free safety. But that's because he's got an offensive coordinator that won't tweak his scheme to fit McEvoy's strengths. A good coach will always tailor his scheme to allow his players to make plays.
Example? This "attack from all angles, damn the torpedoes and full speed ahead" defense Dave Aranda is running? With all the seniors the Badgers had last year, he kept it much like how Charlie Partridge set it up. I mean, when you have a guy like Beau Allen, it's pretty easy to keep a similar scheme and just run a 3-4 defense. So yeah, it's not as hard as some would say to give players a scheme to put them in the best position to make plays.
But the thing of it is, McEvoy's professional future may be better served by taking his athletic talents to that other position.
Running backs: Why don't the Badgers run it more? Give Melvin Gordon more touches! You could well run the ball 80 percent of the time and be effective with these backs.
Here's why the Badgers would be tempting fate running the ball more than they have been. You get to a certain point of balance with your offense and the leverage you get from calling plays comes from the fact that you don't quite know who's going to get the ball. You know, the philosophy of the Wishbone and the Air Raid. Now sure, questions of why Corey Clement and Gordon don't see the field at the same time are completely legitimate, but here's the other thing you have to realize.
The Badgers are pretty thin at running back. They aren't going to be able to use Taiwan Deal without losing his redshirt season, and while Dare Ogwunbale is a good athlete and a good story, the dude is raw at the position. Gordon's been threatening 30 touches a game in recent weeks; Clement has been getting 15. I'm sure a creative offensive coordinator could have McEvoy, Gordon and Clement on the field at the same time.
But since we don't exactly have one of those, the depth being what it is leaves the run/pass split as something acceptable, even despite the fact that the passing game is a lot of a mess.
Wide receivers: Should Chris Beatty be fired as receivers coach? I'll grant you two facts: he really has never had a dominant receiving crew where he coached the position, and coaching under Tim Beckman is going to show you at your worst.
That being said, West Virginia was improving under Beatty until Bill Stewart went all Nixon on the athletic department, and Vanderbilt did improve from when Beatty was there in the two seasons afterwards. I know what your response is: Yeah, going from 101st to 67th and 97th to 69th in passing offense are real big improvements.
My response to you is three-fold. First, a "heh" to the mention of the sex number. Second, he also helped recruit some major talents to both schools on the recruiting field. Third, you know that the Badgers' peak passing offense was 61st in the nation and there are those who don' t think the Badgers are running the ball enough right now.
I know asking for patience in a process on the internet is as futile as my search to find an appropriate simile to the task, but here's why there needs to be some patience. This is year one where Beatty actually has some receivers he recruited in tow. George Rushing and Natrell Jamerson were the highlights of training camp. Next year, the position is basically going to be Alex Erickson and an ASCII shrug to start the year anyway. if there's no improvement next year -- and I say it like that because if it gets worse he's going to have to outr-ecruit Virginia and Virginia Tech in Virginia to stay -- then we can put Beatty on the hot seat. But he deserves time to let this play out.
B1G Weekend Review: The good, the bad, the meh
Maybe it's just because I've been sick all weekend, but this was an extremely "meh" Week 7 of Big Ten football. Some teams won, others lost and a few didn't even play!
Tight ends: This is a position that everyone agrees deserves more usage. Sam Arneson has consistent hands and Troy Fumagalli is an underrated delight. The one time the passing game had rhythm since Western Illinois refused to let Gordon beat them was the drive that tied the game at 14-14 and included three consecutive passes to Arneson. Of course, then they went to McEvoy and away from the tight ends, but we're all agreed Andy Ludwig is a better hire for someone else than under his current employment status.
Offensive line: The Badgers lead the nation in rushing yards per play and are second in rushing yards per game overall. They're doing what they're supposed to. A team that can pass rush is going to cause some problems for them through the air, but at this point, the line is doing its job, and anyone who's saying otherwise is ridiculous and can be discounted.
Defensive line: We all have concerns here. It's thin in terms of depth and the fact of the matter is that Warren Herring and Konrad Zagzebski are seniors. The Badgers have three prospects committed to replace the losses, and are looking to add a second defensive tackle in either Olive Sagapolu or Elu Aydon. But next year this is going to be a very young front three. The questions will remain.
Linebackers: No one has a problem with the linebackers. We like the linebackers we have. We love them, in fact. Truth be told, the only concern here is that the Badgers don't go to a 2-5 because the defensive line lacks bodies. And sure, we all agree Leon Jacobs dominating inside is going to be the sort of thing that's more of a "when" than an "if" situation. But what's beyond that? Inexperienced upperclassmen (Jesse Hayes and Michael Trotter), one intriguing freshman (T.J. Edwards) and a whole lot of walk-ons and grayshirts.
It might work for a while, but the Badgers would likely need about 14 linebackers they can trust for this to be something that would be a consistent endeavor. I'm assuming they're at about half that right now. Ergo, that 2-4 ugliness shall continue if the injury gods remain smitey.
Secondary: They are as good as the pressure up front. They're prone to giving up the big play and that does worry you when you see that three out of the next four games have receivers like Stefon Diggs, Leonte Carroo and the tag team of Kenny Bell and Jordan Westerkamp. And this, too, has been something of a problem, injury-wise. Devin Gaulden, Derrick Tindal and Lubern Figaro have all been dinged up, too. So, if you're looking for the Badgers to lose a game in the next few, look for the one where the pressure doesn't engulf the opponents quarterback.
Special teams: Rafael Gaglianone has been a better placekicker than what the Badgers have had, though greatness is only as a meme at present. Kenzel Doe is probably never going to develop great return instincts, but he did finish second in the Big Ten as a kick returner last year and as it stands, he's still averaging about 21 yards per return. Not enough to justify consistently taking out of the end zone, but it puts you on the leaderboard.
Coverage-wise? The Badgers' kickoff coverage unit is their better unit, and it is slightly above average (43rd nationally, fourth in the Big Ten). Punting-wise? It's pretty bad right now. Drew Meyer is averaging a shade under 39 yards per punt (38.96, which is good for 110th nationally). The coverage is allowing 14.5 yards per return, good for 118th. That's a net of 24.46 yards of field position gained, kids. And that's with the Badgers only allowing four returns of 20 yards or more.
What does that tell you? That when Meyer kicks a returnable ball, the other team will get good yardage off of it. The coverage is sound enough that it won't get taken to the house, but the gunners and other first-level guys need improvement. Could this be a condition of the depth problems the Badgers have at other positions? Potentially. This is a doubling of the average they had last season (7.23 yards per return in 2013). But if they don't find a way to improve it, William Likely is one of the better punt returners in college football right now. He plays for Maryland.
I'm still worried about Maryland.
All right, so we got to this point. More than 1,900 words. You all must be wondering, "what the heck are the takeaways?" I mean, if you haven't just decided to comment already before you got here. I'm not saying you did but you probably did. Anyway, I'll give you three takeaways from the season so far.
1. This is the real year one of the Gary Andersen regime.
Say what you will about Bret, he jumped with a full pantry of talent. Sure, the secondary was a shaky thing, but there were a lot more pieces in play in August 2013 than in August 2014. That's not to call what the Badgers have right now untalented; they show flashes of brilliance, it's just that they're young. They need development time. It ties into point two.
2. We've all been spoiled.
If this was the situation in 2007 -- a Heisman-caliber running back, a good line and a young, talented defense that should win nine games coming off a year where a lot of talent left -- we'd be okay with it. And you know what? It's how it happened. No one was saying there needed to be changes made, and at that point, Bret was also coaching special teams.
And in 2008? It got bad. "An FCS kicker away from not getting a bowl game" bad. But Barry trusted the process. He stayed with Bielema. They made one tweak, and good things happened. It's not instant. It's a process. It's a young team, and by 2016, this could be a team that wrecks all the shop.
3. Never trust a team whose biggest strength is ease of schedule.
I am going to say this again.
NEVER TRUST A TEAM WHOSE BIGGEST STRENGTH IS EASE OF SCHEDULE. NEVER. EVER. DO. THIS.
Why? Because this is the fastest and easiest way for a team to break your heart.