Best case-worst case: Wisconsin

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

The 11th and final installment in a series examining the best and worst outcomes, within reason, for each Big Ten squad.


The Badgers get back to the basics, running backs John Clay and Zach Brown punish defenders, the quarterbacks limit mistakes, the defense remembers how to finish and head coach Bret Bielema's seat cools down.

Wisconsin's surprise starting backfield of quarterback Scott Tolzien and Brown prove why they earned the top jobs against Northern Illinois, combining for four touchdowns in a 35-10 rout. Curt Phillips also plays several series and showcases his speed on a 50-yard scoring run. Wisconsin needs no drama to beat Fresno State and has little trouble with Wofford.

Michigan State comes to Madison and Wisconsin mounts a come-from-behind win. The Spartans lead by 10 early in the foruth quarter when head coach Mark Dantonio draws an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty for looking too intense and angry. Dantonio's blunder leads to a downward spiral, and Wisconsin's Phillip Welch hits a 50-yard field goal as time expires for a 24-23 win. The Badgers retain Paul Bunyan's Axe the next week in Minneapolis, as safety Jay Valai collects another helmet decal from a Minnesota running back for his wall.

The Badgers drop games to Ohio State and Iowa but respond against the Indiana schools to go 7-2, as wideout Nick Toon becomes a star. Michigan visits Camp Randall Stadium and Wisconsin builds a big lead, this time hanging on for an impressive victory. Wisconsin splits its last two games to finish 9-3.

A trip to the Outback Bowl comes next, and Wisconsin beats Mississippi for its 10th win. Sales of red windbreakers skyrocket in the greater Madison area and Bielema gets another few years tacked on to his contract. Clay keeps his weight down as Wisconsin leads the Big Ten in rushing with two 1,000-yard backs. The Badgers get some clarity at quarterback and enter 2010 with BCS bowl hopes.


The downward slide continues, a lack of discipline shows up again, the quarterbacks crumble, the defense caves and the head coach gets more heat.

Despite a nonconference schedule that doesn't include a BCS opponent, Wisconsin manages just a 2-2 split, with one of the wins against FCS Wofford. Tolzien starts off shaky, throwing two interceptions against Northern Illinois after a steady preseason. Phillips doesn't fare much better, and the Badgers go through another year with below-average quarterback play.

At 2-1 entering Big Ten play, Wisconsin suffers another mental meltdown against Michigan State, drawing 12 penalties in a 30-17 loss. Bielema continues to ride the refs too hard, and Valai gets ejected for headhunting. Minnesota reclaims the axe a week later at TCF Bank Stadium, as former Wisconsin safety Kim Royston records two interceptions in the win. Losses follow against Ohio State and Iowa, which thumps its alum Bielema by 21 points.

Wisconsin scrapes by against Purdue and Indiana and needs to win two of three to reach a bowl game. After building a 21-point halftime lead against Michigan, the Badgers collapse for the second straight year as Tate Forcier rallies the Wolverines in overtime. A week later, former Wisconsin defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz avenges his surprising dismissal by helping Northwestern to a shutout of the Badgers in Evanston.

Out of the postseason picture, Wisconsin heads to Hawaii and sleepwalks through a 44-20 loss. Clay can't stay below 250 pounds. The wide receivers continue to drop passes. Athletic director Barry Alvarez decides to keep Bielema but loses a chunk of season-ticket holders in the process. Bielema fires both of his coordinators. Minnesota and Iowa go to January bowls.