New Year's Day and the circus of Big Ten bowls is almost here. But first, we're handing out grades for each Big Ten team's regular-season performance on offense, defense, special teams and overall showing.
Up next: the Wisconsin Badgers.
Despite a new coaching staff, the Badgers looked awfully familiar on offense in 2013. New coordinator Andy Ludwig wisely stuck to the program's bread-and-butter running game, with outstanding results. Led by James White and Melvin Gordon -- both of whom ran for more than 1,300 yards -- Wisconsin had one of the top rushing attacks in the nation while averaging 283 yards per game on the ground. Ludwig's crew ranked third in the Big Ten in scoring at 35.8 points per game and reached at least 30 points seven times.
Bouncing back from an injury-plagued 2012, Jared Abbrederis re-established himself as one of the league's top wide receivers, with 1,051 yards and seven touchdowns. Jacob Pedersen was also a top-notch tight end. The only knock on the offense remained the passing game. While Joel Stave completed 61.6 percent of his passes and threw for 20 touchdowns, he also struggled to connect at times with wide-open receivers. The lack of consistent wide receivers outside of Abbrederis also was a problem.
The switch to a predominantly 3-4 defensive alignment caused little disruption for a senior-laden front seven, and first-year coordinator Dave Aranda oversaw one of the league's top units. Wisconsin allowed just 14.8 points and 294 yards per game, ranking second in the league to Michigan State in both categories. Opponents ran for just 101 yards per game against the Badgers.
Linebacker Chris Borland took home the Big Ten defensive player of the year trophy, and Wisconsin stayed strong even when he missed a couple of games with a hamstring injury during league play. The secondary entered the year as a major concern but allayed those fears with a solid performance, getting help from true freshman cornerback Sojourn Shelton and converted quarterback Tanner McEvoy at safety. The defense was tremendous just about all season, which made the breakdowns against Penn State in the season finale all the more puzzling.
Special teams: C-minus
Field goals were once again an adventure for the Badgers, and a lack of confidence in Kyle French's leg might have cost the team in its controversial loss to Arizona State. Jack Russell (woof!) replaced French late in the season and provided more stability to the kicking game. But Wisconsin was still below league average in kickoff and punt returns and punting.
A nine-win season is nothing to scoff at, and Wisconsin already has increased its win total from 2012. It looks even better when you factor in the officiating fiasco that cost the Badgers a possible win at Arizona State. But the loss to Penn State at home on Senior Day left a tarnish on an otherwise excellent season. Wisconsin could have finished 10-2 and in position for a BCS at-large bid, although Michigan State's win in the Big Ten championship game a week later rendered that point moot. A weak nonconference schedule and advantageous cross-division slate (no Michigan State, Nebraska or Michigan) also helped. Still, first-year head coach Gary Andersen managed to keep the program operating at a high level. Beating South Carolina in the Capital One Bowl to get to 10 wins certainly would push this grade to an A for the season.
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