MADISON, Wis. -- Bart Houston was sitting inside Potbelly Sandwich Shop downtown on State Street this summer when a man approached to make small talk about Wisconsin's football team. Houston knew the conversation ultimately was headed toward the topic that has percolated through town for months.
So, who's going to be the starting quarterback?
"I didn't know the guy," Houston said. "He probably knew me. Which is weird because it was right after I cut my hair. I was thinking I was going incognito for a while. But no, apparently not."
Quarterback battles dominate the college football landscape this time of year, and the Big Ten is no exception. Some programs, like Michigan State and Penn State, have a clear-cut frontrunner in place despite the coach's best attempts to maintain ambiguity for a few more weeks. At Wisconsin, however, the competition is legitimately wide open, even as Week 2 of fall camp rolls along.
Over the next two weeks, Badgers coaches will have to decide whether they believe Houston, a fifth-year senior, is a better option than redshirt freshman Alex Hornibrook. The two have been locked in a duel since spring practice with little, if any, separation, even as Wisconsin's season opener against LSU looms.
So when people ask about the pecking order these days -- and they ask frequently -- Houston doesn't have much to say.
"It happens probably two or three times a week," Houston said. "It's everybody. They're always wondering. We're just as in the dark as they are."
Whichever player coach Paul Chryst picks will say a lot about where he believes the program is headed. To select Houston demonstrates the value of experience. The right-hander has a stronger arm, but his accuracy has been inconsistent. Given the Badgers' difficult schedule, it seems reasonable to believe he'd be more prepared to handle the defenses Wisconsin will face.
Houston's breakthrough moment came last season when he replaced starter Joel Stave against Illinois. He completed 22 of 33 passes for 232 yards and two touchdowns, with two interceptions, to help lead Wisconsin to victory. Houston has appeared in 15 games during his three-year career, almost exclusively as a backup.
"It's not a whole library like Joel had, but it's better than nothing," Houston said. "I know the flow of the game. It's a lot different than being thrown in for the last play of the game, too. You get into the flow of the game, you can jibe with the players. You start thinking about the plays that might work, and sometimes coach Chryst calls them."
To select Hornibrook means the coaches are taking a gamble on an unproven, albeit talented, player while also positioning him as a potential four-year starter, as Stave was before him. The left-hander does not possess quite the same arm strength as Houston, but he's been more accurate and used the first week of practice to showcase a solid deep ball.
"I think the one thing that's definitely developed is just throwing the ball because I've gotten bigger and stronger and technique has gotten a little more sound," Hornibrook said. "With the reads, just seeing the defense, understanding coverages and incorporating them into the plays. I feel pretty strong there."
Reporters had access to six fall practices in their entirety through the first week of camp. The final three of those practices, on Friday, Saturday and Sunday, were conducted in full pads, providing the best chance to glean where each player stands. Hornibrook clearly outperformed Houston on Friday during 11-on-11 team drills, and the two were even on Saturday. Sunday represented a developmental practice for younger players, so Hornibrook took most of the reps while Houston did not fully participate.
In other words, the answer at quarterback remains a mystery. Wisconsin was scheduled to hold a scrimmage on Monday, and the competition should begin to become clearer.
Chryst said the staff must plan to have both quarterbacks ready to play because the backup will be one injury away from becoming a starter. But the fact neither has pulled ahead to this point does not have coaches worried. To the contrary, actually.
"Sometimes a guy separates himself because the other guy can't stay with him," offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph said. "And those guys are working, man. ... They don't worry about what the other guy does. They're pushing each other in different ways. But the [lack of] separation hasn't been because somebody has faltered, which is good. They'll continue to grind here, and I think it's good for this team."
Wisconsin's ground game, with a healthy Corey Clement, should be strong behind an improved offensive line. But the Badgers will need a two-dimensional offense to prevent opponents from loading the box to stuff the run. Houston said he believed the coaches would stick with the starter they name rather than create a revolving door under center.
"Whoever gets named is not going to be on a short leash, like you throw a pick and you're out of there, you made the wrong choice," Houston said. "It's going to be our first start at LSU whoever it is. There's growing pains no matter what. I got some game time, but I don't have a start. There's growing pains with that."
As the competition and questions continue, with no frontrunner in sight, Chryst has left his quarterbacks with one simple message.
"Just keep working," Hornibrook said. "All he talks about is getting better as yourself. Don't pay attention to anything except our team and what we're trying to do."