Lucas at Large: Bielema not caught up in early rankings

FB_110727_Bielema_Bret.jpgAfter cracking a joke about how the check is in the mail (i.e. buying votes), UW football coach Bret Bielema sounded flattered by the results of the election; not for himself but for his players and staff.

"It's neat to see the respect for the Wisconsin football program overall,'' he said.

Bielema was addressing this week's release of the Cleveland Plain Dealer's preseason newspaper poll, which surveyed two beat writers from each of the 12 teams in the Big Ten.

The Badgers were an overwhelming favorite to win the Leaders Division over Ohio State and Penn State -- collecting 22 of the 24 first place votes. Nebraska was tabbed in the Legends Division.

Bielema was the Big Ten's "best coach," edging out Iowa's Kirk Ferentz. Rounding out the top five were Nebraska's Bo Pelini, Northwestern's Pat Fitzgerald and Michigan State's Mark Dantonio.

"There was a big push by the coaches the last couple of years to eliminate the preseason rankings,'' Bielema said of the annual poll announced at the Big Ten's kickoff meetings in Chicago.

They got their wish this year. Stepping into the void, though, was the Plain Dealer. "From that standpoint,'' Bielema said, "I knew someone was probably going to take the lead.''

How will the Badgers handle such expectations?

"We have a common theme,'' Bielema said. "Preseason rankings are great but they don't mean a thing. It's what you are ranked at the end of the year that truly matters.''

Bielema will be joined in Chicago by defensive tackle Patrick Butrym, safety Aaron Henry and wideout Nick Toon. Each school will be represented by three players. How did Bielema select this trio?

"Basically we've taken seniors the last couple of years,'' he said, adding these three "can speak the way you want this program to be heard at the meetings about the way we work and do things.

"I know a lot of people probably thought I was going to bring other people (like maybe transfer Russell Wilson) but these players represent what we are the best.''

This was not a knock on Wilson, who has impressed everyone with his work ethic and poise. But Bielema wanted to make sure that he rewarded players who had invested five years in the program.

At previous Big Ten media days, Bielema had been talked into taking some players who may have been garnering the most preseason hype from the various football publications.

"Sometimes that involved underclassmen and it just didn't come across the way I wanted it to,'' said Bielema, who has already gone over the ground rules with Butrym, Henry and Toon.

"I met with those guys for 45 minutes just to tell them what to expect in Chicago. They're going to walk into that lobby and there's going to be all kinds of media people ... they have to be guarded.''

Again, don't get him wrong. Bielema wants his players to enjoy the experience -- just like he once did as a former Iowa nose tackle, and a former Badger coach-in-waiting (to Barry Alvarez).

"It's just fun; a great time to be part of our conference,'' said Bielema, noting that with so much negativity in college football lately, the Badgers, in particular, have generated positive attention.

"Hopefully we can ride that wave as long as we can,'' he added.

Bielema is looking forward to his own interaction in Chicago with his fraternity brothers, including first-year Big Ten coaches Brady Hoke, Kevin Wilson, Jerry Kill, Luke Fickell and Bo Pelini.

"What's unique to this conference,'' Bielema said, "is that we have a group of coaches who get along pretty well off the field. It was probably the warmest meetings I'd ever been around last spring.''

One of the questions that Bielema is bound to field on Thursday is about leadership, especially the senior leadership, given the significant graduation losses from last year's Rose Bowl team.

"Each year is a little bit different,'' he said. "I don't know how many John Moffitts are going to come walking into the media room. You guys got spoiled, although Pete Konz is not far behind; he'll just be a little bit less dramatic (than Moffitt).

"I do think we have an interesting mix. I brought the seniors in the other day and had a short meeting. Just looking around the room, there are so many guys with interesting stories. I think they'll give us great leadership on the field.''
ON WISCONSIN