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You didn't have to be drinking Kool-Aid from the Little Brown Jug to realize that geographical realignment was a most reasonable option for the Big Ten. And this was not about passing the Illibuck on competitive balance, even if a couple of trophy games will be taking a hit.
Competitive balance can be so fleeting.
Five short years ago, Michigan's storied football program was cycling south of the southern-most campus in the conference -- making for no stranger bedfellows than the Wolverines and Indiana Hoosiers -- while Iowa was cycling in the opposite direction.
|New Big Ten Divisional Alignment|
In 2008, Michigan finished with a 3-9 overall record, matching Indiana at the bottom of the Big Ten. At 2-6, the Wolverines were one game better than the Hoosiers in league games. In 2009, they both won just once in the conference with Michigan going 5-7 in all games. Indiana was 4-8.
Contrast and compare ...
In 2008, Iowa was one of three schools that won nine of 13 games, joining Michigan State and Northwestern. The Hawkeyes were 5-3 in the Big Ten; a springboard for 2009 when the Hawks ended up with 11 wins (as many overall as both Ohio State and Penn State) and played in the Orange Bowl.
Iowa was the seventh-best team in college football.
Michigan was the 10th-best team in the Big Ten.
That was four short years ago.
Granted, there has been a noteworthy reawakening in Ann Arbor under Ohio-bred (Dayton) head coach Brady Hoke, who has erased the taste of Rich Rodriguez's tenure and made the Wolverines dangerous again with back-to-back records of 11-2 and 8-5 (6-2 each year in the Big Ten).
By contrast, the Hawkeyes have been in need of realignment -- front wheel -- after running over potholes the last three seasons (19-19 overall). In 2012, Iowa may have bottomed out at 4-8 and 2-6 in the Big Ten; at least a beleaguered Kirk Ferentz is hoping that he has seen the worst.
Based on his track record, there's every reason to believe that Ferentz will get the Hawks back on track sooner than later -- assuming, of course, that the can keep a few running backs healthy during the grind of a long Big Ten season, which will get longer in 2016 with nine league games.
Over the last five seasons, Iowa is 39-25 (21-19) and Michigan is 34-29 (18-22).
During that same span, Northwestern is 40-25 (21-19) and Michigan State is 44-22 (27-13).
In Jim Delany's New World Order, the Hawkeyes and the Wildcats are in the Big Ten West and the Wolverines and the Spartans are in the Big Ten East. So maybe Iowa doesn't look like Michigan right now anymore than Northwestern looks like Michigan State, right? It's not as one-sided as you think.
The 'Cats are coming off a 10-3 season (and returning most of their best players) whereas Sparty is trying to bounce back from a 7-6 season (after winning 32 games over the previous three years). At the moment, there is not a significant competitive gap between these two programs.
Now consider the sum of the moving parts: Why can't the "Big 4'' in the West (Wisconsin, Nebraska, Northwestern, Iowa) compete against the "Big 4'' in the East (Ohio State, Penn State, Michigan, Michigan State), particularly with the uncertainty of the Nittany Lions' scholarship reductions?
Obviously, it's not a wash today unless you're talking about the current wild cards in the West (Minnesota, Purdue, Illinois) versus those in the East (Indiana, Maryland, Rutgers). Still, everything is subject to change on a year-to-year basis, including competitive balance in 2014.
So with the exception of a couple of trophy games that will no longer be staged annually -- the Little Brown Jug between Michigan and Minnesota and the Illibuck rivalry between Illinois and Ohio State (Rivalry? Who knew?) -- the Big Ten's geographical realignment can stand on its own merit.
As the No. 3 quarterback on the depth chart, the backup to the backup, Scott Tolzien didn't take any snaps for the San Francisco 49ers. But he still feels good about his ongoing pro football education.
"For starters, I get to go against the No. 1 defense in the NFL week-in and week-out,'' said Tolzien, the former Wisconsin quarterback, who runs the 49ers' scout team in practice.
"I remember when I first got here, I thought, 'Am I the worst football player around? Or, what's the deal?' It didn't take long to figure out that our defense is extremely good.''
It's one of the reasons why the 49ers are playing in Super Bowl XLVII against the Baltimore Ravens. Another reason has been the dramatic emergence of quarterback Colin Kaepernick.
Tolzien started the season as the backup to Kaepernick, who was the backup to Alex Smith. But after Smith suffered a concussion, Kaepernick took over as the starter and Smith is now the top reserve.
"I've learned a lot from just being the third guy,'' Tolzien admitted. "What I thought was really cool was that none of this quote-unquote controversy changed the dynamic in our quarterback room.
"It was still business as usual. Both guys, especially Alex, were so professional about it. I know it didn't change the way Alex prepared on a week-to-week basis. That included helping me and Colin.''
Regarding Kaepernick's rapid development, Tolzien said, "We all knew he had the physical tools. You saw that in practice. But the way he's done it on game days is extremely impressive.
"He's still a young quarterback yet he doesn't make the young guy mistakes. Even more than that, he's not just managing the game, he's making plays.''
Tolzien felt all along that Kaepernick "went into this thing extremely confident and once he was able to put a few games together, he can outwardly express that and take command of the huddle.''
Along with Washington's Robert Griffin III and Seattle's Russell Wilson, the dynamic Kaepernick has been at the forefront of introducing an innovative way to attack NFL defenses with the zone read.
"They took the league by storm this year,'' Tolzien opined. "In my mind, one of the top storylines has been what this offensive scheme has done to the league and how it has transformed it.''
But does it have staying power? Or is it a trend? Tolzien wasn't sure.
"I'm curious as anyone else,'' he said. "Right now, nobody has an answer. It creates a lot of one-on-one situations. All it takes is for one guy to be off on his gap responsibilities, and it's a house call.''
There has been no denying the impact of the dual-threat quarterback, for now, at least. But what about the new wave at the position? That includes RG3, Wilson and Indianapolis' Andrew Luck.
"I still don't think people understand how ridiculous that is to step into NFL huddle at that age and take over like they have,'' Tolzien said. "That's so uncommon. Yet they've made it look so easy.''
Tolzien, who led the Badgers to the 2010 Big Ten title, can derive satisfaction not only from the overall team results but in how the defense reacts to each individual opponent from week to week.
Leading up to the Super Bowl, he has simulated the tendencies of Baltimore's Joe Flacco and provided a picture of the Ravens offensively and "concepts that they're running'' with Flacco.
"Over the course of the season,'' Tolzien said, "if you take one piece from each guy (opposing QB), you can have a few more things in your own arsenal to draw from at the end of the season.
"I basically try to treat Wednesday and Thursdays as my game days. What it all boils down to is that you're preparing each week as the starter, whether you're third string or first string.
"You'd be cheating yourself -- you'd be cheating your team -- if you weren't doing that. A majority of my focus is on our own scheme. That's one of the fun parts of the gig.''
On Super Bowl Sunday, he will be "trying to live or play vicariously through the starter and provide an extra set of eyes for adjustments that can be made during timeouts and between series.''
The mere fact that he's on the roster of Super Bowl team has been pretty overwhelming.
"This last week has been crazy, but it also has been awesome,'' Tolzien said. "It's kind of like the same feeling when you win the Big Ten and you find out that you're going to the Rose Bowl.
"Now to actually have those two things happen, it's surreal. I'm so fortunate, and so thankful, and I want to make sure I don't ever take any of this for granted.''
Although he has been inactive more than he has been active, dressing for just three games during the regular season, Tolzien has treated his apprenticeship with urgency.
"You realize at this level that a lot of it is on you,'' Tolzien said. "If you're not good enough, they're going to find the next guy. That's pretty powerful right there.
"You'd better find a way to get better each week otherwise you're not going to last. There's another crop of guys coming into this league after the draft and they're looking to take your job.
"It will be like that every year until I establish myself in this league -- until I get playing time and prove that I can do it. I'm fine with that. Bottom line: you have to be hungry to get better.''
By all accounts, Tolzien is famished. "It's pretty simple, I want to be a starter (in the NFL),'' he said. "That hasn't changed since when I picked up a football when I was 10 years old.''
To this end, he has been taking advantage of his teachers: Niners head coach Jim Harbaugh, a former NFL signalcaller, and San Francisco quarterbacks coach Geep Chryst, the brother of Pitt coach Paul Chryst.
"(Harbaugh) played over a decade in the league,'' Tolzien said, "so there's merit in the things that he points out to you, whether it's a defensive scheme or a fundamental of the position.
"It's not just coachspeak. He sees the game through our lens and that has been extremely helpful. I'm just so happy to work with both guys. They're first-class individuals and awesome coaches.
"Geep is the more talkative version of Paul (who was Tolzien's offensive coordinator at Wisconsin). They have the same humor and personality. You're just going to hear more out of Geep.''
As it was, Tolzien heard from Smith after the Badgers hired Gary Andersen as their new head coach in December.
Smith and Andersen were at Utah at the same time.
"Right away, he goes, 'That's an awesome hire,''' Tolzien said. "He told me he's just one of the most genuine people that you'll ever come across, just a normal guy.''
Not unlike Tolzien.
Perhaps there have been UW teams with more overall talent. Maybe this group needed an additional playmaker or two. But anyone who paid any attention would never question the heart and genuine class of this team. To me, that is what made it special.
Early in the season, or probably even before the season, there was reason to wonder why Montee Ball returned for his senior year. An assault before training camp. Early struggles in general with the offense. An injury in the game against UTEP. There were plenty of reasons to second-guess Ball's decision to come back.
I think now we can say it worked out pretty well for the Doak Walker Award winner. Yep, by staying in school, the NCAA's career touchdown leader may have outsmarted us all.
It would be difficult for many of us to even try to imagine what Curt Phillips has gone through. With multiple knee surgeries, who would have blamed him for giving up the game?
I think now we can say it worked out well for the fifth-year senior. He started the final five games, and was able to live a dream by playing in the Rose Bowl, and playing well.
There are many other stories of players who overcame injuries, such as right guard Kyle Costigan. He was not going to let a "little" thing -- like a dislocated kneecap -- keep him off the field very long.
The return to health of cornerback Devin Smith was a big step for a secondary that turned out to be very solid. The improvement of Marcus Cromartie was fun to watch, and the play of safety Dez Southward should have everyone excited for next season.
The defensive line returns next fall, led by tackles Ethan Hemer and Beau Allen. The linebacking corps will miss Mike Taylor, an all-day tough and talented player who helped recruit a Hall of Fame coach back to the sideline.
To say the least, the 2012 Wisconsin Badgers had a few obstacles. Down-to-the-wire games that got away. An in-season change with an assistant. Then, a change with the head coach following a stunning performance in the conference championship game.
While Bret Bielema's decision to leave for Arkansas was quite a jolt, the chance to watch Barry Alvarez back on the field was a treat for players and fans alike.
"I had a blast," said Alvarez shortly after the game. So did the players, both past and present. Watching Alvarez lead his team out of the tunnel one more time in Pasadena is a snapshot I will keep in my mind forever.
To those who are leaving, the coaches and especially the senior players, I say thank you and wish you great success in the future.
To those who are returning, your future looks promising. New coach Gary Andersen and his staff are eager to get to know you better. While the result on New Year's Day was not what you hoped, my guess is the new boss liked much of what he witnessed in the last couple of weeks.
Hopefully there is a Rose Bowl title in your future. But until then, being the three-time Big Ten champs isn't all that bad.
The fourth episode of "Path to Pasadena" takes you along for the Badgers' final run-up to the 99th Rose Bowl Game, from practice to the Lawry's Beef Bowl to their pep rally at LA Live.
The Badgers put in their penultimate practice for the Rose Bowl on Sunday, but not before being energized by thousands of fans who have descended on Los Angeles for the game.
Prior to heading back to The Home Depot Center for drills, the team made an appearance at LA Live for a special Rose Bowl Pep Rally. Around 3,000 UW fans showed up for the event, which included a performance from the UW Marching Band and remarks from special guests like UW-Madison Chancellor David Ward and Badgers legend Ron Dayne.
The biggest cheer, however, came when the team emerged from the Staples Center onto a balcony overlooking the plaza at LA Live, tossing T-shirts and autographed footballs into the crowd. Following some words from interim head coach Barry Alvarez, defensive captains Chris Borland, Shelton Johnson and Mike Taylor spoke to the fans, as did Travis Frederick, Curt Phillips, and finally, Montee Ball.
For Alvarez, the event followed one last media availability leading up to game day, a morning press conference for both head coaches at the Rose Bowl media hotel in downtown L.A.
Monday's schedule has the Badgers heading to Pasadena to take a team photo outside the Rose Bowl, followed by one final practice session and a screening of the movie "Jack Reacher."
A rainy morning in Los Angeles made it an easy decision for the Wisconsin coaching staff to call of practice for the day, but the inclement weather brought with it a silver lining.
The Badgers called an audible and held a walk-through at the team hotel instead of busing to The Home Depot Center for what was scheduled to be a quick 12-period practice. Interim head coach Barry Alvarez told the team that the staff's focus for Saturday was aimed at mental preparation anyway, so the hotel walk-through fit in well with the schedule.
After the offensive and defensive units finished their walk-throughs in adjacent ballrooms at the Hyatt Regency Century Plaza, the Badgers had the opportunity to host guests from AbilityFirst, an L.A.-area charity aimed at "expanding possibilities" for children and adults with special needs.
The group had originally planned to join the team on the practice field, but the change in venue brought an opportunity for the Badgers to bring their guests into the players' game room and lounge at the hotel.
No one from either side was complaining when a pool table, ping pong and video games were thrown into the mix, as evidenced by junior LB Chris Borland's tweet:
Tom was a pool shark and a ping pong master.I want to make it back next year for a rematch! twitter.com/chrsbrlnd/stat...-- chris r borland (@chrsbrlnd) December 29, 2012
The Badgers' walk-through and time with the guests from AbilityFirst came after the entire squad bused to The L.A. Hotel Downtown for the Rose Bowl's annual media day. Players and coaches spent 30 minutes being interviewed, including some who took time to join an onsite crew from BTN captained by Rick Pizzo, Glen Mason and fromer Badger Brandon Williams.