By: RANDY MOORE
Wisconsin has a terrific tight end in Travis Beckum. The Badgers have a fine quarterback in Tyler Donovan. They have big-play receivers who average 18.0 and 16.7 yards per catch, respectively. And they have a tailback who rushed for 1,080 yards and 14 touchdowns.
Wisconsin has everything, it seems, except a defense. And that's why the Badgers will lose to Tennessee in the Outback Bowl on New Year's Day.
Basically, Wisconsin is the Big Ten's version of Kentucky – good hit, no field. The Badgers are capable of scoring points at a mind-boggling pace but they also are capable of surrendering points at a mind-boggling pace.
This is a team that allowed 38 points each to Ohio State and Penn State, 34 each to Minnesota and Michigan State, 31 each to Illinois and The Citadel. That's right ... The Citadel. That's a lot of points, considering that Wisconsin is a ball-control team that averaged 33:49 of possession time per game. Opponents obviously did a lot of damage in that 26:11 they had the pigskin.
And here's why Vol quarterback Erik Ainge is licking his chops: The Badgers' pass defense has more holes than a slice of Swiss cheese. Consider:
- Wisconsin allowed Michigan to complete a 97-yard touchdown pass.
- Wisconsin allowed Michigan State to complete an 80-yard touchdown pass.
- Wisconsin allowed Minnesota to complete a 71-yard touchdown pass.
Granted, Tennessee allowed some long pass plays in 2007. But the Vols had an extremely young secondary that improved markedly as the season progressed. Conversely, Wisconsin's secondary was even worse in November than in September. The Badgers surrendered six passing TDs in their last two outings – three each in Game 11 vs. Michigan and Game 12 vs. Minnesota. (They allowed four passing TDs in Game 3 vs. The Citadel.)
In its most recent outing, Wisconsin allowed Minnesota to complete 21 of 37 passes for 352 yards and three touchdowns. That's an average of 16.7 yards per catch. No wonder Vol receiver Lucas Taylor couldn't pass his final exams two weeks ago. He was daydreaming about facing the Badger secondary.
Even with Taylor sidelined by academic woes, Tennessee will get enough production from Austin Rogers (53 catches), Josh Briscoe (49), Chris Brown (40) and Arian Foster (35) to keep Wisconsin's pass defense on its heels and to keep the scoreboard flashing.
Again, Wisconsin has superior offensive weapons and the Badgers will score a bunch of points on Jan. 1. But Tennessee will score even more.
WHY WISCONSIN WINS
By: JEFFERY STEWART
Outside of Penn State, Tennessee has done very well in post season contests against Big Ten teams, beating Ohio State in the 1995 Citrus Bowl, Northwestern in the 1997 Citrus Bowl and Michigan in the 2001 Citrus Bowl. The Vols also beat Purdue in the 1979 Bluebonnet Bowl Wisconsin in 1981 Garden State Bowl, Minnesota in the 1986 Liberty Bowl, Indiana in the 1987 Peach Bowl and Iowa in the 1987 Kickoff Classic.
Even with two losses to Penn State in the 1993 and 2006 Outback Bowl and a loss to Iowa in the 1982 Peach Bowl, the Vols are a solid 8-3 against Big Ten Conference teams.
Theories regarding their success are varied, but the perception is that the Volunteers' superior speed is the biggest advantage. That stems from an era when the Big Ten was primarily a power conference that didn't heavily recruit the south or California where warm weather and year round track programs encouraged the identification and development of fast prospects.
Now it is quite common for the Big Ten to venture south in search of speed. As a result its teams tend to have plenty of it at the skill positions and secondary. Overall team speed may lag a bit behind the SEC, but the difference is much less noticeable and UT's advantage is much more negligible.
That's particularly true this year, as the Vols offense is not up to their normal standards for speed at wide receiver and running back. Plus, UT doesn't have a quarterback that poses even a minor threat as a runner. The loss of LaMarcus Coker along with a failure to consistently tap into the premier prospect markets of Texas, Florida and California have relegated the Vols to the middle of the SEC pack for offensive speed, although they maintain good speed on defense.
The problem is that the interior of the defensive line is not nearly as strong as Tennessee has had in the recent past, and the suspension of starters Demonte Bolden and Rico McCoy weakens the inside ground defense further as Jerod Mayo is forced to move outside and is replaced by Elix Wilson in the middle.
As a result, the Vols may not be nearly as well equipped to shut down the run between the tackles as they were in the upset victory over Ohio State or the beat down of Michigan. That means that Wisconsin has an excellent chance to establish the run and move the sticks, forcing UT's shallow defense to stay on the field beyond its effective limit. The Badgers also have enough balance and playmakers to hurt the Vols through the air.
In studying film Wisconsin reminds me a lot of Alabama on offense with its balance and efficiency. And that might not prove to be a good thing Tuesday morning.
Additionally, Tennessee is a very modest 2-4 away from the imposing dimensions of Neyland Stadium. Two of those defeats were to California and Alabama which both finished the regular season at 6-6. Sure you might not be overly impressed with the Badgers 9-3 record, but it's better than the Bears and Tide not to mention the Vols.
If these were the only disadvantages facing the Vols victory would be difficult. However there are actually larger problems to overcome. By their very nature bowl games are more a fight for focus than a battle of superior personnel and strategy. Just consider bowls are played five weeks after the regular season ends and they don't really mean much, outside of the BCS title game.
They are played at a neutral site and unlike regular season road games teams spend a week at the bowl venue, engaging in all manner of festivities that have little to do with the game.
Furthermore, Tennessee is dealing with a lot of internal distractions like replacing the entire offensive staff and the suspension of six players, including leading receiver Lucas Taylor. There is also the pending decisions by Arian Foster and Mayo to either return to school for a senior season or opt for April's NFL Draft. Remember how Heath Shuler's decision hung over the 1993 Citrus Bowl which the Vols lost to Penn State 31-13?
Conversely, Wisconsin tight end/H-Back Travis Beckum has already announced he will return for his senior year and the Badgers aren't facing any staff turnover.
Getting the Vols focused on winning this game will be a challenge for Phillip Fulmer. And don't count on writing a happy ending to Eric Ainge's checkered career as being a powerful motivator for this team.