When he went to Wisconsin, DiNardo wanted to see how head coach Bret Bielema and his staff had pushed the Badgers past their loss to TCU in the Rose Bowl. Sitting in the stands and watching the team go through drills in half-pads (helmets and shoulder pads only), DiNardo got his answer.
"It was the best practice I have ever seen in that gear," DiNardo. "I think Bret has got the best staff he's had since he's been there, and I came away fired up about Wisconsin.
DiNardo was so impressed by what he saw on the practice field that he picked UW - not Ohio State - to win the Leaders Division title this season and thought Nebraska would win the Legends Division. That prediction was made before Jim Tressel was forced to step down as Ohio State's coach, before suspended quarterback Terrell Pryor left the program and before UW added quarterback Russell Wilson.
No.11 Wisconsin gets to show DiNardo and the rest of the college football world exactly how good they are when they kick off the college football season with a primetime match-up against UNLV Thursday at Camp Randall.
After years of standing on the doorstep, Wisconsin took a major step forward as a program when the Badgers went 11-2, won the conference championship and advance to the Rose Bowl for the first time in a decade. But if satisfaction started to creep in, Bielema's summer reading convinced him that is shouldn't.
Given a book by a friend titled "Good to Great" that instructs companies how to take the next step, Bielema gleaned the message that why settle for good when the Badgers could be great if they pushed themselves a little bit further, a little bit farther and not be satisfied.
Bielema doesn't have to look farther than Ohio State, which won at least a portion of the last six Big Ten Conference titles, though the one it shared with UW and Michigan State last year was vacated due to the scandal that cost the Buckeyes more than their reputation in the offseason.
"The main emphasis was that a lot of people settle for being good and just get complacent and accept being at a level that is better than (almost) everybody else," Bielema said. "But to get to an elite status, to get to the great level, you have to continue to search within yourself for what you can do better. ... It was just a new way for me to think about, ‘Hey, we're at a pretty good level right now, but where can we go from here?'"
Thursday begins a new area of Big Ten play. No longer do the Badgers have to beat 10 other teams to win the conference championship, but have to be the best of five teams – Illinois, Indiana, Ohio State, Penn State and Purdue – in order to play for the conference championship in Indianapolis.
"I don't think the preparation changes because of the new divisions, but it appears more compelling for a national story," said Big Ten analyst Howard Griffin. "Everybody's going to be watching what happens in the Big Ten, as the conference has the chance to be one of the best conferences in college football when the elite teams are playing well."
After winning the conference championship for the first time in 11 years last season and with the ongoing scandal and investigation at Ohio State, the Leaders Division appears ready for Wisconsin to become the powerhouse in that division.
"I think the problems at Ohio State will have a significant short term effect," DiNardo said. "Ohio State's staff was built around an experience head coach, who grew up coaching offense and calling plays. Ohio State now has a young head coach with no head coaching experience that's a defensive coach. I think that's a difficult situation to be in. You can't make a lot of changes, so that's going to be a challenge and I think it's obvious they are going to be distracted for at least a year."
That window is open now for Wisconsin and both DiNardo and Griffith agree that the Badgers have many pieces in place, but the addition of Russell Wilson is a big boost in the right direction. In three seasons as quarterback for N.C. State, Wilson, the runner up for ACC Player of the Year in 2010, completed 57.8 percent of his passes for 8,545 yards. No quarterback in the ACC has thrown more touchdown passes than Wilson, as his 76 touchdown passes is 26 more than Miami quarterback Jacory Harris. And he's brought that savvy to Wisconsin's offense.
"Wisconsin is really a West Coast style offense and that entire system has several philosophies that if you have the quarterback that can go down field and spread the defense, they are going to utilize that," Griffith said. "They had a quarterback the last couple years that was really consistent in Scott Tolzien. They didn't have to go out and get more because the running game is so explosive. Now you add a guy that has that explosive arm, has a lot ability and a proven track record, maybe the offense can open up more. I think Paul Chryst gets a kick out of designing an offense to where Wilson can have a lot of success this year."
If any program is going to challenge Ohio State, according to DiNardo, it's a Wisconsin team led by its sixth-year head coach. DiNardo's confidence in Bielema comes from a lunch he had with Wisconsin athletic director Barry Alvarez in 2007, an informal meal that Alvarez anticipated a dip in the team's success following by the program being built back up.
Alvarez was right, as Wisconsin followed its 7-6 2008 season by going 21-5 the next two seasons.
"He predicted this all happening," DiNardo said of his lunch with Alvarez. "The way the program dipped in Bret's third year and bounced back, Bret deserves most of the credit, but Barry deserves a lot of the credit."
Griffith spoke highly of Wisconsin, saying that the Badgers are going to be better than most people given them credit for because of their ability to rebuild the offensive line and play within their successful system, but he also hinted that Ohio State still has plenty of talent, and it's extremely hard to go undefeated in the Big Ten season.
"Look at the top 10 winningest programs in college football," Griffith said. "Four come from the Big Ten (Michigan is No.1 (877); Nebraska is No. 4 (827); Ohio State is No. 5 (819); and Penn State is No. 7 (812)). That makes it tough. People have to be careful about Ohio State, too. Yes, they're struggling, but they're still a heck of a football team.
"I mean, the third-team running back and the third-team receiver .?.?.?chances are those kids were high-school All-Americans."
Wisconsin doesn't recruit the type of talent that Ohio State does, but chooses instead of find under-the-radar prospects and develop them into athletes. Guys like Chris Borland, Travis Frederick and Jacob Pedersen, were all overlooked in high school, and all three redshirt sophomores are important pieces in Wisconsin's starting lineup.
Wisconsin's recruiting is getting even better with six four-star recruits in the 2012 recruiting class and with only four true freshman likely to play this season, Wisconsin's holes are few and far between.
"We have a number of guys that have to be replaced, but I like the way that our senior class has stepped forward, as well as a lot of our underclassmen, kind of taking those leadership roles and helping the younger guys come along," Bielema said. "As far as work ethic, attitude, the way the seniors have kind of guided the underclassmen and the pride they take and the way they work, I think (those things) give me a really good indicator of where our guys are at."
It's the main reason why Wisconsin are heavy favorites against a UNLV team that went 2-11 last season, including a 41-21 loss to the Badgers in last year's season opener, and considered dark horses in the national championship conversation.
But after 20 questions involving expectations, players and national exposure during Bielema's Saturday news conference, he finally got a question about UNLV, and tried to put things into perspective. Bielema mentioned how any Bobby Hauck team is built on edge, focused on details and are sound in their preparation. Bielema mentioned how, despite their record last season, he saw improvement every week in UNLV and that the Badgers will be in for a challenge in their opener.
It's Bielema's job to manage the expectations. It's everyone else's job to get excited about how good his team could be in 2011.
"They have the athleticism and the players that can make a lot of things happen this year," Griffith said. "With their quarterback fitting into the offense well and not having many issues, the sky is the limit for this team."
No.11 Wisconsin (0-0, 0-0 Big Ten) vs. UNLV (0-0, 0-0 Mountain West)
Date/Time - Thursday, September 1 at 7:05 p.m. CT
Stadium –Camp Randall Stadium (80,321/FieldTurf)
Television - ESPN (Rece Davis, Craig James, Jesse Palmer, Jenna Brown) and ESPN 3D (Dave Lamont, Tim Brown, David Diaz-Infante)
Radio - Wisconsin Radio Network (Matt Lepay and Mike Lucas) and Sports USA Radio (Dan Fouts and Gary Barnett)
Series – Wisconsin leads 7-2-0
Last Meeting – Wisconsin won, 41-21, on Sept. 4, 2010 in Las Vegas
This is the sixth in the last 10 years, and Wisconsin has won three of the four meetings in Madison. This is the sixth time in the last seven games with the Rebels that Wisconsin has entered the game ranked.
Wisconsin's last regular-season non-conference loss was a 23-5 home defeat to UNLV on Sept. 13, 2003. UW turned the ball over five times in rainy conditions leading to 21 Rebel points.
In the last six meetings, the Badgers have held UNLV to an average of just 224.7 yards of total offense.
Senior Aaron Henry will be playing his third game against UNLV. Henry made four tackles against the Rebels as a true freshman in 2007. Last year he also had three tackles while breaking up a pass and returning a fumble 20 yards for a touchdown.
Wisconsin completed 73.2 percent of its passes last season. That was the best by any FBS team. In fact, it's the third-best mark in the last 15 seasons. Texas, led by Colt McCoy, completed 76.7 percent of its passes in 2008, and Central Florida, with Daunte Culpepper, connected on 73.5 percent in 1998.
NC State totaled 45 touchdowns from scrimmage last season. Russell Wilson was responsible for 37 of those scores (28 passing TDs/nine rushing TDs). He accounted for 82.2 percent of NC State's touchdowns from scrimmage, the highest percentage among FBS players. Wilson accounted for 76.1 percent of NC State's total offense last season, the highest percentage of any FBS player. Wilson had 4,002 yards out of the Wolfpack's 5,258.
One year after having five players named as finalists for major individual awards and three players win awards, nine different Badgers have been named to 2011 National College Football Awards Association Watch Lists. That is the highest number of players of any Big Ten school and tied for sixth-most in the country.
With stats from three seasons at NC State, Wilson would already hold the UW school records for career passing yards (Darrell Bevell - 7,686), attempts (Bevell - 1,052), completions (Bevell - 646) and TDs (Bevell - 59).
When Caleb Herring takes the opening snap at Wisconsin, he will not only be making his first collegiate start, but it will also mark the seventh different opening-day starter for the Rebels in the last eight years.
A jaw-dropping total of four teams on UNLV's 2011 schedule finished in the top 11 of the final AP poll last season (No. 2 TCU, No. 7 Wisconsin, No. 9 Boise State and No. 11 Nevada, Reno), plus another three that received votes. That means the Rebels, who only host one of those four, could be on their way to earning the unenviable distinction of in back-to-back years playing the most difficult schedule among all schools from Non-Automatic Qualifying conferences. Overall, the 11 FBS teams on the docket this fall combined for a winning percentage of .610 with seven playing in bowl games and five reaching doubles digits in victories.
In its 43-year history, UNLV has played 11 Thursday games, eight Friday contests, one Sunday matchup and one Monday game in 2005 at New Mexico. The Rebels boast an 8-4 record on Thursdays (including one bowl game) and an impressive overall non-Saturday record of 14-7-1.
Bielema wants his Wisconsin football team to take the step from good to great in the 2011 season and really, who can blame him. The Badgers stock is at an all-time high under the sixth-year head coach following last season's success on the field and this past summer's success on the recruiting trail. But if Wisconsin is going to take that step, the Badgers are going to need their head coach and their quarterback to lead the pack.
Bielema is 20-0 in regular-season non-conference games, which is the third-best start by a Big Ten coach. If Wisconsin wins Thursday, Bielema will become the sixth-fastest Big Ten coach since 1946 to reach 50 career wins. Still, Bielema has his critics and rightfully so. He's 6-10 against ranked teams, 10-10 in conference road games and 2-3 in bowl games. Good, but not great.
Wilson started 36 career games as NC State's quarterback, and leads all active Big Ten players in quarterback starts. Wilson has accounted for 93 touchdowns in his career with 76 passing and 17 rushing. That is third among active FBS players, trailing only Keenum (127) and Moore (103).
Still Wilson is just 19-17 as a starter and against the ACC's top two defenses, Wilson threw three interceptions and went 21-for-49 passing against Virginia Tech (a 41-30 loss) and threw for just 212 yards at Clemson (a 14-13 loss).
Wilson is without question a solid quarterback, but will need to improve on his career 57.8 completion percentage and lower his career-high 14 interceptions last season.
Wisconsin is somehow a 35.5-point favorite, which is literally insane. The Badgers have never covered the spread in a season opener under Bielema. On the one hand, Wisconsin has won its season opener every year since 1998. That run of 13-straight 1-0 starts is tied with USC for the third-longest active streak in the FBS.
Wisconsin has won 28-straight regular-season non-conference games. That trails only LSU (33) for the longest active streak among FBS teams, and Wisconsin is 26-3 in its last 29 night games, winning the last five.
If the Badgers want to take that next step, it's got to beat up on the average teams. This should be one of those situations.
Wisconsin 42, UNLV 13
Worgull's 2010 Predictions
Straight up: 9-3
Against the Spread: 10-2