CHICAGO – At this time of the year, there’s no reason for Bret Bielema not to walk around with a big grin on his face.
After all, Wisconsin just completed a historic season and Bielema was rewarded with Big Ten Coach of the Year honors for guiding the Badgers to 12 wins and their second-straight Capital One Bowl victory. Now that the first-year jitters are over, Bielema is ready to get the ball rolling to try and repeat his success from a year ago.
“A wise man told me that if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” Bielema joked. “We’re real excited to be here and be talking football again.”
Bielema, along with the other 10 Big Ten head football coaches, were in Chicago for the annual Big Ten Media Day to discuss their respective football teams, expectations for the season and different rule changes around the league.
While Bielema didn’t have as many questions to answer about his team or his staff, the second-year head coach had his fair share of things to address.
One of the main queries entering Wisconsin’s 2007 season will be who will start at quarterback: senior Tyler Donovan or junior-transfer Allan Evridge.
Donovan was the savior of last year’s football team at the end of the season, starting Wisconsin’s last two regular season games after then-starter John Stocco went down with a shoulder injury. Donovan finished 17-for-24 for 228 yards and two touchdowns in the Badgers win at Iowa and followed the big victory with, arguably, a better performance against Buffalo, eclipsing the 300-yard plateau in the 35-3 romp.
Evridge sat out the 2006 season due to NCAA rules after transferring from Kansas State, where Bielema helped recruit the all-state first team quarterback. In his sophomore year with the Wildcats, Evridge completed 47.9 percent of his passes, threw for 1,365 yards and registered six touchdowns to seven interceptions.
When asked, Bielema gave both quarterbacks a high review entering camp.
“The thing that I enjoy is, over the course of the spring, the competition those two have going right now,” Bielema said. “I firmly believer, steaming back from my playing days, that competition brings out the best out of people. Tyler got a big win for us last year in a hostile environment in Iowa. He handled himself very well during that two weeks stretch and, as a head coach, it’s hard for me not to envision him not being the guy to get a lot of advantages.”
“The thing I like about Allan is that he came into our program, paid his own way his first semester because he wanted to be involved, and just bought into everything we wanted to do,” Bielema continued. “He came from a dramatically different program and has done a good job. We’ll go ahead and make a decision sometime during camp but I can assure you that you’re not going to see a two-platoon quarterback system out of Wisconsin. Never say never, but that’s not high on my agenda.”
Bielema did have plenty to gloat about, especially to the status of his players battling injuries from a season ago. Junior Chris Pressley, who missed all of last season with a broken ankle suffered in preseason camp and redshirted, was declared 100 percent ready by Bielema and expects him to be an active part of the Wisconsin offense in 2007.
“Chris really looks good, is running well and is significantly slimmer,” Bielema said. “Anytime someone has the ability to run as big as he is, they have the ability and chances to be the one back in our system. Chris’ dynamic to the team is very important. I expect his role to be significant and, hopefully, improved.”
With Wisconsin being ranked in the top 10 in the Sporting News, Street & Smith’s and CBS.Sportline.com’s preseason rankings, the Badgers enter the second year of the Bielema reign with having a totally different perspective than the year before. Not even the so-called experts picked the Badgers to do anything special last season, let alone win a second-straight Capital One Bowl. Now, Bielema has the opportunity to showcase just how good Wisconsin really has been over the course of, not just one, but several years.
“Last year, we weren’t on anyone’s radar,” Bielema kidded. “One publication had us ranked 42nd overall and 10th in the Big Ten. That’s good reading material. With the preseason publications with the experts picking us to do certain things, it’s something that is there. At Wisconsin, we need to play with a little chip on a shoulder. There are certain teams that are always going to be on that Big Ten pedestal. We put the good word out there and we take full advantage of that.”
With the added hype comes the added challenge. According to the conference, the Big Ten schedule was supposedly randomly drawn by computer and out of that draw, Wisconsin faces the Ohio State and Michigan on back-to-back weeks towards the end of the season. Despite playing the two traditional powerhouses of the conference in 14 days, Bielema maintains that his coaching philosophy will stay the same as long as the system he has is working.
“The great thing about the Big Ten is how the schedule works,” Bielema said. “I would love to see the computer that spit out us playing Michigan and Ohio State back to back. We’re a 1-0 team and we’ll progress that way throughout the schedule this season.
“We have a chance to be a good football team,” Bielema added. “Those games are going to be irreverent if we don’t take care of business. We’re very excited to get going.”