Nebraska vs. Wisconsin: Who You Got?

| by Alex Groberman

The 2011 season hasn’t even begun yet, and already the one question that appears to be on everyone’s lips is: Who is better, the Nebraska Cornhuskers or Wisconsin Badgers?

In a way, this debate was inevitable. You have two similarly constructed, win-ugly teams with storied histories, excellent coaching and dedicated fan bases. Whereas the Huskers brought their gutter style to the traditionally more offense-oriented Big 12 year after year, the Badgers made their bones in the Big Ten – where the pace is slower and defense wins championships. 

Now that Nebraska is headed to their rightful conference in the Big Ten, it’s no wonder that many are wondering whether their style of play will prove to be a perfect match or, if perhaps Wisconsin is in fact a truer version of what we always believed Nebraska was than Nebraska actually is.

In the early preseason top-25 polls, the Badgers and Huskers flip-flopped the No. 10 and No. 11 seeds in the Coaches Poll and AP Poll, respectively. Both are clearly being touted as the teams to beat in their suddenly very competitive conference, and both are expected to replace traditional powers the Ohio State Buckeyes and Michigan Wolverines in the hearts and minds of college football fans.

Wisconsin is fresh off a 2010-11 Rose Bowl campaign, but they’re also coming into the 2011-12 year without their quarterback, Scott Tolzien. In his place, however, the Badgers will implement highly-regarded transferee Russell Wilson. Unlike his predecessor Wilson doesn’t have the same winning pedigree to boast, but the kid is talented – very talented.

During his three years as the starting quarterback with the North Carolina State Wolfpack, he accumulated 76 touchdowns through the air and 17 on the ground. He’s an instant shot to the arm offensively to a team that has traditionally won in the trenches.

What should make Wilson’s transition all the smoother is all of the protection he has up front. In a recent piece, Pete Thamel of the New York Times humorously recounted the story of how Badgers coach Bret Bielema utilized his line when he was trying to recruit the team’s now-current quarterback.

“Wisconsin’s archetype became a key recruiting tool when Bielema paraded his top eight linemen — more than 2,500 pounds of protection — into a room to meet Wilson on his visit this summer.

‘He was taken aback,’ Bielema said of the 5-foot-11 Wilson. ‘These guys are really big.’”

Wisconsin is big and deep as far as their offensive line goes, something that’s generally music to the ears of any unproven offense.

All of that being said, the Badgers did lose a lot of players from last year’s squad, so as deep as they are, chemistry may become an issue at some point. There is no doubt that they will be able to replace Tolzien, Lance Kendricks, Gabe Carimi and JJ Watt, etc. – but how long will it take for all of the pieces to gel?

Meanwhile, for Nebraska, it’s not so much about replacing key figures as it is about getting acclimated to their new surroundings. New offensive coordinator Tim Beck has made it clear that he plans to speed up the way the team moves on that side of the ball, but how much success will he have against the notoriously brutal Big Ten defenses? A faster defense would’ve been ideal in the Big 12, what with their quicker paced games, but how will it translate in the Huskers’ new digs? If it works, it’ll work really well. But, if it doesn’t…

Along the same lines, the offense’s maturity over the summer will be absolutely vital to whether or not Nebraska actually earns the high regards they’ve gotten among analysts in the preseason. If Taylor Martinez can stay healthy and noticeably improve on his 1,631 yards through the air and 965 ground -- which he totaled as a freshman -- then the team is in good position.

Plus, if Rex Burkhead can step into his magnified role and thrive as many expect he will, not only would he be able to alleviate some of the pressure off of Martinez, but he’d also fit in perfectly in the Big Ten’s rush-emphasized offensive style of play. And, of course, if the offensive line can stay healthy – look out Wisconsin.

A lot of variables are at work, though. If appears to be the key word in everyone’s preseason forecasts for both the Badgers and Huskers.

Luckily, the college football season has an innate ability to cancel out all of the ifs that plague team analysis in the early going. Once the year kicks off, superiority is proven on the grid iron through gritty play, hard work and dedication.

And given their storied pasts – that’s the only way these two teams would want it.