Despite controlling their own destiny in the conference race, the product on the field for the Wisconsin Badgers in Year 2 of the Gary Andersen era has caused an increase in skepticism in the head coach's abilities. After a promising first half in the much anticipated LSU game, Wisconsin collapsed late and suffered a heartbreaking loss, then followed that with a turnover-laden upset at Northwestern a month later. While certain dimensions of the Badgers' play do certainly leave something to be desired, much of the criticism bestowed to Andersen up to this point has been misplaced. Here are five areas in which you can focus your unrest before Andersen:
1) Loss of departing senior class
In hindsight, this is probably the most downplayed talking point of the offseason among Wisconsin followers when setting expectations for the 2014 campaign. After the 2013 season UW lost 22 seniors to graduation, most of which saw significant playing time and five of which now occupy NFL rosters. In particular, Chris Borland will likely go down as an all-time Badger great, Beau Allen was a rare perfect fit at nose tackle (foreshadowing!) when Andersen converted to a 3-4 base defense, and it is now clear that Jared Abbrederis covered up huge deficiencies in the passing game. With these thoughts in mind it may seem silly not to expect noticeable growing pains, but the combination of talent behind those seniors and one of UW's best recruiting classes had fans excited about the transition.
Part of this train of thought has held true. Despite essentially losing an entire front seven laden with multiple NFL draft picks, that unit has done pretty well thanks to a strong yet unproven returning cast. Freshmen Chikwe Obasih and Lubern Figaro have already cracked the starting lineup on defense, and TE Troy Fumagalli looks like he'll be a future playmaker on offense. To this point, however, the talent and potential of the Badger youth has yet to adequately replace the experience and production of the outgoing class (particularly on offense), and it was probably greedy to expect a seamless transition.
2) Bare cupboard at QB
Gary Andersen inherited a rare wealth of talent not typically afforded to first-year coaches when he arrived at Wisconsin, but a notable exception to that case resides at the quarterback position. Andersen's top returning pigskin chucker was Joel Stave, a local two-star former walk-on that has exceeded his career expectations but performed erratically when on the field. With the 2013 recruiting class already largely in place when he arrived, Andersen turned to JUCO transfer Tanner McEvoy to provide the dual-threat style he prefers. McEvoy has some serious wheels and does provide some value when on the field in general (foreshadowing!), but his arm is subpar and his performance as a passer to this point has shown that he's not capable of running a contending team's offense.
There is hope for the future in the form of Andersen recruits and that hope should start coming to fruition next season. DJ Gillins was a four-star dual-threat prospect out of high school and immediately jumped third-stringer Bart Houston in camp before redshirting this season. Gillins should contend for the starting job next fall. Perhaps the biggest prize of the Andersen era comes in the form of 2015 Utah QB Austin Kafentzis, who has spent the fall changing the title of the Utah State Football Record Book to "Austin Kafentzis: A Biography." These are names to remember for the future, but until then it is clear that QB play is seriously hindering Wisconsin's offense.
3) Tanner McEvoy not playing WR
This one might be the most frustrating because McEvoy clearly does not have the arm to cut it as a QB in college, much less the NFL, but he's an inch taller than Calvin Johnson, he has good hands and he can run. After losing the QB position battle last year, McEvoy spent some time at receiver in camp and looked pretty good for a raw talent before injuring his hand. For a team that both isn't throwing well and getting consistent separation out of its receivers, a move to wideout for McEvoy would alleviate at least one of those issues for the passing game.
This continued dedication to playing quarterback has to be a McEvoy decision, because Gary Andersen has already repeatedly shown a willingness to move players to different positions if it looks like they will have more success there. McEvoy doesn't look to have much of a college future at quarterback, but with some refining he would be a matchup nightmare as a receiver with NFL potential. Hopefully he sees that soon.
4) Warren Herring injury
Before the season, if you were to ask who the most indispensable player on the Badger roster would be, a lot of people would have accurately pointed to Warren Herring. An extremely talented nose tackle with little depth behind him after Beau Allen graduated, Herring seemed poised for a big year in which it was imperative he stay healthy. Alas, it took but half a game before that plan crumbled and Herring left the LSU game with a knee injury that would require surgery. Wisconsin's defense has looked decent in his absence, save for ground game performances from Northwestern and the 2nd half of LSU's game, but it looked dominant in the short time Herring has been available this season. Watch the performance LSU's offense has before and after Herring's injury to see how drastically he can impact the game. Herring will be ready to go for the Maryland game tomorrow, so it will be interesting to see how much he plays and what impact he has on the team's performance.
5) Andy Ludwig's play calling
The last on the list but a fan favorite to cite, Offensive Coordinator Andy Ludwig has certainly drawn the ire of fans for his handling of the offense. Some of this criticism should be more heavily attributed to higher items on this listed (i.e. QBs that can't throw, WRs that have trouble getting open), but some of the decisions made leave something to be desired. It's never good when at points in the game, fans can tell you what should be called, what will actually be called, AND why the call made won't/didn't work. This is nothing new for Ludwig. Since becoming an OC in 1997 he's bounced around 7 different schools and underwhelmed at most of them. His offensive philosophy doesn't seem to mesh with Andersen's, particularly at quarterback, where McEvoy was only valuable as a runner but saw few designed QB runs. Don't be surprised if fans are calling for his job regardless of the outcome of the rest of the season.
Honorable mention: B1G recruiting disadvantage, academic rigor (hat tip to B5Q), refs