Bad Omen for Badgers
All things considered, the prospects of a Big Ten championship game appearance for Wisconsin seem very good. Ohio State and Penn State are not allowed to play in the game, Illinois is trying to end a six-game conference losing streak and break in a new coaching staff, Purdue is well...Purdue, and Indiana - get real. So the Badgers should waltz into the Big Ten conference game with little trouble. The non-conference schedule isn't daunting either. So you'd have good reason to think that they could match or improve on their 11-3 record from a year ago. But one very positive statistic from 2011 could actually be a negative going into 2012.
Phil Steele presents a list annually of teams with the best and worst turnover margins from the year before. Like most statistical extremes, regression to the mean is inevitable. That is, when you look at the range of performance for 100+ schools, the teams at the very top or bottom of a list one year are likely to move closer to the middle the following year. Wisconsin was the best in the Big Ten and third best in the country in turnover margin with 16 more takeaways than giveaways. Since 1996, teams that are +10 or better in turnovers one year have a worse record the following year 77% of the time. You could take that to mean there is a 77% chance that Wisconsin will finish worse than 11-3 in 2012.
That's not the only reason to think that Wisconsin might regress either. They lost first-team All-Big Ten players in quarterback Russell Wilson, guard Kevin Zeitler, center Peter Konz, tackle Josh Oglesby, safety Aaron Henry and cornerback Antonio Fenelus, as well as second-team all-conference receiver Nick Toon, honorable mention defensive tackle Patrick Butrym, punter Brad Nortman and kicker Philip Welch, and a fifth-round NFL draft pick in fullback Bradie Ewing. In addition they lost seniors tight end Jake Byrne, defensive end Louis Nzegwu, and linebacker Kevin Claxton. That's a lot of talent to lose all at once.
But focusing just on the turnovers, look no further than the game against Nebraska a year ago. Wisconsin scored 21 straight points after three interceptions of NU quarterback Taylor Martinez. While the margin of victory was greater than that, it seemed to be the decisive factor in the game. Prior to the picks, NU held a 14-13 lead. Afterward, things came apart for Nebraska. Now imagine if that the plus two turnover margin for Wisconsin became a minus two. That would be a net swing of four turnovers that might be worth as much as 28 points. It's those kind of changes that could take the Badgers from 11-3 to 10-4.
It's hard to imagine things getting much worse than that for U-Dub. You'd think the Badgers would go 4-0 in the non-conference schedule (Northern Iowa, @ Oregon State, Utah State, UTEP) even if they do spot their opponents some turnovers. You also have to like their chances hosting Illinois and Minnesota and in road games at Purdue and Indiana. That doesn't leave many potential losses. They host Michigan State and Ohio State, both teams that beat Wisconsin a year ago. Then there is the road game at Nebraska at night to open the conference season and perhaps Penn State's "bowl game" in Happy Valley to end the year (though the Nittany Lions got crushed by U-Dub last year). The Badgers then likely will play in the Big Ten championship game and a bowl game. Steele's turnover numbers would suggest that Wisconsin will lose four of those six games. That seems like a good omen for Nebraska come September.