MADISON, Wis. – When quarterback Curt Phillips took the snaps in January's Rose Bowl, Wisconsin became the first team to play in three consecutive BCS bowl games using three different starting quarterbacks. It's a sign that the Badgers were used to having success despite constant change.
It's a theory that will be tested again this season. Not only does Wisconsin have a brand new head coach, offensive coordinator and six new assistant coaches, the Badgers have a bunch of quarterbacks vying to start the season opener on Aug. 31.
Wisconsin was one of nine schools to start at least three different quarterbacks in 2012 — Danny O'Brien, Joel Stave and Phillips — and was the only school of the group that finished with a winning record. But after back-to-back seasons of at least 10 victories, the Badgers' 8-6 season was a far cry from success.
"It came out time and time again that 8-6, they don't feel like that's a tremendous year for them," coach Gary Andersen said. "They feel like they're a dominant power in college football, which I believe they should feel that way."
It starts with consistency under center, something Andersen and offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig are still sorting out after three weeks of spring practices.
Despite listing seven quarterbacks on its official spring roster, the Wisconsin has given seniors O'Brien and Phillips, sophomore Stave and redshirt freshman Bart Houston — a highly touted prep quarterback out of the San Francisco area — most of the repetitions.
Andersen hinted that the coaching staff will give certain quarterbacks more repetitions leading up to April 20 spring game, but a starter won't be named until the fall, after sophomore quarterback Tanner McEvoy has enrolled and can compete for the job.
"We're going to look at all the quarterbacks," Andersen said. "We're going to look real hard at the youth at the quarterback position because it's important. They need the opportunity to see how far they've come."
Although Wisconsin lost just 12 turnovers last season, tying for the fourth-fewest nationally, the Badgers threw for only 156.93 yards per game — 111th out of 120 FBS teams last season.
Stave started six games, including the first five conference games. He recorded a season-high pass efficiency rating of 208.8, going 9-of-11 for 127 yards and one touchdown against Michigan State, before breaking his left collarbone early in the second half.
"We were starting to get some third downs, keep the chains moving and that's really when I thought we could get things rolling a little bit," Stave said. "It's disappointing that's when everything went down."
Stave was cleared for the Rose Bowl, but Phillips was given his fourth consecutive start after leading Wisconsin to a 70-31 victory over Nebraska in the conference championship game. Stave played only two plays in the game, one of which was a dropped touchdown pass by Jared Abbrederis, and spent the rest of the game on the sidelines.
"The fact that I was able to get in there and play, make a throw and to be on the field again was something really special for me, especially being the Rose Bowl," Stave said. "That being said, as a competitor, you want to be in there as many plays as you can. I would have obviously liked to be in there a lot more."
O'Brien was named the starting quarterback before the season, but was benched in favor of Stave at halftime in the team's third game. He made cameo appearances in the fourth quarter at Nebraska and in the second half against the Spartans after Stave was hurt, but struggled to adjust after transferring from Maryland, where he was a freshman All-American in 2010.
"It was really tough, but I am grateful for it," O'Brien said. "I learned a lot. It was really the first time I have been benched my entire life in any sport . in really any venue of anything. It was really humbling. I think I have learned a lot from it. I am a lot tougher mentally than I think I have been ever."
While he has stated publicly that he will not stray far from Wisconsin's well-known running game, Andersen has the desire to add a zone-read and pistol formations to the quarterback's arsenal in order to open more things offensively.
Although Wisconsin has barely started installing its offense, the new coaching staff has been embraced by a quarterback room looking for consistency.
"In the meetings (Ludwig) is super detailed and there is not a wasted minute in our meetings," Stave said. "We are talking football, we are talking strategy, whatever we need to the whole time. We really get a lot done, a lot accomplished, and I feel really comfortable with the plays we have in. I think he's done a really good job."