Winning the Russell Wilson Sweepstakes wasn't just a major personnel upgrade for the University of Wisconsin football program, but a public relations coup as well.
The former North Carolina State quarterback announced Monday that he'll play his final season with the Badgers, taking advantage of a quirk in the NCAA rule book that allows players who have received their degrees to essentially become a free agent and be eligible immediately, without sitting out a season as most other transfers are required to do.
While it's not uncommon for fifth-year players such as Wilson to take graduate courses as they play their final season — he'll apparently enroll in the School of Business at UW — it's rare to switch schools in this fashion. Notably, backup Badgers running back Zach Brown did just that in committing to Pittsburgh over the weekend; Wisconsin men's basketball fans will recall that Kevin Krueger took advantage of the rule and almost single-handedly led UNLV to a second-round upset of the Badgers in the 2007 NCAA tournament.
Still, it's unprecedented for a player of Wilson's caliber to make the jump. As such, this scenario may fuel talk of following the suit of the Southeastern Conference and banning the practice nationally, if for no other reason than it seems just too fair, by NCAA standards, to reward an overachieving athlete.
In Wilson's case, his baseball ambitions sidetracked his career at N.C. State, where coach Tom O'Brien installed Mike Glennon as starter when Wilson opted to play a second season in the minor league system of the Colorado Rockies, who drafted him in the fourth round last summer. (Oddly enough, Glennon graduated in just three years and would likely have taken advantage of the same NCAA rule to transfer elsewhere had he been passed over.)
That Wilson would turn around and put on hold his baseball career after that turn of events was surprising enough, especially since it has been widely reported he'll now have to return a sizable portion of his $250,000 signing bonus. Further, his decision to pick Wisconsin over reigning BCS champion Auburn and the almost two dozen other schools that contacted him speaks volumes to the Badgers' evolving national brand.
Fans, analysts and bookies alike sense that the addition of Wilson shifts the balance of power in the Big Ten, where the Badgers are now considered favorites in the new Leaders Division thanks in part to the turmoil at Ohio State, and perhaps beyond; Bodog.com, a prominent gaming site, lowered the Badgers' odds of winning the national title to 20-1 from 35-1, while the Las Vegas Hilton dropped the odds to 15-1 from 30-1.
Suddenly, Wisconsin has at its disposal a playmaker of unprecedented proportions. Not only do Wilson's numbers as a three-year starter and two-time All-ACC pick for the Wolfpack dwarf the Badgers' career records for passing yards and touchdowns, but judging from the highlight reels Wilson is at least as shifty a runner as Brooks Bollinger, the standard-bearer in that department when it comes to the Badgers.
In all, the 5-foot-11, 201-pound Wilson has generated 9,628 yards of total offense and 93 touchdowns while completing more than 58 percent of his passes, and he holds the NCAA record with 379 pass attempts without an interception.
The timing of Wilson's arrival is a double-edged sword.
On the one hand, it couldn't be better; none of the other four quarterbacks on the roster seeking to replace outgoing starter Scott Tolzien — Jon Budmayr, Joe Brennan, Joel Stave and the injured Curt Phillips — have ever started a college game. Badgers coach Bret Bielema expressed his dismay with their collective progress after the spring intrasquad game, and for all the polite talk about Wilson not being promised the starting job, there's no doubt it's his to lose.
On the other hand, Wilson has just six weeks to assimilate into the program and learn the playbook — or perhaps more accurately, work with offensive coordinator Paul Chryst to tailor it to his strengths — before training camp opens Aug. 4. Wilson has already left his minor-league baseball team and will be in Madison as soon as this weekend to begin workouts with his teammates.
It's a grand experiment that will keep Badgers fans on the edge of their collective seat — and Wisconsin on the radar nationally — for the next seven months.