First, lets get one thing straight. It's cute and self-satisfying to say that Bret left because he didn't want to deal with the Urban Meyer Death Machine for the next several seasons, but there is no way that's accurate. In case you've forgotten, Bret is joining a division featuring Nick Saban, Les Miles, Gus Malzan, and Kevin Sumlin. At the very least, Bret will have to recruit against four other Urban Meyers, not to mention Florida, Georgia and the Troll King himself, Steve Spurrier. That's enough of a death trap to make any man pine for the sweet confines of Indiana and Illinois. Bret is because he wants to get paid. That's okay, this is America. We all want to get paid.
Will he be successful at Arkansas? Several have pointed out that Wisconsin and Arkansas are similar programs in that they've been able to be competitive despite not having a ton of in-state talent to draw from. That's true, and you can see that reflected in Wisconsin's recruiting rankings over the past few years (all rankings per Rivals).
2012 - #56
2011 - #40
2010 - #87
2009 - #43
2008 - #41
Nothing particularly spectacular. He was able to do a good job securing what top talent did come from the state of Wisconsin, and was able to hit Florida fairly well for depth, although not for star power. Since 2007, Bret only secured two 4 star or better prospects from the South, and one of those was Curt Phillips.
The recruiting similarities between the two programs should end there though. Wisconsin is surrounded by programs and states that aren't major players on the recruiting scene. If there is a player they like in Iowa, or Minnesota, or even Chicagoland, they'll have a great shot to poach them. At Arkansas, he'll be surrounded by the rest of the SEC juggernauts, as well as Texas, who will both make a strong push into his own "territory", and will fight him for every highly talented out of state kid. Bielema will need to make sure he has a staff with strong local recruiting connections, or he could go underwater quickly.
"Yeah yeah, but he'll have money and resources at Arkansas", his supporters reply. "And besides, THREE ROSE BOWLS BRAH WE TOTALLY SLAYED THE BIG TEN". It's true, under Bret, the Badgers have made a school-record three consecutive Rose Bowls. That certainly sounds like an impressive accomplishment, but only until we dig look a little harder at Wisconsin's record under Bielema.
The Badgers were certainly very successful in Bielema's first season, going 12-1 in 2006, beating Arkansas in a bowl game. They were ranked as high as #5 in 2007 below blowing games against Illinois and Penn State (eventually finished 9-4). They were even worse in 2008, a season that ended 7-6, and featured a one point win against something called a Cal Poly, and a curbstomping by Florida State in their bowl.
2009 was a more productive year, as Scott Tolzien and John Clay led the squad to a 10-3 record and an upset win over #15 Miami in the Champs Bowl. 2010 was their first breakout year, featuring the famous upset of #1 Ohio State and a Rose Bowl birth, a loss to a TCU team they really should have beaten. They went 11-3 in 2011, beating Michigan State in the B1G title game only to lose to Oregon in the Rose Bowl, and find themselves heavy underdogs after a disappointing campaign where if not for OSU's sanctions, they'd be relegated to a mediocre bowl against Mississippi State or something.
This was a mostly successful era, but with a few caveats. One, with an exception of a win against #21 Fresno State, the Bielema-era is devoid of any significant non-conference, non-bowl wins. The Badgers found success against higher profile competition early in his coaching career (perhaps aided in part by Alvarez recruits), but has struggled recently. The last four years have also been nearly unprecedented periods of Big Ten mediocrity. Nearly every team replaced a coach in the last five years, Ohio State and Penn State were hit by sanctions, and everybody outside of the Big Two has struggled to recruit. Bielema has padded his resume by scoring 70 against the Indianas and Minnesotas of the world, but he'll find such pasties in short supply in the SEC. He only beat Ohio State once during his Wisconsin tenure, and now has annual dates with Bama and LSU.
Wisconsin shouldn't have a shortage of interested parties in the job. The most obvious choice may be former Wisconsin OC and current Pitt headman Paul Chryst, although the Badgers might kick the tires on Cincinnati head coach Butch Jones (if he doesn't go to Colorado), Western Kentucky coach Willie Taggart, or maybe former Wisconsin assistant and Jacksonville DC Mel Tucker. Heck, maybe Wisconsin pulls somebody completely out of left field, like Arkansas did. Their cupboard isn't bare, and the fundamentals that have made Wisconsin successful, namely strong running back development, locking down upper midwest, and a decidedly meh Big Ten aren't likely to change in the near future. Wisconsin should be fine.
I don't mean to suggest that Bielema is a bad football coach either. He's not. He's been able to consistently develop powerful rushing attacks, competent (at worst) defenses, and he's gone 68-24, which is more than solid. I'm just saying he hasn't shown that he's an excellent one. His most successful season required him to hit the Rent-A-QB Jackpot. He hasn't been able to consistently develop a QB on his own, and he's only 2-4 in bowl games. He's shown flashes of immaturity, and his whining about Meyer's recruiting and "SEC tactics" certainly won't go over well in his new home, but for better or for worse, he was one of the most accomplished current coaches in the Big Ten. Had he stayed at Wisconsin, he likely would have been just as successful for years to come.
But Bret checked the card, and the card says it's time to get paid. Good for Bret, I can't imagine many other Buckeye fans will miss his ugly mug on their TVs in late November. Time will tell if that card tells Bret how to stop Les Miles too.