Wisconsin is the defending Big Ten champion and seems a good bet to at least get back to the league title game.
The Badgers won the Leaders Division last season, and it would be a shock if they don't represent the division again this season. One reason is that, on paper, they look to be the best team in the division. Another is that division foes Ohio State and Penn State are ineligible for postseason play, meaning it is a four-team division (for title game purposes at least) this season.
TB Montee Ball is Wisconsin's headliner. He finished second in Heisman voting last fall after rushing for 1,923 yards and scoring 39 touchdowns, which tied Barry Sanders' single-season NCAA record.
Wisconsin has two of the best linebackers in the Big Ten in Chris Borland and Mike Taylor, and they are the top players on what should be another solid Badgers defense.
Last season: 11-3, 6-2 Big Ten (tied for 1st in Leaders Division; beat Michigan State in Big Ten championship game)
Coach: Bret Bielema (60-19, 7th season)
Returning starters (minimum 7 starts last season): Offense (5) – WR Jared Abbrederis, TB Montee Ball, G Travis Frederick (moved to C), TE Jacob Pedersen, T Ricky Wagner. Defense (6) – LB Chris Borland, CB Marcus Cromartie, T Ethan Hemer, SS Shelton Johnson, E Brendan Kelly, LB Mike Taylor . Special teams – None.
Fast fact: Wisconsin committed just 10 turnovers last season, tied for the fewest in the nation with LSU.
Coordinator Paul Chryst left for the head coaching job at Pittsburgh, and Bret Bielema hired Matt Canada from Northern Illinois to run the offense. Canada oversaw a unit that finished in the top 12 nationally in total offense, rushing offense and scoring offense.
Canada has a background in the Big Ten, as he was Indiana's coordinator from 2007-10. He had some solid units with the Hoosiers, and remember that he will be working with far more talent with the Badgers than he had at Indiana.
For the second season in a row, the Badgers will be counting on an ACC transfer to come through at quarterback. Last season, North Carolina State transfer Russell Wilson filled a huge void and threw for 3,175 yards, 33 touchdowns and just four interceptions. The likely starter this season is Maryland transfer Danny O'Brien, who threw for 2,243 yards and 22 touchdowns in 2010 when Ralph Friedgen was coach. Randy Edsall took over in 2011 for the Terps, and O'Brien's production fell off a cliff before he was hurt in early November. O'Brien should provide a steady hand, but there is no way he is going to be as productive as Wilson. Redshirt freshman Joel Stave, a walk-on, is O'Brien's main competition.
Ball again will be the focal point of the offense, assuming he recovers as quickly as expected from the concussion he incurred last week when he was assaulted on a Madison street. Ball is a workhorse who can turn the corner and also run over linebackers; he is a good receiver, too. Backup James White likely would start for more than half the teams in the Big Ten; he has rushed for 1,765 yards and 20 touchdowns in his first two seasons with the Badgers.
Ball and White will run behind – gee, what a surprise – a big, physical, aggressive line. C Travis Frederick, who was a second-team All-Big Ten pick at guard last season, and T Ricky Wagner have All-America potential. Wagner (6 feet 6/322 pounds) is the latest model off Wisconsin's "Future Longtime Pro Tackle" assembly line. The other three line starters are new. Sophomore Rob Havenstein (6-8/343) is even bigger than Wagner and will play right tackle. One guard spot should be filled by junior Ryan Groy, who started four times last season. The candidates for the other starting berth are senior Robert Burge, sophomore Kyle Costigan (a converted defensive lineman) and sophomore Dallas Lawallen.
Junior Jared Abbrederis, who had 55 receptions and eight touchdowns last season, will be the go-to receiver. But he is Wisconsin's only proven wide receiver. Junior Jeff Duckworth, who had 15 catches last fall, is a top candidate for the other starting spot. Two sophomores who could move into complementary roles are Chase Hammond and Marquis Mason. Hammond is 6-5 and Mason 6-4.
Junior TE Jacob Pedersen has All-Big Ten talent and caught 30 passes last season, with eight going for touchdowns. As with Chryst, Canada likely will use a lot of two-tight end sets, so someone else needs to step up. Sophomore Sam Arneson, whose grandfather, Don Jirschele, played for Bear Bryant at Kentucky, is a guy to watch. He played as a true freshman last season and is a good blocker.
There is experience up front for the Badgers, but there is no star power – at least not yet.
Senior E Brendan Kelly is a returning starter who had 35 tackles and three sacks last season. But the guy to watch is junior David Gilbert, who only played in four games before suffering a broken foot. He had three sacks and showed good pass-rushing ability before his injury. Junior Pat Muldoon will be the guy if Gilbert's foot acts up.
At tackle, the Badgers lost potential starter Jordan Kohout, who had to give up football after suffering a minor stroke. Juniors Beau Allen and Ethan Hemer should start. Hemer is a returning starter, but Allen might have the higher upside; he looks to have the necessary skills to be a disruptive force in the middle. Depth is iffy at tackle.
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The Badgers look good at linebacker. Borland and Taylor combined for 293 tackles and eight forced fumbles last season. Borland had 19 tackles for loss, and he and Taylor each had two interceptions. Ethan Armstrong, who had offseason surgery on both hips, will vie with A.J. Fenton for the other starting job. Armstrong is a walk-on who started twice last season.
The Badgers have two starters back in the secondary, but the two guys who departed – CB Antonio Fenelus and FS Aaron Henry – were first-team all-league selections last season. The returning starters are CB Marcus Cromartie, who endured an inconsistent season in 2011, and SS Shelton Johnson, who had four interceptions and 54 tackles.
Battling for Fenelus' spot are senior Devin Smith and sophomore Peniel Jean. Smith started 13 games in 2009, but his play slipped in 2010 and he missed all but two games last season with a leg injury. The new free safety should be junior Dezmen Southward, who is athletic but lacks experience (he only played one season of high school football). Sophomore Michael Trotter also is in the mix.
A strong pass rush would ease some of the pressure on the secondary. But will a pass rusher step up?
The Badgers are searching for a new kicker and a new punter. Sophomore Kyle French served as the kicker in Wisconsin's first four games last season because Philip Welch was injured and is expected to hold down that role this season. Freshman walk-on Jack Russell could be the kickoff guy. Redshirt freshman walk-on Drew Meyer will be the new punter.
Abbrederis is an excellent return man. He averaged 15.8 yards, with one TD, on 20 punt returns, and 24.6 yards on 28 kickoff returns last season.
The kickoff coverage needs to improve; the Badgers were 81st in kickoff return defense.
The Badgers play three of their first four games at home, with the road game in that span against Oregon State, The Beavers should be better than they were last season but still shouldn't beat Wisconsin.
The first conference game is a doozy: The Badgers travel to play Nebraska (the Huskers' homecoming) on Sept. 29 in an early-season showdown. While the teams are in different divisions, it still should be a good gauge as to how the season will go for both.
That really is the only tough road game of the season, unless trips to Purdue and Penn State worry you.
That means the toughest league games are at home, with Illinois, Michigan State and Ohio State visiting Madison. Wisconsin misses out on playing Michigan.
Can Wisconsin make it a third Rose Bowl in a row? Obviously, the Badgers would rather be in the national title game, but another Rose Bowl appearance would make for a nice backup plan.
Wisconsin should be the Leaders Division representative in the league championship game. Can it win the title game again? Sure. And if that happens, it's time to start thinking of Wisconsin as the real Big Ten bully these days. As it is, expect a 10-win season for the Badgers, not bad considering all the starters they lost.
One thing to watch: Wisconsin had a plus-16 turnover margin last season, thanks to just 10 lost turnovers. Can the Badgers take care of the ball that well again this fall?
The recruiting side
Average recruiting ranking for past five years: 53rd nationally
The buzz: Multiple factors led to Wisconsin finishing near the back of the pack in the Big Ten for the 2012 class. First, the Badgers had limited scholarships and were able to sign only 12 players. Second, half the staff left when Paul Chryst took over as coach at Pitt and took other assistants with him. Despite the low numbers, two of the Badgers' freshmen are among the best in the nation. LB Vince Biegel and G Dan Voltz were selected to play in the U.S. Army All-American Bowl. – Josh Helmholdt, Rivals.com
WR Chase Hammond. After losing senior WR Nick Toon to the NFL, the Badgers return just one receiver with any meaningful game experience. So if they want to keep their offense balanced, they'll need some young, unheralded wide receivers to step up in 2012. Given his performance in spring practice, Hammond, a sophomore, looks like a good bet to break out and become a major target. Hammond's 6-5 frame gives him a physical edge over most cornerbacks, and he has the athleticism to make impressive catches over the middle. – John Veldhuis, BadgerBlitz.comFor more on Wisconsin throughout the season, check out BadgerBlitz.com
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