In most conferences, in something like a normal season, we would be hyping a two-time defending champion almost endlessly – particularly if that team was led by the top returning vote-getter from the previous year's Heisman balloting.
But the Big Ten is not your typical conference and 2012 is anything but a standard season.
As a result, the Wisconsin Badgers weren't much more than a peripheral story at the recent Big Ten Media Days event – despite back-to-back Rose Bowl appearances, despite double-digit wins in three consecutive seasons and despite the return of tailback Montee Ball, a player who visited the end zone 39 times last year.
Yep, that's right: 39 touchdowns. Thirty-nine. Just wrap your head around that number. Ball ran for 33 scores and caught six TD passes; he also had a two-point conversion. That's 236 points … for one guy. Ball himself averaged 16.9 points per game last season, which topped the scoring output of 10 teams. He led the nation in rushing with 1,923 yards, gaining 6.3 per carry, and he tied Barry Sanders' single-season touchdown record.
Ball was the victim of an assault early Wednesday morning in Madison, Wis., jumped by five men on a street near campus. He suffered a concussion in the incident, but Ball took to Twitter hours after the attack, reassuring fans that he'd see 'em in September.
Whenever Ball returns – presumably in time for the opener against FCS member Northern Iowa – he'll be just 18 touchdowns shy of the NCAA career mark. (And if he's not ready for UNI, then 2010 Big Ten freshman of the year James White is no doubt prepared to step in). Ball is unquestionably among the frontrunners for the Heisman this season, as he'll again run behind a wall of massive linemen, anchored by 6-foot-6, 330-pound left tackle Ricky Wagner.
So what's his primary goal entering the season?
"Go undefeated," Ball said at the Big Ten event, grinning. "Go undefeated and make it to the national championship game."
If you press him for an individual goal, you get this: "I want to be a team captain. I'd always dreamed of being team captain for a Division I school."
Ask him about the significance of the Heisman, and stuff like this follows: "I'm just very humbled by it. It's great attention for the university. All the lights, the cameras are on me. But from that, other players will be able to shine as well."
Basically, if you're looking for anything other than team-oriented quotes – sincere, concise and focused – look elsewhere. Ball spent the offseason adding strength and mass while preserving quickness and conditioning; his two-rep bench press improved from 320 to 370, and his weight is up from 206 to 215. NFL talent evaluators gave him a third-round grade last year, but with enhanced measurables and another hugely productive season, his name should vault up draft boards.
Still, he deflects questions about individual hardware as if he were side-stepping tacklers. Coach Bret Bielema actually sounds much more enthusiastic about the pursuit of player goals.
"I'd love to be a head coach that coaches a Heisman Trophy winner," he said. "Our offensive line would love to be an offensive line that blocks for a Heisman Trophy winner, and everybody in our program is going to try to help [Montee] win that award."
And the Heisman isn't the only postseason prize that Bielema is eyeing on behalf of a Badger.
"Every left tackle that started for me at my years at Wisconsin has won the Outland Trophy and been a first-round draft pick," he said, tossing Wagner into an exclusive group with Gabe Carimi and Joe Thomas. "He's hopefully going to live up to the same standards."
Wisconsin enters the season with a 16-game winning streak at Camp Randall Stadium and a relatively friendly road schedule; the toughest games away from Madison appears to be at Nebraska in the conference opener, at Purdue in mid-October, then at Penn State in the finale. The Badgers face Ohio State and Michigan State at home, and with only four of the six teams in the Leaders Division eligible for postseason play, Wisconsin looks to have a strangely unobstructed path to the conference title game.
The defense ranked eighth in the nation last season and it returns six starters, including All-Big Ten linebacker Mike Taylor, the conference's leading tackler (150). Wisconsin held six opponents to 13 or fewer points 2011. Sure, they were shredded by Oregon in the Rose Bowl, allowing 45 points and 621 total yards, but the Ducks were an every-week menace last year – plus Wisconsin finished just 25 yards (and a video review) away from a game-tying score.
In short, this is a team with depth and few glaring weaknesses. Now if they can only find a way to replace the most efficient quarterback in NCAA history, they'll really have a shot at a special season.
If that sounds tricky … yeah, OK. Fair point.
Last season, Russell Wilson established a new standard for college passer rating (191.8) and finished with 3,175 yards, 33 scores, only four interceptions and an absurd completion percentage of 72.8. He was selected in the third round of the draft by Seattle. It's no simple thing to replace a quarterback who directed an offense that averaged better than 44 points per game.
"Russell is the outlier," said Ball, shaking his head. "Russell's Russell. He's a freak."
Wilson arrived at Wisconsin as a fifth-year transfer from North Carolina State, and the Badgers hope they've extracted another gem from an ACC program. Danny O'Brien arrived on campus with two seasons of eligibility remaining, having graduated from Maryland in three years. O'Brien was named the 2010 Rookie of the Year in the ACC after leading the Terrapins to a 9-4 record while passing for 2,438 yards and 22 TDs. He entered 2011 on the watch lists for the Manning and Maxwell awards, a talented passer with a respectable pedigree.
But the Terps brought in a new head coach (Randy Edsall), the NFL snatched up O'Brien's go-to receiver (Torrey Smith) and, well … here we are. This is a new year in a new program, and hopes are exceedingly high.
Ball said O'Brien has fit in quickly and effortlessly.
"Danny is one of us," Ball said. "As soon as he got on campus, he started jumping on players, making fun of players, cracking jokes on each other. And on the field, decision-making is what I've seen. In seven-on-seven he's made some great throws, some great plays.
"We don't need for Danny to be like Russell. We need Danny to be Danny."
If Danny is anything like the 2010 version of himself, then Wisconsin is going to be a colossal problem for the rest of the Big Ten. They aren't the conference's buzziest team at the moment – that would be Michigan – but the Badgers have that uncommonly clear route to the championship game in Indianapolis.
Ball has a serious shot at national awards, the career touchdowns record, the team captaincy … pretty much anything he wants to pursue, really. Don't rule out that unblemished season, either.
Wisconsin certainly won't give up their conference title easily. It's going to take a lot to knock this program off stride.
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