Wisconsin returns 10 starters on offense

Over the last ten years, Wisconsin might be the best team to not play in a BCS game. Consider it a massive disappointment if that streak continues.

The Badgers have been strong in Big Ten play and have hovered just below the radar of the elite of the elite during the strongest seasons, but now everything is in place to not just win the Big Ten title, but to be a real, live threat to be in the chase for Glendale on January 10th.

High expectations and Wisconsin don’t always mix well, and while there’s reason to be completely ramped up for what this season might bring after a terrific 10-3 season and with so much talent returning, this could just as quickly be a clunker if things don’t break the right way.

The win over Miami in the Champs Sports Bowl was a bit of a statement that showed that Wisconsin really was athletic, really was talented, and really was good in an important moment for the program under head coach Bret Bielema. It was just over a year earlier that Florida State ran through the Badgers like they were walking in mud in a 42-13 Champs Sports Bowl win, and all of a sudden, everything seemed to change.

However, 2009 was a bit of a mirage. Before the win over the Canes, the Badgers beat just two teams that finished with a winning record: Northern Illinois and Fresno State. The best Big Ten win was against a mediocre Michigan State, Penn State wasn’t on the schedule, and in the three conference games that mattered, the Badgers lost to Ohio State, Iowa, and Northwestern. UW could’ve won all three games with a few breaks, but they also could’ve lost any one of six other games after struggling to close.

Obviously it’s a mark of a good team to be able to get out to a comfortable lead after three quarters, and the Badgers did that, and good teams also find ways to come up with wins through adversity. However, no one plays with fire more than the Badgers do, and they could get burned in what should be a fantastic year if they’re not 100% focused for a full sixty minutes. Last season, they outscored their opponents 314 to 180 in the first three quarters and were outscored 96 to 89 in the fourth with way, way, way too many blowouts after 45 minutes that turned out to be close calls.

The key to Wisconsin’s season will be to put teams down and keep them there, which was a major problem in 2008 when it gagged away losses to Michigan and Michigan State while allowing a late drive to lose to Ohio State. So while the Badgers of two years ago were probably better than 7-6, and the team of 2009 was probably worse than 10-3, this year’s team should be the real deal and should be a lock for the fourth double-digit win season in six years.

Ten starters return to the Big Ten’s No. 1 offense, six starters are back from the league’s No. 1 run defense, and the special teams, especially the kicking game, could turn out to be peerless in Big Ten play. Throw in a light and breezy schedule with no real concerns in non-conference play, no Penn State to deal with, and Ohio State at home, and it’s all there to have a special year.

Now close the deal.

What to watch for on offense: The most devastating running game since Ron Dayne was rumbling. With all five starters returning to the offensive line, good backups to form a strong rotation, and three running backs good enough to start for anyone in the Big Ten, the ground attack that finished 15th in the nation and first in the Big Ten should be even more effective. It’s an injury-proof attack with Montee Ball and Zach Brown able to crank out 100 yards if something happens to Clay, while the passing game should be efficient enough to keep safeties deep and linebackers on their heels. It’s not always going to be fancy, but it won’t have to be.

What to watch for on defense: The defensive tackles. The linebacking corps should turn out to be among the Big Ten’s most effective. The secondary will have a few problems now and again, but it should be strong as the season goes on. The only possible weak link (on the team as well as the defense) could be on the defensive interior unless redshirt freshman Jordan Kohout and junior Patrick Butrym play up to their potential, and while they might be fine, the difference between a Big Ten title and the Capital One Bowl could be their level of play. There’s a great attitude among the linemen knowing that the spotlight is on, and if the tackles turn out to be great, look out.

The team will be far better if … the quarterbacks don’t throw interceptions and the team scores three touchdowns or more. The Badgers have lost nine games over the last two seasons, and in those games the quarterbacks threw 14 interceptions and just eight touchdown passes. In the 17 wins the quarterbacks tossed 19 touchdown passes and eight interceptions. The ground game is the major focus of the offense, but the passing game can’t make mistakes against the better teams. Over the last six years, the Badgers are 45-5 when scoring 22 points or more with the five losses all coming in tight, occasionally wacky battles that could’ve gone either way. All five losses were by five points or fewer and all were on the road.

The schedule: The one huge, gaping problem could be at Iowa in a tough showdown that comes off what’s sure to be an emotional game against Ohio State. If the Badgers are 6-0 going into the date against the Buckeyes, that will be one of the biggest national games of the 2010 season. But to get to that point, there’s a game at Michigan State to deal with; the Spartans always give UW trouble in East Lansing. The rest of the home slate, outside of the Ohio State game, is relatively breezy with Minnesota and Northwestern the only two games against teams that went to bowls.

Best offensive player: Junior RB John Clay. The 2009 Big Ten Player of the Year has rushed for 100 yards or more in each of his last six games and 12 of his last 18 games with the Badgers losing four of the games under the century mark. While he always had the talent, he needed a bit of a fire lit under him before last season and it paid off. Not just a 248-pound workhorse, he has home run hitting speed to blow past most defensive backs once he gets to the next level. While he has the talent and the toughness to handle the ball 300 times, he’ll be better if he gets 100 fewer carries with Zach Brown and Montee Ball helping out.

Best defensive player: Sophomore LB Chris Borland. While he wasn’t a starter until the second half of last year and he’s still learning what he’s doing, the 5-11, 232-pound playmaker will be all over the field, will be a disruptive force, and will be a tone-setting hitter who remains a fan favorite. The Big Ten Freshman of the Year will have plenty of space to roam working on the weakside with veterans Culmer St. Jean and Mike Taylor good enough to handle the rest of the work.

Key player to a successful season: Junior DT Patrick Butrym and redshirt freshman DT Jordan Kohout. It’s not a total reach to suggest that the play of the Badger defensive tackles is the key to the Big Ten season. The offense will be terrific, the defensive back seven will be great, and the pass rush, even without O’Brien Schofield, will be more than fine. But for the Badgers to have a special year, the two young, new defensive tackles have to not only be great against the run, but they have to be disruptive.

The season will be a success if … the Badgers go to the Rose Bowl. There’s a loss or two somewhere in the mix, most likely at Iowa, but after years of playing around with the Florida bowls, it’s time to go back to the Rose Bowl. Of course, any BCS game would be a success, but with so many returning starters and such a favorable slate, winning the Big Ten title is a must before the 2011 rebuilding effort kicks in.

Key game: Oct. 23 at Iowa. The Ohio State showdown the week before is the big one to set up the Iowa game, but the Badgers generally play the Buckeyes tough, even in losses, and while it would hurt the Big Ten title dream to lose, it wouldn’t be totally devastating. After all, Ohio State is on the short list of true national title contenders. However, losing at Iowa would be something different considering Wisconsin is looking to finally be in a coveted top two spot to get to a BCS game. Bielema, an Iowa grad, has had little luck against his alma mater over the last two years, while the Badgers are 2-6 in the last eight games in the series.