Preseason countdown: No. 6 Wisconsin

Wisconsin, your opportunity is now. This is when it’s time to become a true superpower.

Last year was when everything was supposed to come together, and it did. The team was loaded with veterans, Bret Bielema appeared ready to take a big step forward as a matured head coach, and the schedule was in place to go on a huge run. Now the key is to sustain the excellence and try to become another Ohio State, instead of staying in its current position of being an Iowa.

That’s not a knock on the Hawkeyes program, obviously a major success, but Wisconsin hasn’t quite been able to turn the corner to become an every year player in the hunt for a BCS game like an Ohio State. The big difference is the talent level, with the Buckeyes getting a who’s who of four and five star recruits — keep your comments about how that happens to yourself — while the Badgers recruit to a type and builds projects into players. Even so, with OSU in hot water, the opportunity might there for a big void to be filled in the new Big Ten.

Can Bielema keep finding ways to reload at key positions? Wisconsin will always have ridiculously huge linemen in place to pound away for a talented group of backs, but it has to find more J.J. Watts, more Scott Tolziens, and a constant upgrade of playmakers on defense is a must. This is a program that has everything in place to be elite of the elite special — with the fan base, the facilities, the atmosphere, and the commitment from the school — and this year will show whether or not it can happen on a consistent basis.

The Badgers took on the role of a big, bad bully last year, and it fits. You don’t hang up 83 on Indiana or 70 on Northwestern without being really good, but with the brutal ground game, an ultra-efficient passing attack and a defense that swarms around the ball providing the right attitude, this wasn’t the normal warm-and-fuzzy, nice running game Wisconsin of past years; the team was nastier. Even though TCU turned out to be Ralphie and Wisconsin got the Scott Farkas treatment in the Rose Bowl, that might actually be a positive for the bigger picture; it might have been a moment when Bielema and his program learned that even with the great system, everything wasn’t in place quite yet.

For all the good things Wisconsin did, there were more tight battles than it may have appeared, especially with all the David vs. Goliath storylines going into Pasadena. The Badgers got out of Iowa City by the skin of their teeth, with Ricky Stanzi having the puck on his stick in a final drive and being unable to do anything in the 31-30 loss. Arizona State should’ve won in a 20-19 Bucky minor-miracle, and San Jose State, a 1-12 team, provided a shove in the 27-14 loss. Throw in the loss to Michigan State, when the Badgers couldn’t come up with a third down stop, and it wasn’t all smooth sailing. Oh sure, beating Ohio State at home was terrific, but the win over an average Iowa team was UW’s second-best victory and beating Michigan was probably No. 3.

Wisconsin has to stay confident, stay bullish, and it has to use the Rose Bowl as motivation — along with the loss to MSU and the Iowa and ASU close calls — and to take absolutely nothing for granted. Fortunately for UW, Bielema has shown in his brief time that the mistakes of one year get fixed in a hurry, and he replaces the parts quickly.

It’s possible that despite the loss of first-round draft picks DE J.J. Watt and OT Gabe Carimi, along with OG John Moffitt, TE Lance Kendricks, RB John Clay, leading tackler LB Blake Sorensen and QB Scott Tolzien, the 2011 team could be almost as good as last year’s powerhouse.

The offensive line is still huge, deep and talented, and the 1-2 rushing punch of Montee Ball and James White should be devastating. Tolzien was ultra-efficient, but free agent — that’s really what he is — Russell Wilson from N.C. State might be an upgrade. WR Nick Toon is already on some lists as the top senior wide receiver NFL prospect, and he’s expected to be healthy after an up-and-down 2010.

The defense might lose Watt, but everyone else of note is back on a defensive front that should be terrific up the middle, with Patrick Butrym and Jordon Kohout forming one of the nation’s best tackle tandems you’ve never heard of. Filling Watt’s void as the star of the defensive front seven should be Chris Borland, a burgeoning superstar middle linebacker who missed almost all of last year with a shoulder injury. Devin Smith appears ready to make a big splash as a starting corner, to go along with leader Aaron Henry at free safety and ball-hawking corner Antonio Fenelus. Throw in the most experienced kicking tandem in America in PK Philip Welch and P Brad Nortman, and there’s absolutely no reason for last year’s music to stop.

A third straight double-digit win season, another trip to a BCS game, and another huge year for the Badgers should all be there for the taking. Now it’s time to get used to the role of being big-time, and now it’s time for the expectations to be sky-high on a regular basis.

Now it’s time to become a consistent superpower.

What to watch for on offense: Russell Wilson. On talent, experience, accuracy, and moxie, Wisconsin got a gift from the gods when Wilson, a graduate of NC State who has one year of eligibility remaining, chose the Badgers over the Colorado Rockies and Auburn. While he set the NCAA record as a freshman for most consecutive throws without an interception, and while he’s a strong veteran leader who instantly solves the UW quarterback problems from a talent standpoint, he threw 14 picks last season and 25 over the last two years.

Compared to Wisconsin, who led the Big Ten and was fourth in the nation in passing efficiency, N.C. State was 67th. However, Wilson didn’t have a running game to rely on, with the Wolfpack averaging just 123 yards per game on the ground and ranking 11th in the ACC, and he was forced to carry the offense by himself. Also not helping the cause was an offensive line that got him killed, allowing the most sacks in the ACC. Now, Wilson gets a terrific line to work behind, has a great ground game that’ll carry the offense, and his job will be to use his veteran leadership and talents to make the third down throw and push the ball down the field when needed. Can Wilson mesh with the Badgers? Considering the struggles of the UW quarterbacks this spring, the coaching staff will be happy to give it a go.

What to watch for on defense: The return of Chris Borland. End J.J. Watt was everything to the Badger defense last season, finishing second on the team in tackles and coming up with seven sacks, 21 tackles for loss, three forced fumbles, and a whopping nine broken up passes. The emotional heart-and-soul of the defense, Watt was the ultimate playmaker to work around. Borland, a 5-foot-11, 244-pound blaster of a middle linebacker, might not put up Watt’s all-around numbers, but he has the talent and the makeup to be the new leader and the new star of the front seven. With the loss of defensive coordinator Dan Doeren to Northern Illinois, the more strong players to mix in with ready-made leaders in tackle Patrick Butrym and free safety Aaron Henry, the better, and Borland has to be that guy.

The team will be far better if: The defense can find players who can get behind the line of scrimmage. Watt came up with seven of the team’s 23 sacks, but the big loss was the way he made plays in the backfield with 21 of the team’s 66 tackles for loss. Wisconsin was 91st in the nation in tackles for loss, and with dangerous running teams like Northern Illinois, Nebraska, and Michigan State to deal with over the first half of the season, before facing Ohio State, the D has to generate production from the outside with Louis Nzegwu and Pat Mudoon ready to do more.

The schedule: The Badgers don’t get a true road game until late October with the lone early date away from Camp Randall a neutral site game against Northern Illinois at Chicago’s Soldier Field, but there aren’t many breaks in conference play. For the second year in a row, UW has to go to East Lansing to face Michigan State, and starting out Big Ten action against Nebraska isn’t a plus. Fortunately, there’s the yearly battle for the Paul Bunyan Axe against Minnesota to balance things out. The non-conference schedule isn’t bad considering the toughest games are against Oregon State and NIU, but division play will be rough, highlighted by a trip to Ohio State. The second half of the season gets difficult with four road games in five weeks with a date with Purdue as the oasis in the middle of trips to MSU and OSU to start and dates at Minnesota and Illinois to follow. Facing Penn State to close out the regular season will matter in Leaders play.

Best offensive player: Senior WR Nick Toon. It’s actually Wilson, at least as far as college talent and what he’ll do for the Badger offense, and a case could certainly be made for either star running back, James White or Montee Ball, on pure talent, it’s Toon who’s getting the big, long, look from the next-level types. Not only is he the son of Badger legend and former New York Jet Al Toon, but he’s making a name for himself with his talent and raw skills. He’s 6-foot-3 and 213 pounds with tremendous deep speed and the hands and route running ability that pro scouts love. However, he can’t stay healthy. Foot problems kept him out this offseason, and he struggled through toe and thigh injuries last year, but if he stays in one piece, he should combine with Wilson to do something special.

Best defensive player: Sophomore LB Borland, but, senior DT Patrick Butrym could be the breakout star, at least in terms of the spotlight now that Watt is gone. The 6-foot-4, 285-pounder is tremendously strong and has a good burst off the ball. While he’s not built like a stuff-things-up anchor, he moves well, has a great motor, and has all the tools to be an All-Big Ten performer. He has also taken on more of a leadership role this offseason and should be the type of player opposing coaches rave about in film sessions.

Key player to a successful season: Senior TE Jake Byrne and/or sophomore TE Jacob Pederson. For all the great things the Wisconsin running game has done, name the Badger back who has been special in the NFL. Ron Dayne? Michael Bennett? How about Anthony Davis, Brian Calhoun, or P.J. Hill? John Clay was a Doak Walker finalist and wasn’t even drafted. Tight end is a different story, with Lance Kendricks, Garrett Graham, Owen Daniels, Mike Roan, and Travis Beckum all serving as top safety valves for the Badger attack. Byrne isn’t a talent like the other recent UW tight end stars, but he’s a tough blocker, while sophomore Brian Wozniak is more of a big, beefy type who can hit and can make the tough grab. Pederson is a huge wide receiver playing tight end, and he could end up being a key factor for Wilson to rely on.

The season will be a success if: The Badgers get back to the BCS. In the new, wacky world of the Big Ten, quirky things might happen to keep Wisconsin from winning the Leaders division. With trips to Michigan State and Ohio State, along with dates with Nebraska and Penn State, a perfect season is too much to ask for. However, that doesn’t mean that 10-2 can’t get the Badgers close to an at-large BCS bid, and 11-1 is certainly possible considering they’re going to be as good or better than everyone on the slate.

Key game: Oct. 29 at Ohio State. All eyes will be on the Big Ten opener against Nebraska, but the Badgers will get two weeks off to prepare considering the light scrimmage against South Dakota the week before. If all goes according to play, UW will be 6-0 before going to East Lansing, site of the only regular-season loss last season in a key interdivision battle. Win that, and it’s on to Ohio State for what might be the showdown for the Leaders title in what’ll be a revenge game for the Buckeyes. What kind of shape will OSU be in if the NCAA isn’t lenient? The Buckeyes still have more talent than anyone in the Big Ten, and Wisconsin likely can’t lose to them and still win the Big Ten title.