Preseason polls have Badgers as team to beat

MADISON, Wis. — Any college football fan or pundit is smart enough to know that preseason polls unveiled three months before opening kickoff determine absolutely bupkis about the upcoming season.

But that doesn’t mean we can’t still have some fun crunching a few early numbers about where teams in the Big Ten are expected to stack up against each other.

An entirely unscientific sampling of five preseason Top 25 polls compiled by Dennis Dodd of CBSSports.com, Mark Schlabach of ESPN.com, Athlon Sports, Phil Steele and Andy Staples of Sports Illustrated seems like as good a place as any to start.

What we learn is that the University of Wisconsin just might be the team to beat. Again.

The Badgers, two-time defending Big Ten champions, are ranked higher on average than any other Big Ten program. Wisconsin’s average rank is 11, while Michigan is 13, Ohio State 14, Michigan State 15 and Nebraska 19.

Here’s a look at the full breakdown, in order from Dodd, Schlabach, Athlon Sports, Steele and Staples:

Wisconsin: 6, 15, 17, 9, 6. Average of 11.

Michigan: 13, 9, 7, 22, 13. Average of 13.

Ohio State: 8, 17, 6, 11, 30. Average of 14.

Michigan State: 18, 11, 18, 19, 10. Average of 15.

Nebraska: 22, 24, 14, 17, 18. Average of 19.

The biggest outlier, it appears, is Ohio State’s No. 30 ranking by Staples because the Buckeyes aren’t ranked worse than No. 17 in the four other polls. Still, Wisconsin is slotted ahead of Ohio State in three of those four polls and four of five overall.

The Badgers’ strength in early preseason polls is aided by the return of Heisman Trophy finalist Montee Ball at running back and the addition of former Maryland quarterback Danny O’Brien, who is expected to become the starter to replace Russell Wilson. Those factors, coupled with two NFL prospects on the offensive line — Ricky Wagner and Travis Frederick — make the offense appear ready for another near-record-breaking season.

Defensively, the Badgers return perhaps the best two-man linebacking tandem in college football with Chris Borland and Mike Taylor — the duo combined for 293 total tackles last season.

Dodd called Ball the second most important returning “recruit” next to USC quarterback Matt Barkley, who also opted to come back for his senior season. Ball rushed for 1,923 yards last season and tied the FBS single-season record with 39 total touchdowns scored.

“Bret Bielema’s record-breaking tailback decided to return despite all the signs pointing to an early entry,” Dodd wrote. “At least Ball will be well protected by a big, beefy offensive line. It doesn’t matter if only two of them return. Wisconsin reloads with offensive linemen quicker than Lady Gaga changes outfits.”

Athlon Sports lists Wisconsin as the fourth-best Big Ten team at No. 17, which perhaps speaks to the talent at the top of the conference. The Badgers are ranked behind Ohio State (6), Michigan (7) and Nebraska (14).

Yet the publication notes that because of Ohio State’s one-year postseason ban in 2012, Wisconsin is the favorite to advance to the conference championship game in Indianapolis from the Leaders Division. There, Wisconsin likely would face Nebraska, Michigan or Michigan State.

“If the defensive issues can be addressed and the overall drop-off at punter and kicker isn’t significant,” Athlon wrote, “UW could return to the Rose Bowl for the third consecutive season.”

At the very least, we know Wisconsin is a lock to begin the season ranked in every major top-25 college football poll. The Badgers will determine how high they climb with their play on the field.

Point spreads revealed: The Golden Nugget, a Las Vegas casino, released point spreads Monday morning for 111 college football games this fall. Three of those games involve Wisconsin, and the Badgers are favored in two.

Wisconsin is a three-point underdog at Nebraska on Sept. 29 in a 7 p.m. CT game to be nationally televised by ABC, ESPN or ESPN2. The Badgers will play in Nebraska’s Memorial Stadium for the first time since 1973.

Last season, Wisconsin hammered Nebraska 48-17 in the teams’ Big Ten openers at Camp Randall Stadium.

Wisconsin will be a five-point favorite in its home game against budding rival Michigan State on Oct. 27. The game will be televised by ABC at 2:30 p.m. CT. A year ago, the teams split a pair of games, with Michigan State winning 37-31 on a last-second Hail Mary during the regular season and Wisconsin escaping with a 42-39 victory in the Big Ten championship.

Wisconsin is also an early six-point favorite at home against new head coach Urban Meyer and Ohio State on Nov. 17. The Buckeyes knocked off the Badgers 33-29 in Columbus last season.

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