Preseason countdown: No. 10 Wisconsin
Wisconsin might feel like it’s really, really close to being national title good, but the success could be a part of the problem. The last two years might be blinding the Badgers into believing they’re on the right track. They have to make a few changes and can’t get too hung up on blowouts over a slew of mediocre teams.
First and foremost, the idea of recruiting to a type has to be replaced by recruiting more talent. Coach Bret Bielema hasn’t gone after a slew of the four-and-five star types, and while that hasn’t mattered on the stat sheet, very soon Ohio State is going to be a mega-problem after so many big classes. Michigan – from the other division – has ramped up its recruiting to a higher level under Brady Hoke, and it’s going to be a powerhouse to get through to win a Big Ten title.
Wisconsin can keep being very competitive and very good, but it’s going to have to be better in the near future just to win the Leaders, much less win the national title.
Bielema was able to beat out Auburn for Russell Wilson last year, and he was able to get free-agent quarterback Danny O’Brien from Maryland when it seemed like a mortal lock that he would’ve been off to Penn State.
O’Brien isn’t going to be Wilson, but he should be able to lead an offense that will once again be dominant. Montee Ball headlines a loaded backfield that will once again rumble behind a huge and talented offensive line, while the passing game has just enough good parts to get by.
The defense might be the best in the Bielema era, and it might not even be close.
As is, the Badgers should be able to get by for one more year with Ohio State still ramping things up and with the rest of the Big Ten outside of Michigan looking a bit soft. But it’s time to start thinking bigger. It’s time to start thinking about improving to stay on the top of the mountain. It’s time to start thinking about taking the next step forward to winning the national championship.
What to watch for on offense: O’Brien and the passing game. No one’s asking him to replace Wilson after one of the greatest seasons by any quarterback in college football history, but it would be nice if he came close. The running game will be as good as ever, and maybe even better with so much running back talent returning and with a line full of NFL prospects, but the Badgers were special last season because Wilson was able to make the passing game shine, too. The problem is that leading receiver Nick Toon is gone, and while Jared Abbrederis is a good target, he might not be a No. 1. And then there’s the question mark about O’Brien, who has to still earn the job and make it his. Joel Stave and Joe Brennan didn’t exactly set the world on fire this offseason, but O’Brien will still have to audition for the part.
What to watch for on defense: A special back seven. When the world last saw the Badgers, Oregon was hitting home run after home run while making the Bucky linebackers look like they were running in mud. There’s no question, though, that Chris Borland and Mike Taylor are phenomenal linebackers and they should be on the All-America short list. Once again they’ll be helped by a secondary that was statistically great last season and should be even stronger with the return of talented corner Devin Smith from a foot injury. The safety tandem of Shelton Johnson and Dezmen Southward is fantastic and Marcus Cromartie could be an all-star on the other side of Smith.
The team will be far better if: There’s a pass rush. The tackles are great, the linebackers are better, and the secondary is loaded. However, the Badgers don’t have a J.J. Watt or O’Brien Schofield who’ll be a sure thing to get to the quarterback on a regular basis. Brendan Kelly has the potential to be a disruptive force and David Gilbert is an athlete who looked great before getting hurt. There aren’t a lot of top passing teams on the slate, but it would be a plus to get more pressure against mobile quarterbacks Taylor Martinez of Nebraska, Nathan Scheelhaase of Illinois and MarQueis Gray of Minnesota early on.
The schedule: It’s Wisconsin, so the non-conference schedule is light and breezy. It’s not the Badgers’ fault that Oregon State stinks now, but when the game was scheduled the road trip looked like a landmine. Utah State isn’t the Utah State of last year and UTEP and Northern Iowa will have offenses, but they shouldn’t be a problem. There’s no Michigan on the Legends slate, but the Badgers can’t seem to get Michigan State out of their hair and they have to go to Nebraska to open up the Big Ten season. The Leaders schedule isn’t bad with the huge showdown against Ohio State in Madison and getting Illinois at home. After going to Lincoln, the Big Ten road games are to Purdue, Indiana and Penn State. That’s not bad.
Best offensive player: Senior RB Ball. Really, how did he not win the Heisman? Yeah, Robert Griffin III was dynamic and thrilling, but take a slight step back and grasp the numbers Ball came up with: 1,923 rushing yards, 33 touchdowns, six receiving touchdowns, 6.3 yards per carry. The nice part this year is that he doesn’t have to carry nearly as much of the workload. James White is a more-than-capable No. 2 back, and Melvin Gordon looks like the next Badgers rushing star. Of course, it’s Ball who’ll be the signature back in the attack with a little bit of good weight added on while keeping his phenomenal quickness.
Best defensive player: Senior LB Taylor or junior LB Borland. It’s hard to have one without the other as the duo spent last year hitting everything in sight. Taylor led the team with 150 tackles while providing good leadership and steady play from the weakside. Borland cranked out 143 tackles and is more of the all-around playmaker in the middle with the burst and drive to make things happen behind the line. Borland is the better of the two, but it’s not by much.
Key player to a successful season: O’Brien. Wilson threw for 33 touchdowns and four interceptions while leading the Badgers to the Big Ten title and a berth in the Rose Bowl – no pressure, Danny. There’s no questioning O’Brien’s size or his talent, but he wasn’t able to mesh well with the new coaching staff at Maryland and had to press a bit too much. He won’t have to force anything with the Badgers – the running game will take care of most of the work – but he has to be great if they’re going to repeat.
The season will be a success if: Tthe Badgers go to a third straight Rose Bowl. There’s no excuse to not at least win the Leaders with Ohio State not eligible for the Big Ten title, Penn State a major mess, and no one else in the division better than Bucky. It would be a complete and utter disaster to not play for the championship, and with the bar set so high, getting by Michigan, Nebraska or Michigan State and getting to Pasadena will be a must. Anything less for a team this good will be a step back.
Key game: Nov. 24 at Penn State. Ohio State and Illinois have to come to Camp Randall. The only other team in the Leaders that should have a reasonable shot at knocking off the Badgers is a Penn State team that might be looking to get back some measure of respect after getting obliterated 45-7 last year in Madison. Of course, Penn State might not be Penn State considering what happens over the next several months in the aftermath of the controversy, but it’s the regular-season finale and emotions will be running hot.