Badgers again making big plans in Big Ten
CHICAGO — There is no highway paved with gold leading from the University of Wisconsin campus to the Big Ten Conference football championship game in Indianapolis this year.
Not literally, anyway.
But figuratively speaking, the Badgers might as well be cruising in a shiny Rolls-Royce coupe with the top down while their Leaders Division foes plod along in rusted-out Ford Pintos, lagging behind and collecting Wisconsin's exhaust.
As the Badgers begin an unusual 2012 season, they do so as overwhelming favorites to win the Leaders Division. The two other traditionally strong teams in the division, Ohio State and Penn State, are ineligible for postseason play this year because of NCAA sanctions.
That set of circumstances has prompted most to anoint the Badgers as the Leaders Division representative in the Big Ten title game in Indianapolis before a game has been played.
"A lot of people are telling us that we pretty much have it in the bag," Badgers running back Montee Ball acknowledged Friday during Big Ten media days.
"I know a lot of people are starting to ask that question," UW left tackle Ricky Wagner said. "It's fun for the fans to think that we're just going to go right to Indianapolis again."
The difficult part for Wisconsin's players comes in not listening to outside noise already declaring the team as the division winner, even if it seems highly plausible.
"We're just going to do what we've always been doing," Badgers linebacker Mike Taylor said. "Every game matters. Just because Ohio State and Penn State can't go to the championship doesn't mean they can't affect us. We still have to win those games."
Purdue, Indiana and Illinois join Wisconsin in the four-team Leaders Division race this season, but expectations among those teams are drastically different when it comes to winning the league title. Indiana and Illinois finished a combined 2-14 in conference play last season, and Purdue hasn't finished above .500 in the Big Ten since 2006.
Wisconsin, meanwhile, is the two-time defending Big Ten champion and has made back-to-back Rose Bowl appearances. With quality pieces returning at key positions, Badgers players say they have every reason to believe they'll make a run at a three-peat after an 11-3 season.
For starters, Wisconsin returns a Heisman Trophy finalist at running back (Ball) and another former 1,000-yard rusher (James White). Wagner is a top 10 NFL prospect on a massive offensive front that typically bullies opponents at the line of scrimmage. And though the Badgers have a new quarterback, Maryland transfer Danny O'Brien, he was the ACC Rookie of the Year in 2010.
Ball closed last season with 1,923 rushing yards and 33 touchdowns to lead the nation. Yet he remains confident he can produce an even better senior season.
Ball noted that his first three games last year were relatively disappointing compared to his production for the rest of the season. During those three contests, Ball rushed for 272 yards with seven touchdowns.
"I'm planning on starting fast this year," Ball said, "and really looking forward to either matching or surpassing my yards from last season."
Of course, the Badgers aren't infallible. Developing a second wide receiver behind Jared Abbrederis is critical to the team's success. And the secondary will need to prove it won't give up the big play in key moments, as it did during last-minute losses to Michigan State and Ohio State last season.
Still, Wisconsin is deemed good enough to have received 19 of 24 media votes to win the Leaders Division. Ohio State received the other five votes. But even if Wisconsin finishes second to Ohio State, the Badgers will appear in the Big Ten championship game because of the Buckeyes' NCAA sanctions.
Media members then picked Michigan to beat Wisconsin in the Big Ten title game, although the Badgers clearly have earned the Wolverines' respect.
"I think they're definitely a Big Ten powerhouse right now," Michigan safety Jordan Kovacs said of Wisconsin. "As their opponent, we hope to do something about it."
Though expectations certainly are high at Wisconsin, it's nothing new to Badgers coach Bret Bielema. During his first season as coach in 2006, the Badgers finished 12-1.
The next year, Wisconsin won nine games, followed by a seven-win season.
"We were 7-6 and everybody thought we were the worst team in college football," Bielema said. "I'm like, ‘We're still going to a bowl game,' but that's not how it works."
Neither Bielema nor his players expects a similar downturn this season given the team's returning talent. Anything short of a third straight Big Ten championship and Rose Bowl appearance would be considered a disappointment — especially with Ohio State and Penn State's postseason absences seemingly clearing Wisconsin's path to Indianapolis.
"We would love to make it to the Rose Bowl or even the national championship game," Ball said. "So that's what we're looking at."
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