This is the last in a series of articles previewing Big Ten football in 2012. A recap of the 2012 preview articles is provided at the end of this article.
When Bret Bielema sunk from 12-1 in his first season to 7-6 in his third season back in 2008, some pundits thought he was the wrong choice for the Wisconsin head coaching job. However, the doubters have mostly disappeared after three straight double-digit-win seasons and two consecutive Big Ten championships.
Despite the successes, Wisconsin now yearns for even bigger and better achievements. Namely, BCS bowl victories and perhaps even national championship contention. Although only 11 starters return from the two-time defending Big Ten champions, the road is wide open in the Leaders Division thanks to the postseason bans at Ohio State and Penn State.
When Purdue and Illinois are the only teams blocking you from a trip to a conference championship, there is no excuse. Wisconsin simply has to be back in Indianapolis for a second straight season. Especially with Urban Meyer cranking Ohio State back up to elite status in a hurry, the window of domination for the Badgers may be closing, or at least narrowing.
Wisconsin will try the same formula from a season ago and plug in some new linemen and a transfer quarterback from the ACC. However, the doubts about Danny O'Brien are far more significant than those about Russell Wilson from a season ago. O'Brien does not appear to be a pro-caliber quarterback, but all he needs to do is manage some of these games.
Will Wisconsin be able to replace all these talented offensive and defensive linemen without a bump in the road? Can the Badgers continue to dominate at Camp Randall against tough competition like Illinois, Michigan State, and Ohio State? Can Wisconsin bring home a Heisman Trophy? Will Bret Bielema hit a crescendo of smugness before he arrives in Indianapolis for the Big Ten Championship? Let's take a look.
In order to win two straight conference championships, Wisconsin has cranked up the intensity on offense by averaging over 450 yards and 41 points per game the past two years. With Russell Wilson coming in to helm an experienced offense in 2011, the numbers were video-game worthy with 44 points per game and a ridiculously balanced 236 rushing and 234 passing yards per game.
As mentioned above, Wisconsin again turns to a transfer quarterback: junior Danny O'Brien from Maryland, who threw for over 4000 yards in his two seasons there. O'Brien fits this offense relatively well and has been able to build a solid connection with returning receivers and tight ends. Look for O'Brien to have a little less prolific numbers than Wilson did in 2011, but 20 or more touchdowns should be expected with minimal turnovers.
The returning talent O'Brien gets to work with includes receiver Jared Abbrederis and tight end Jacob Pedersen. Abbrederis earned honorable mention all-conference last season after leading the Badgers with 933 receiving yards and eight touchdowns. Two new faces to know right away are freshman Jordan Frederick and sophomore Kenzel Doe, who earned starting jobs at receiver over some other young players.
However, the key to the Wisconsin offense is not whether the passing game is adequate. The key will be whether Montee Ball and James White continue to dominate in the rushing game. After racking up 33 rushing touchdowns in 2011, Ball only needs 19 more to set the all time FBS record for career rushing touchdowns. Ball and White should both go over 1000 yards this season, as the Badgers will need to keep Ball fresh for the stretch run.
About the only thing that could derail the Wisconsin offense is a lack of depth on the offensive line. Freshmen litter through the two-deep, although returning starters C Travis Frederick and LT Rick Wagner hold two of the spots with thin depth. If one or both of these players were to go down to an injury, then Wisconsin may have serious trouble opening holes for Ball and White to start steamrolling defensive players.
The overall offensive production should fall off a bit, but Ball will break the FBS record and will likely do enough carrying of the team to end up back in New York in December. The offense should be more than enough to win many games in Madison.
Unlike the offense, the defense is filled with nothing but upperclassmen starters and experienced backups. Even with only six starters returning from a season ago, the overall experience level and talent has increased on this defense. Just like the offense, the defense has surrendered about equal numbers of yards on offense and defense, 153 rushing and 164 passing last season.
The number that can be improved is the rushing total, and that will all come down to the defensive line. Senior Brendan Kelly and junior Ethan Hemer return after both racked up about 35 tackles apiece in 2011. These two only combined for 4 sacks though, as the defense relied more on blitzing linebackers to make big plays in the backfield. That will need to change is Wisconsin is to take the defense to the next level of production.
The biggest strength of the team is the linebacker corps, led by Mike Taylor and Chris Borland. As mentioned in my preseason ranking of the top Big Ten linebackers (linked below), these linebackers racked up stunning numbers (150 and 143 tackles, 23.5 tackles for loss) and first team all-conference honors a season ago. Junior Ethan Armstrong, who had 29 tackles of his own in 2011, will join the superstar linebackers to make a formidable middle of the defense.
Expect more aggressive play with these experienced linebackers, although more of the tackling load should be carried by the defensive line. Borland and Taylor alone probably make this the best linebacker corps in the country, let alone the Big Ten conference.
Similar to the other levels of the defense, the backfield must replace two starters while returning two others. Safety Shelton Johnson should once again lead the team after pulling down four interceptions last year. Johnson is joined by junior Dezmen Southward, who has also shown the ability in practice to pull down a few interceptions. If Wisconsin plays opportunistic and ends up double digits into the positive turnover margin again, there will be no stopping them from another Rose Bowl or better.
As a whole, the defense should be improved from 2011. That will take even more pressure off the offense to continue the superb levels of point and yardage productions from the last two years. Wisconsin will blow out some teams thanks to this defense.
The one area where Wisconsin was not dominant a season ago was special teams. Unfortunately, the numbers may only fall off more with the loss of long time starting kickers and punters to graduation. This leaves the kicking and punting in the hands of some sophomores and possibly freshmen, if the sophomores falter.
As of the latest depth chart, sophomore kicker Kyle French was listed as starter at both kickoffs and field goal kicking. However, Bret Bielema indicated that freshman Jack Russell will also see some opportunities against Northern Iowa in week one. French was 3-of-5 on field goals last year, but the Badgers did not require field goals very often.
So perhaps that position will not matter as much as it normally does for teams. Sophomore Drew Meyer will take over the punting duties after the departure of Brad Nortman. Meyer looks like he will be able to keep up the pace of a 35-yard punting average or higher, which would be sufficient with how good the offense and defense are.
Jared Abbrederis and James White will handle the punt returns and kick returns again this season. Abbrederis is solid in both aspects of the return game, but White needs to improve after only managing 21 yards per return in 2011.
The special teams for Wisconsin will likely not win any games, but the most important thing will be not making critical mistakes that could lose games. This unit should be good enough to avoid such mistakes.
The Badgers' schedule for 2012 looks like this, with predictions on wins and losses in parentheses:
9/1—Northern Iowa (win)
9/8—@ Oregon State (win)
9/15—Utah State (win)
9/29—@ Nebraska (loss)
10/13—@ Purdue (win)
10/27—Michigan State (win)
11/10—@ Indiana (win)
11/17—Ohio State (win)
11/24—@ Penn State (win)
Projected record: 11-1, 7-1 Big Ten
Wisconsin begins with the normal cushy non-conference schedule, made even more so by Oregon State having to cancel the opener this weekend against Nicholls State. Thus, Wisconsin gets the benefit of having the Beavers work out the first game kinks in the second game of the season for the Badgers.
The first big test kicks off conference play, as a road trip to Nebraska proved to be deadly for all Big Ten teams not named Northwestern a season ago. Wisconsin does not need to win the game at Nebraska to win the Leaders division, but the schedule is favorable after that game and could lead to a national championship game with a win in Lincoln.
Nebraska should be better tested in the non-conference schedule and will be ready to repay the beating received in Madison in 2011. Especially if the Badgers lose this game as projected, then the critical following games against top division rivals Illinois and Purdue should certainly go the way of a mad Badgers squad.
At that point, Wisconsin just needs to avoid a couple more losses to end up in Indianapolis. With plenty to play for, the Badgers should stroll through the rest of the schedule except for late home games against Michigan State and Ohio State. Those teams are capable of winning in Camp Randall, but I project wins in both games.
As a result, Wisconsin will go into Indianapolis with a ton of momentum and possibly still a chance at a Heisman and a BCS Championship appearance with another quality win in the Big Ten championship.
With that, this ends the Big Ten preview article series. With Minnesota and Michigan State kicking off the season, it is time to enjoy a first full weekend of football. It should be a fun ride to see if anybody can challenge the Badgers in the Leaders Division, and to find out whomever will come out of the Legends Division.
Thanks for reading! If you have any comments or questions about this or other articles in the 2012 Big Ten football preview series, please contact David on Twitter.
Big Ten Season Preview 2012 Summary
Team Previews: Minnesota preview, Indiana preview, Northwestern preview, Illinois preview; Iowa preview; Penn State preview; Michigan State preview; Purdue preview; Nebraska preview; Ohio State preview; Michigan preview; Wisconsin preview
B1G Scouting Reports: Sun Belt/WAC report
That's it for the preview...thanks for reading, and now the season is here!