With all due respect to Ohio State, Michigan State, Michigan or any other Big Ten powers, the best program in the conference right now is in Madison, Wisconsin. Those other schools can’t claim back-to-back Big Ten titles and Rose Bowl berths like the Badgers can.
Last season, UW finished 6-2 in Big Ten play to win the Leaders Division via tiebreaker over Penn State. Then the Badgers beat Michigan State, 42-39, in the Big Ten Championship Game in one of the most entertaining games you will ever see – the second incredible game between those two in 2011 (MSU won the first on a Hail Mary). However, UW lost in the Rose Bowl for the second year in a row, this time in a 45-38 shootout to Oregon.
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Now the Badgers have their sights set on becoming the first Big Ten school in 34 seasons (Michigan 1977-79) to reach the Rose Bowl three years in a row – or perhaps even becoming the first Big Ten team since Ohio State in the 2002 season to win a national title.
Bret Bielema got a five-year extension this offseason that takes his contract through the 2016-17 season. Wisconsin is 60-19 in six seasons since Bielema was promoted from defensive coordinator to replace the retiring Barry Alvarez. Bielema was a busy man this offseason as offensive coordinator Paul Chryst left to be the head coach at Pittsburgh and took a handful of assistants with him. To replace Chryst, Bielema hired Northern Illinois offensive coordinator/QBs coach Matt Canada. He was the OC from 2007-10 at Indiana before being lured to NIU by Head Coach Dave Doeren, the Badgers’ former defensive coordinator who was hired there before last season.
Canada ran a spread attack at Northern Illinois and the Huskies finished in the Top 12 nationally in scoring offense (12th, 38.3 points per game), total offense (11th, 476.0 yards per game) and rushing offense (12th, 234.1). But those Huskies were stomped last year by Wisconsin and managed only 11 first downs and 237 yards. Bielema says the Badgers won’t switch from their pro-style offensive scheme.
The losses here are significant. Quarterback Russell Wilson was brilliant in his one season in Madison, holding the school record for career completion percentage and career pass efficiency, but he is now in the NFL. Also gone are three all-Big Ten linemen and top receiver Nick Toon (64 catches, 926 yards, 10 TDs).
But the Badgers welcome another ACC transfer this season in former Maryland QB and 2010 ACC Rookie of the Year Danny O’Brien, who can play right away as Wilson did. O’Brien thrived in a pro-style offense in 2010 for the Terps but struggled in a spread last year, completing 56.4 percent of his passes for 1,648 yards, with seven touchdowns and 10 interceptions and eventually lost his starting job. It would be a stunner if O’Brien isn’t the starting QB in Week 1.
But the star of the offense is clearly running back Montee Ball, who surprised many by not turning pro after a season in which he was a consensus all-American after tying Barry Sanders' NCAA record for single-season touchdowns with 39 and leading the country in rushing with 1,932 yards. He destroyed the Big Ten record with his 33 rushing scores and scored at least two touchdowns in each of the first 13 games of 2011, an NCAA record. Ball finished fourth in the Heisman voting. Wisconsin has speedster James White behind Ball, and White would start for most programs.
You never have to worry about the Badgers on the line, as they just reload there every season. At receiver, Jared Abbrederis is the only proven wideout on the roster. He led the Badgers with 933 receiving yards last season to go with 55 catches and eight TDs.
The line has some major questions with tackle Ethan Hemer the only full-time starter who returns this fall. A key up front likely will be end David Gilbert, who was playing extremely well last season when he suffered a broken foot in practice and missed the final 10 games. Gilbert broke his foot a second time while trying to return for the Rose Bowl and received a redshirt year. He sat out spring ball but has been declared 100 percent for the fall.
Wisconsin should have one of the best groups of linebackers in the nation, led by Chris Borland and Mike Taylor. Borland could well be the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year in 2012 – last season he was first-team all-Big Ten with 143 tackles, 19 tackles for loss, five forced fumbles, 2.5 sacks and two picks. That’s just sick. Taylor led the Big Ten with 150 tackles and had three forced fumbles, two sacks and two interceptions. All-conference performers Aaron Henry and Antonio Fenelus are gone from the secondary. The return of cornerback Devin Smith should help that group. He started the first two games of 2011 before breaking his left foot against Oregon State and taking a redshirt.
2012 Wisconsin Badgers Football Schedule Analysis
Things seem to have broken perfectly for the Badgers as they have watched division rivals Ohio State (ineligible for postseason play in 2012) and Penn State deal with major off-field issues that should make the Leaders Division UW’s to lose.
Wisconsin’s nonconference slate of Northern Iowa, at Oregon State, vs. Utah State and UTEP pretty much guarantees a 4-0 start since the Beavers aren’t what they used to be. But the Big Ten opener is a doozy: at Nebraska, although the Badgers thrashed NU last year in Madison. The Huskers (who are already three-point favorites at 5Dimes) will remember that. If Wisconsin wins that game, a perfect regular season is doable. Michigan State and Ohio State figure to be the only realistic challengers left on the schedule and they visit Madison. UW’s road games after Nebraska are at Purdue, at Indiana and at Penn State – normally Happy Valley would be tough, but that program is a mess right now.
2012 Wisconsin Badgers Big Ten and BCS Futures Odds
On 5Dimes, UW is +6500 to win the BCS title game and +2900 to play in the game. Badgers are -120 to play in any BCS bowl game. Wisconsin is +240 to win Big Ten title (behind only Michigan) and -200 favorite to win Leaders Division without Ohio State included. With Buckeyes included (technically they could win the division, they just can’t play in the Big Ten title game), UW is +195 second-favorite. Wisconsin “over/under” win totals: 8.5 (over -215 favorite), 9 (over -115 slight favorite) and 9.5 (under -197 favorite). Ball is +150 to finish in the Top 3 in the Heisman and +650 to win it.
2012 Wisconsin Badgers Football Predictions
I love the over on all the win totals as I think this is an 11-1 regular-season team, but no worse than 10-2. Thus I think it’s not only a lock the Badgers win the Leaders Division (barring a major injury) and play in the Big Ten title game but also in a BCS bowl game even with a loss in Indianapolis. I wouldn’t take the Badgers to play in the national title game, however. I also wouldn’t take Ball on either Heisman prop only because he now has to live up to what he did a season ago, and that’s pretty much impossible.
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