The college football season is rapidly approaching with fall camps in full swing and all the preseason Top 25 polls getting released. With that in mind, we continue the Rant Sports 100 in 100 college football preview with No. 16, the Wisconsin Badgers.
Wisconsin used a punishing running game in 2011 to run to the top of the Big Ten, winning the inaugural Big Ten Championship game and earning their second straight Rose Bowl appearance. Sounds like a pretty successful season, but when you consider the Badgers were a pair of wild finishes away from being in the national title conversation, the season was a bit of a disappointment. There’s also the Rose Bowl loss to Oregon, their second straight in the Grand-daddy of them all, which leaves a pretty bitter taste left over in the mouth of Badgers fans heading into 2012. Can Bret Bielema get the Badgers to finish strong in 2012 or is Wisconsin doomed for another eventual letdown?
Bielema is quickly getting a reputation as an ACC talent scout, as he’ll start his second ACC transfer at quarterback in as many years with Danny O’Brien transferring from Maryland to take the reigns in 2012. O’Brien isn’t generating quite the excitement that his predecessor Russell Wilson did when he made the move to the Midwest, but he’s definitely going to give the Badgers a steady hand under center. Last season with the Terrapins, O’Brien was less than stellar, throwing for just 1,648 yards and seven touchdowns with 10 interceptions. Luckily for him, and Badgers fans in attendance, he won’t be asked to carry the offense quite as much as he did at Maryland.
The reason for that: Montee Ball. Ball comes off a Heisman finalist 2011 and returns to school ready to get another invite to New York this season. He will be the engine that makes the Badgers offense roll and will look to build off his monster 1,923 yard, 33 touchdown performance from last season. Teams will undoubtedly try and load up the box to stop Ball, and they’re welcome to try it. The Badgers offensive line is once again massive and strong and ready to clear the way for their talented back.
But from time to time, O’Brien is going to need to throw to someone, and it looks like that someone will be junior wide receiver Jared Abbrederis. Surprisingly, it was Abbrederis, and not the more celebrated Nick Toon, who led the Badgers in receiving last season, catching 55 passes for 933 yards and eight touchdowns. He was able to eclipse the 100-yard mark in three games last season, and will look to improve on that as the main target for the Badgers this season.
The defense will bear a lot of the blame for the disappointing losses in 2011, and the unit will have to try and patch together a squad to take the field when Montee Ball isn’t carrying defenders down the field for six. On the defensive line, Wisconsin will rely on defensive tackle Beau Allen to step up after Jordan Kohout was forced out of football due to migraines. Allen was second on the team last year in sacks, with 4.0, and will look to build on that number this season. He’ll be helped by the return of defensive end David Gilbert from injury.
The linebacker position will once again be the strength of this defense, just like it was last season. The Badgers return both Mike Taylor and Chris Borland, who are both likely to be named All-Conference this season. Last year, Taylor led the Big Ten and ranked third in the nation in tackles with 150 and Borland is arguably the best linebacker in the Big Ten who is poised to explode for a great year in 2012. They’ll need to get some help to stay clean and able to make plays, but if they can, they’ll be counted on to wreak havoc all over the field.
The secondary was the Achilles’ heel of this team in 2011 and doesn’t give much hope at marked improvement in 2012. They do get their best cornerback, Devin Smith, back from injury after he played in just two games last year because of a leg injury. He’ll play alongside Marcus Cromartie and safety Dez Southward, but there is a decidedly thin line of talent behind them. Depth will be an issue all over the defense, but it could come back to cost the Badgers most noticeably in the secondary.
The Badgers start 2012 with a string of tune-up games before things get going with a trip to Lincoln to take on Nebraska on September 29. Wisconsin embarrassed Nebraska last season to open up Big Ten play in Madison, and you can bet that the Blackshirts are going to be chomping at the bit for some payback. The rest of their schedule looks incredibly favorable with the usual slate of Big Ten “also-rans” and Michigan State and Ohio State coming to Madison this season. In all, Wisconsin doesn’t look like it will be the underdog in any of its games this season.
With a favorable schedule, the Badgers should coast to another Leaders Division title without breaking much of a sweat. However, they may find things more difficult when they get to the Big Ten title game. Michigan looks poised to run wild in the Legends Division and would be a staunch test of the Badgers to get back to the Rose Bowl for a third straight time. A downgrade at quarterback will hurt the offensive production and the defensive depth will unravel at some point for Bucky, costing the Badgers another trip to the BCS. But Montee Ball and that offensive line is good for 10 wins at least any year. Badgers finish with 11 wins, but are relegated to a second-tier bowl game this January.
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