Big Ten Countdown - Leaders Division - First Place
By Tony Gerdeman
1. Wisconsin Badgers
A mercenary quarterback will hand off to possibly the two best running backs in the conference. Two decent receivers, but not much else. Typical massive wall of cheese curds on the offensive line. An unproven, but potentially pretty good defensive line. Playmakers at linebacker, and some of the best talent in the Big Ten in the secondary.
Six on offense, six on defense and both kicking specialists.
Sept. 1 UNLV (W)
Sept. 10 Oregon State (W)
Sept. 17 Northern Illinois (in Chicago) (W)
Sept. 24 South Dakota (W)
Oct. 1 Nebraska (W)
Oct. 15 Indiana (W)
Oct. 22 at Michigan State (L)
Oct. 29 at Ohio State (W)
Nov. 5 Purdue (W)
Nov. 12 at Minnesota (W)
Nov. 19 at Illinois (W)
Nov. 26 Penn State (W)
"If it fries, it dies." (Actually, that's the state motto.)
A National Championship. Any other year, the Badgers would be happy to shoot for a conference championship. They can afford to look a little bit beyond that this season, however.
Twelve wins in the regular season. The Badgers have the offense to win every game, and the defense to beat teams like Ohio State and Nebraska. They've also got the fundamentals to beat Sparty, but it didn't seem to matter last year.
Seven wins. You'll have to look pretty hard for five losses, but you can find them if you really try. Start with losing the standard poor performance against a non-conference opponent. Then a loss to Nebraska, Michigan State and Ohio State. Then one of Illinois and Penn State. It's not likely though.
Five Questions Looking For Answers
1. Will quarterback Russell Wilson really fit into this offense?
2. Can the receivers push defenses away from the line of scrimmage.
3. How do you replace J.J. Watt?
4. Can the linebackers stay healthy?
5. The Badgers aren't going to let the Spartans ruin their season again are they?
Best Chance For a Big Loss
At Michigan State. The Spartans will have the best offense the Badgers face this season, and they'll be doing it in East Lansing.
Most Important Game
At Ohio State. The winner will most likely be headed to the first ever Big Ten Championship Game. It's not every day that you get invited to a some-expenses paid trip to Indianapolis, so you better take advantage of each opportunity.
Best Road Game To Pack Up The Family Truckster And Travel To
Northern Illinois in Chicago. Imagine taking the blocks-wide partying to Chicago. Sure, your children will be unfamiliar with the new bars, but they'll catch on soon enough.
Game They Shouldn't Lose, But Could
Oregon State. The early-season woes could finally rear their ugly head against an opponent that is good enough to capitalize.
Something To Look For
Even better play-action passing? It's been a staple of Wisconsin football since before you were born, and apparently it's something that Russell Wilson works tirelessly at. He even instructs the running backs on how best to carry out the fake handoffs.
Running back James White. At one point last year before the season started, James White was Wisconsin's fourth tailback at best. He ended up leading the team in rushing with 1,052 yards as a true freshman and never started a single game. He finished third on the team in rushing attempts, but led the Badgers with 6.7 yards per carry. The snaps will still be split between White and Montee Ball this season, but there's no reason White can't reach 200 carries and 1,200-1,300 yards.
Running back Montee Ball. Ball finished just four yards shy of a 1,000-yard season of his own last year. He has a nose for the endzone like few others, scoring 18 touchdowns last season, which led the conference. Together, Ball and White will likely become one of the best tandems in conference history. They are reminiscent of some of the great Gopher duos during Glen Mason's tenure.
Player People Are Expecting Too Much From
Quarterback Russell Wilson. He doesn't fit the mold of your typical Badger quarterback, and because of that, so much more is expected of him. He's mobile, he's exciting, he's everything that nobody was before him.
Player People Will Be Pleasantly Surprised By
Cornerback Marcus Cromartie. Cromartie has been called the best performer in the secondary throughout practice by coaches, and that's with a pair of first and second-team All-Big Ten performers returning at corner and safety. Despite the accolades, he hasn't completely won the job opposite All-Big Ten cornerback Antonio Fenelus, but he will certainly be involved in the nickel packages.
Running back Melvin Gordon. Yes, another running back. We get it, Wisconsin, you know how to find running backs. Now knock it off. Gordon has impressed everybody in practice. So much so that the true freshman may have already moved ahead of redshirt freshman Jeff Lewis, who apparently people ALSO love. So, with the best pair of tailbacks in the country, the Badgers now have to find carries for Gordon. And if last year is any indication, finding carries for a talented true freshman shouldn't be a problem.
Best Reason They Won't Be Undefeated
J.J. Watt isn't coming through that door, folks. He finished second on the team in tackles last season, and almost single-handedly defeated Ohio State by tormenting Terrelle Pryor more than the NCAA would ever think of doing. While the coaching staff really likes the parts to this year's defensive line, there is nothing about Watt that is immediately replaceable other than his abilities as a tight end. However, much of his loss in the backfield could be mitigated by the play of linebackers Mike Taylor and Chris Borland. As active as the both of them are, if they stay healthy, together they should exceed Watt's number of tackles in the backfield.
Best Reason They Will Be Undefeated
The backfield. We've already talked about Russell Wilson and all three running backs, but it can't be overstated. Each of these guys are supremely talented and they have giant wall of protection in front of them.
Something They Do Well
Run the ball, duh. Even at Wisconsin - a place where running the ball is like breathing - there are times when the running game REALLY works, and last year was one of those times. The Badgers rushed for 246 yards per game last year, which was good enough for 12th in the nation. However, what's different about the Badgers is that they were the only team among the top 20 rushing teams to not use their quarterback in their running game. They simply line up and destroy you. There's no need for option plays or deception. Just wave upon wave of mass. By the way, that 246 yards per game was their best average since 1999.
Something They Don't Do So Well
Start the season well. Since 1999, the Badgers have only had two seasons where they defeated all of their non-conference opponents by more than one score. And it's not like this is coming against topnotch opponents. We're talking about teams like Arizona State, Northern Illinois, Fresno State, UNLV, Arizona and Cincinnati - and a few of these teams have done it multiple times.
Defensive end Louis Nzegwu. Now that he's a senior, much is being expected of Louis Nzegwu. The three sacks he produced last season in his 13 starts won't be good enough this season, and he knows this. That's why he came back this season bigger and stronger, and with a better understanding of the pass rush. He was also aided by the NFL lockout, which allowed him to work with former Badger offensive linemen Joe Thomas and Gabe Carimi and become more of a technician.
What's Gotten Worse?
The receivers. There is some talent here, but the bulk of it is unproven. Nick Toon and Jared Abbrederis will be the two starters, but the coaches want to find a third receiver, as well as build some depth. There are six true freshmen and three redshirt freshmen receivers on the team, so things may not eventually shake out until well into Big Ten play. Keep an eye on true freshman Kenzel Doe, who was impressive in the spring. He's been compared to Buckeye killer David Gilreath, which should thrill absolutely nobody in Columbus. Sophomore Manasseh Garner is recovering from hernia surgery, but he's definitely a guy they like, even though they're not sure when they can actually start counting on him. When healthy, he's probably the third receiver in the lineup.
Anything Else We Should Know About?
The defensive line could still be a strength. Even without J.J. Watt, and only with hopes that Louis Nzegwu will emerge, there are still some talented players on the front four. Defensive tackle Patrick Butrym has had a tremendous camp and has been making plays in the backfield routinely. Last season he finished with just 2.5 tackles for loss and only a half of a sack. If he is now a playmaker, then this defensive line is instantly formidable. The biggest question mark on the line will be new starting defensive end David Gilbert. Coaches are hopeful, but when aren't they?
There is quite a battle for Jay Valai's departed strong safety spot. Right now, the job has been won by junior Shelton Johnson, who has done everything right. But the coaches love the potential of sophomore Dezmen Southward, who is one of the best athletes on the team. Those close to the program aren't sure Johnson will be able to hold Southward off for an entire season, however.
Make a Wish
Louis Nzegwu does what O'Brien Schofield and J.J. Watt did before him - magically become great somehow.
Montee Ball, James White and Melvin Gordon will each rush for 100 yards in the same game twice.
Scandal Most Likely To Rock the Program
None. Haven't you heard, Bret Bielema would never tolerate a scandal. He is class personified.
If The Head Coach Was a Superhero, What Would His Super Power Be?
The super ability to prepare for the unnecessary. After all, this is the same guy who has a two-point conversion chart for being up by 25 points in the fourth quarter. Is this something that people actually need? This is like the warning on toasters that says 'Do not eat toast with mouth directly from toaster.'
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