Well that was a fun regular season finale, huh kids? Oh wait... not really. Penn State had been on the decline for two and a half years. Wisconsin had been on a sharp rise during that time. These were two very different teams facing one another in Madison last November, than the last time the Nittany Lions and Badgers went at it in Camp Randal three years prior. The tables were turned from a Penn State 48-7 demolition of Wisconsin in 2008, to a 45-7 nuking of the Nittany Lions by the Badgers in 2011.
But that was then, and this is a new season, with the Badgers sporting some new faces in key positions, including the coaches' box. Today we're wrapping up our Summer Snapshot 2012 series by taking a brief look inside the Wisconsin Badgers.
The Bret Bielema era at Wisconsin started with a flash, as the Badgers took advantage of a soft schedule and roared to 12-1, beating Arkansas in the Citrus Bowl. The following season, Wisconsin was sailing high once again, sporting a No. 5 ranking as it headed into Champaign to face an Illinois team that was itself destined for glory. The Illini shocked the Badgers 31-26. The next week, apparently still shell shocked, Wisconsin was ripped by an underachieving Penn State squad 38-7 in Beaver Stadium. The Badgers finished 9-4, but many felt they should have done much better that year.
Things kind of crashed and burned for a year in 2008, as Wisconsin blew a 19-0 halftime lead at Michigan, sending the season into a virtual tailspin. Bielema's third year in charge of the team was one that had him on an ever-warming seat, as the Badgers were getting worse, not better under his leadership.
Then in 2009, what many consider "The Year of the Big Ten," Wisconsin was part of the group that helped restore some of the lost respect the conference had over the previous few years. The Badgers went 10-3 against a good schedule, finishing with an upset win over Miami(FL) in the bowl. 2010 would have been even better, had Wisconsin been able to get by TCU in the Rose Bowl. But winning the conference title for the first time had Bielema resting a bit easier, and rightfully so. Last season was all about the phenom QB transfer Russell Wilson, who dazzled his way to the all-time NCAA pass efficiency record. Wisconsin lost the bowl game yet again, this time to Oregon. But with three straight double-digit win seasons, the Badgers have established themselves as the "elite" to beat in the conference.
As Wilson departs, Wisconsin will get yet another ACC transfer in Danny O'Brien. The 2010 Freshman of the Year did well in his time at Maryland, but will likely not mimic the success of Wilson in Madison. Not that O'Brien will have to, as he will be handing off to two of the best running backs in the nation, Montee Ball and James White. The two combined for more than 2,600 rushing yards in 2011, as Ball tied Barry Sanders for the NCAA single-season touchdowns record at 39. O'Brien will have a good target to find in Jared Abbrederis, but might not get the protection afforded Wilson last season, as the offensive line loses two first team All-Americans and another first team All-Big Ten. Still, the offense should be fine.
Though the defensive line returns less experience than it did in 2011, it will have two of the best linebackers in the nation to help them out. Chris Borland and Mike Taylor both earned first team All-Big Ten last season, and should be in the running for even bigger honors in 2012. The two combined for 293 tackles and 28 for loss last year. The outside of the defense could be shaky early in the year, though, as Wisconsin's top two defensive backs are gone. Both earned first team all-conference. While the defensive line is still a pretty big question mark for the Badgers, this defense reminds me very much of the Penn State defense heading into this season.
Wisconsin will have a rare early-season test in its week two trip to Corvallis to play the always-dangerous Oregon State Beavers. Remember this is the team that has been notorious under coach Mike Riley for big upsets--USC (2006, 2008, 2010), Cal (2007), Arizona (2010). Two cupcakes later, Wisconsin heads on the road again to Nebraska in a game that could preview the Big Ten Championship Game. At the end of October, yet another title game possibility, and a rematch of last year's inaugural BTCG, Michigan State comes to Madison. The Badgers must wrap up the season hosting Ohio State and traveling to Penn State. With the schedule as it stands, missing Michigan, getting Michigan State and Ohio State in Camp Randall, a conference title run could be born or crushed in that Big Ten opener in Lincoln.
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