Expectations are high in Madison this year. The Badgers had their best season since their run of Rose Bowls in the late 1990's going 12-1 and finishing with a #7 ranking. More impressive is that it was head coach Bret Bielema's first season in replacing Barry Alvarez.
Though the Badgers seemingly cruised through the Big Ten schedule with one lone hiccup against Michigan, they had many doubters due to the ease of their schedule. Their non-conference games featured Bowling Green, Western Illinois, San Diego St., and Buffalo. In the conference they missed out on playing Ohio State and got Penn State at home. Despite their 11-1 record they went into the bowl season ranked #12. They played a good Arkansas team in the Capital One Bowl. The Razorbacks dominated most of the stats, but the Badgers still managed to pull out a 17-14 win.
Like I said, expectations are high. The Badgers are starting the season ranked in the top 10. They return a lot of talent, but they do have to replace some key people and the schedule will prove more difficult this year.
There is nothing pretty about the Wisconsin Badger offense. They pound it at you with bruising running backs following offensive linemen that are 320 pound freaks of nature. It's simple. It's predictable. But it's highly effective. They don't disguise it. They come right at you and they dare you to stop them.
P.J. Hill was easily the most impressive freshman in the conference last year. He took the conference by storm rushing for 1569 yards and 15 TD. The question for Hill and the Badgers is can he stay healthy? He missed all of 2005 with a broken leg. Last year he struggled through a neck injury and he sat out spring practice with a bum shoulder. Lance Smith was a highly recruited kid that was supposed to back him up, but Smith was briefly suspended indefinitely from the team. He's back now but you have to figure he's one missed team breakfast away from getting the boot. If he can stay on the team he could be dangerous. He's got good size like Hill, but more speed. True freshman John Clay may also get a shot at carrying the ball now that his academic situation has been conveniently worked out.
Whoever runs the ball, they will have the typical crew of Wisconsin giants we're all used to seeing in Madison. The offensive line is big, physical, and experienced. They return four guys and will be extremely good despite the loss of Joe Thomas. Fighting to replace him are a redshirt freshman and a sophomore. Left tackle is going to see a huge drop this year, but then when you lose Joe Thomas you would say that about anyone. If there is one weakness of this group it's pass protection. They can run block with the best of them, but as a group the returning starters gave up 29 sacks. Look for left tackle to be tested often by opposing defensive coordinators.
The key to the Badgers season may rest with the quarterback they are tasked with protecting. Long time quarterback John Stocco finally leaves as Wisconsin's second all-time leading passer. Tyler Donovan is the leading candidate to replace him. Stocco went down against Penn State and missed the last two games of the year. Donovan stepped in and played well, but then it was against Iowa and Buffalo. He's a scrawny kid standing 6'1" and 187 lbs, but he moves well and can beat you with his legs. Pushing him for playing time is Allan Evridge who transferred from Kansas State where he started six games. For now the job is Donovan's, but if he struggles there may be a quarterback controversy that lasts through the season.
Whoever gets the call at quarterback, they will have a good group of receivers to throw to. Paul Hubbard and Luke Swan are among the best 1-2 punches in the league at wide receiver. They combined for 73 catches and 1100 yards last year. They also have big play potential that will stretch defenses and punish safeties that cheat up to help to help against the run. Depth may be an issue at wideout since there isn't much proven talent behind them. Travis Bechum is more like a wide receiver playing tight end. He led the team in catches (61) and receiving yards (903). He's a major part of the offense in keeping linebackers honest from strickly looking for the run.
Like the offense, the Badger defense is nothing flashy, but they are highly effective. Last season they led the league in pass defense, pass efficiency defense, total defense, and scoring defense. They only finished fourth against the run. What the hell is the matter with them? Anyway they should be good again this year provided they can successfully replace four or five starters.
The defensive line will have to replace Joe Monty and Jamal Cooper who was just booted from the team. It's not a huge loss since everyone else has some starting experience and Matt Shaughnessy and Jason Chapman each earned All Big Ten honors last year. Senior defensive tackle Nick Hayden is a two year starter who is solid in the middle. Senior Kurt Ware gets the start at defensive end through default due to Cooper's suspension. He's been a disappointment thus far in his career. Mike Newkirk is a solid defensive tackle that will see time in the rotation, but after him there isn't much developed talent. If they can't get some younger players some playing time this group may get gassed in the fourth quarter.
The linebackers will have to replace Mark Zalewski who led the team in tackles last year. Bielema is very high on his replacement, sophomore Elijah Hodge who managed to rack up 25 tackles last year as a freshman. Weakside linebacker Jonathan Castillas and middle linebacker DeAndre Levy are proven talents that should do well. As a group the Badger linebackers are very athletic and should be a strength.
Cornerback Jack Ikegwuonu is the feature show in the secondary. He belongs on the short list of the best corners in the Big Ten along with Justin King and Malcolm Jenkins. Allen Langford will see a lot of action on the other side of the field. Seeing a lot of action last year he pulled down three interceptions. Two of them came against Chad Henne. The cornerbacks are solid. The safeties are another story. Joe Stellmacher and Roderick Rogers were probably the best safety combo in the league last year. Now they are gone. In their stead will be a couple of sophomores, Shane Carter and Aubery Pleasant. Carter is getting good reviews in practice but Pleasant is an unknown.
Taylor Mehlhalff is a big league kicker. He hit 15 of 20 last year and nailed three from over 50 yards. His leg strength will be valuable on kickoffs given the new rules. Ken Dubauche is a decent punter though he struggles with consistency. Kicking the ball is no problem for this team. Returning the ball is another story. The Badgers ranked #96 in the nation in punt returns and #119 in kickoff returns. Yikes. Luke Swan and Josh Nettles do the returning but don't be surprised if that changes.
Definitely harder than last year. The out of conference schedule has a pulse this year with Washington State. They are projected to be a borderline bowl team and are usually good for one upset a year. UNLV, The Citadel, and Northern Illinois should pose no problems. The conference schedule looks pretty brutal. They have to travel to Ohio State and Penn State. But they luck out in getting Iowa and Michigan at home. Purdue and Northwestern are absent.
Call It A Good Year If...
Tyler Donovan is the next John Stocco. Either Bscherer or Camiri do a decent job of replacing Joe Thomas. The defensive front four stiffen up a bit from last year. Hodge plays well at strong side linebacker. The safeties prove to be competent. And the kick return game improves.
They roll through the out of conference schedule. Beat Iowa at home and then cruise into Happy Valley with a 6-0 record. They beat the Nittany Lions and go into Ohio State in week ten still undefeated. Escaping with a win they return home to beat the Michigan Wolverines and claim the conference title a week before the end of the season. Best case scenario I could see this team going undefeated and playing for the National Championship.
Laugh at Bielema if...
Left tackle proves to be a liability and Tyler Donovan becomes a casualty from getting blindsided too often. Lack of depth on the defensive line gives opponents who can run control of the game. The drop off at safety proves bigger than expected.
Washington State pulls off their annual upset. Iowa returns to prominence and knocks them off in Madison. The trips to Penn State and Ohio State are as successful as the Bataan Death March. Then the heavily favored Wolverines handle them soundly. Worst case scenario I could see this team losing five games.
I think everyone is a little too giddy on the Badgers this year. Their 12-1 record last year looks impressive, but when you delve into the schedule it's not. Their out of conference schedule was a joke. They caught Iowa in a year in which the Hawkeyes were decimated by injuries. They caught Penn State at home in a rebuilding year. They missed Ohio State entirely. They lost pretty soundly to the one good team they played in Michigan. Arkansas was a quality win, but the Razorbacks probably should have won that game.
They return a lot of talent. There isn't much elite talent, but this is how Wisconsin wins. They put better than average players at each position and play sound football. The end result is the whole being greater than the sum of the parts. Their style of play is one of grinding it out, playing solid defense, and hoping you can pull out a 17-14 win. You can win a lot of games that way, but going undefeated is extremely difficult, especially through a tough conference like the Big Ten where with just a few big plays you can find yourself down by a couple of scores very quickly. If the Badger offense has to come back from behind they are done.
I think the Badgers will cruise through their out of conference schedule unscathed. Iowa will give them a good test, but they aren't quite good enough to beat this team yet. Last year they only managed 13 points against Penn State at home. This year they travel to Happy Valley and with a more experienced Penn State offense 13 points isn't going to get it done. They will lose at Penn State, but should pull out a win against a rebuilding Ohio State. The Badgers have won three in a row at the Shoe and seem to play well there. But the following week the big play Michigan offense will take them out of their game and Wisconsin will drop another one to the Wolverines. I think they will have a great year, but I see them losing a few games and going 10-2 through the regular season. It's either the Capital One or Outback Bowl for the Badgers.