THE SCHEME: Coordinator Paul Chryst is one of the highest-paid assistants in the Big Ten. Since arriving in Madison before the 2005 season, Chryst has made the Badgers' attack more multiple than it had been. Under Chryst's guidance, Wisconsin has averaged 31 points in the past three seasons, the highest three-year figure in school history. The running game remains the foundation of all that goes on, but the offense now is spiced up with multi-receiver packages and myriad formations.
STAR POWER: There may not be a better tight end in America than senior Travis Beckum, an All-Big Ten selection in 2007. No, he isn't a standout blocker, but he is getting better. As a pass catcher, Beckum has few peers. He led the nation's tight ends in receiving yards (982) and ranked second in receptions (75) last season, which isn't bad for a guy who was a linebacker as a freshman in 2005. Beckum's backup, junior Garrett Graham, is no slouch. He finished second on the team behind Beckum in catches (30) and also had four TD grabs. This may be the nation's top tight end duo.
IMPACT NEWCOMER: It's doubtful any newbies will play big roles on this veteran attack. If there is one, it could be redshirt freshman running back John Clay, but he has to climb over a lot of players to see significant duty. In addition, keep an eye on redshirt freshman tackle Josh Oglesby, a former mega-recruit who could be the Badgers' next great blocker. He's listed as a second-team right tackle but could get on the field as an extra blocker in jumbo formations.
IT'S HIS TIME: There is just one hole to fill on the line, at center. That's sophomore John Moffitt's cue to step up. He possesses a nice combination of size (6-4/317) and quickness, and started six games last season at guard when injuries hit Andy Kemp. Moffitt must be a quick study in making calls for what looks like a classic Badgers line led by senior guard Kraig Urbik.
STRONGEST AREA: You'd be hard-pressed to find a running back corps richer in talent and depth. There are four viable options. Junior P.J. Hill is the kingpin, a rolling rock of a back who has ambled for 2,805 yards and 29 TDs in two seasons. He has joined Ron Dayne and Anthony Davis as the only Badgers to eclipse 1,000 yards rushing in each of their first two seasons. When Hill got hurt, sophomore Zach Brown came on in the final five games and rushed 98 times for 490 yards. His highlight was a 250-yard effort vs. Minnesota. Junior Lance Smith is a home-run threat. And then there's Clay, a former uber-recruit who redshirted last season after entering fall camp late.
BIGGEST PROBLEM: Is there a quarterback in the house? If that question sounds familiar, it's because it was asked last season, too, when Tyler Donovan emerged to become a capable signal-caller. Because neither senior Allan Evridge nor junior Dustin Sherer could separate himself in the spring, their battle will wage on in training camp. Evridge, who started six games at Kansas State as a freshman in 2005 before transferring, may have a slight edge. He played in seven games last season after just missing out on winning the job. Sherer has been on campus longer than any quarterback on the roster but has thrown just three career passes. There also have been rumblings over the summer that Sherer has had surgery. True freshman Curt Phillips is a wild card.
OVERVIEW: The line should be boffo. The running backs corps is loaded with big and fast options. The key? Quarterback play. But Wisconsin usually gets this figured out, molding a capable "game manager." In fact, this will be the third season in a row Wisconsin has had a first-year starting quarterback, with Donovan following 2006 starter John Stocco. Just as big a worry may be the wide receiving corps, which needs someone to emerge as a down-field threat. Kyle Jefferson could be that guy after flashing promise as a true freshman in 2007. Sophomore David Gilreath is another possibility. A vertical passing game will help to keep defenses from bunching the line to stop the run. Badgers wide receivers caught just four TD passes last season. If the quarterback and wide receivers are just better than average, look for his offense to be deadly and dangerous.
That was Wisconsin's average time of possession in 2007, the best in the nation. The Badgers need to duplicate that sort of ball control with their strong ground game while the passing attack develops.
THE SCHEME: The Badgers utilize a 4-3 set that emphasizes fundamentals and attention to detail. With a veteran front seven, don't expect coordinator Dave Doeren to do many fancy things from a blitz and stunt standpoint. The intense Doeren will demand great effort, which was lacking at times last season.
STAR POWER: Senior end Matt Shaughnessy is the straw that stirs the drink. He has paced Badgers linemen in tackles each of the past two seasons and earned defensive MVP honors in 2007 after notching 18 tackles for loss and finishing second with five sacks. But Shaughnessy broke his right leg in the final practice before the spring game, and it's vital that he is ready to go in August.
IMPACT NEWCOMER: No defense has enough pass rushers. And the Badgers hope they added a good one in Dan Moore, a junior college transfer who arrived in time for spring drills. He'll push sophomore Kirk DeCremer, who led the team in sacks in 2007 with 5.5, for starting honors at one end spot. At the least, Moore will bring fresh legs off the bench in passing situations, if he is over a knee injury that cut short his spring.
IT'S HIS TIME: Let's say it's their time. Tackles Jason Chapman and Mike Newkirk are fifth-year seniors; Newkirk has moved inside after starting 10 times at end last season. Both are blue-collar types who haven't earned many awards. But this is their final season to shine and earn a little glory for what should be one of the best lines in the Big Ten.
STRONGEST AREA: This could be one of the best linebacking corps in recent Wisconsin history. The unit's speed, athleticism and depth are at all-time highs. All three starters return, and they accounted for 28 percent (233) of the team's tackles last fall. The headliner is Jonathan Casillas, who enters his third year as a starter and led the team with 96 tackles last season from his weakside slot. He's a two-time second-team All-Big Ten honoree and was the only non-senior voted a team captain in 2007. DeAndre Levy, who was second on the team with 70 tackles in '07, is the starter on the strongside. Elijah Hodge is the man in the middle. But if he doesn't increase his production, Hodge could lose his job to hard-charging sophomore Culmer St. Jean, who started two games last season.
BIGGEST PROBLEM: All eyes are on a secondary that is being tweaked with the loss of cornerback Jack Ikegwuonu, a first-team All-Big Ten choice who left a year early for the NFL. Steady cornerback Ben Strickland also is gone. Allen Langford and Aaron Henry look like the heirs, but each missed spring drills getting over knee injuries. Look for promising redshirt freshman Mario Goins to be in the mix. There are fewer questions at safety with the return of 2007 starters Shane Carter (free) and Aubrey Pleasant (strong), though Pleasant may lose his post to Jay Valai, who has star potential. Carter, the younger brother of Cris and Butch Carter, paced the Big Ten with seven picks last season and was the top tackler in Wisconsin's secondary (56).
OVERVIEW: This is a seasoned crew. It all begins with a veteran front seven that features six returning starter and lots of depth. The key is not asking the reworked secondary to do too much. By keeping things simple, Wisconsin should be able to limit big plays and get teams into undesirable third-down situations. That's when the Badgers will attack.
Hide the women and children ? this could be scary. Gone are kicker Taylor Mehlhaff and punter Ken DeBauche. How big is that? Each left campus as one of the school's best-ever at their position. Mehlhaff, a sixth-round NFL pick, ranks second in Badgers record books in points and third in field goals. And no one kicked more extra points than Mehlhaff, who also paced the Big Ten in touchbacks in each of the past two seasons. DeBauche departs with the second-best average (42.4) in school history and the third-most punts (231) and punt yards (9,815). Junior walk-on Matt Fischer will fight scholarship redshirt freshman Philip Welch in camp after neither seized the kicking job in the spring. True freshman Brad Nortman looks like the favorite at punter, but he'll be pushed by DeBauche's younger brother, Brad. The one certainty is Gilreath, who is coming off a sensational debut season as a return man. He led the Big Ten in punt-return average (14.0) and set a school single-season standard for kickoff return yards (967). Gilreath's next goal? Running back a few kicks for touchdowns. The coverage units were adequate last season.
Bret Bielema is one of the nation's hottest young coaches, picking up where Barry Alvarez left off in Madison. Bielema is wise beyond his years and is smart enough to lean on his assistants. And when it comes for fire, passion and locker-room charisma, few can match Bielema. Bielema slowly is making this his staff. The changes continued in the offseason. Defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz left (or was he fired?), landing at Northwestern as its defensive coordinator. Doeren, who had been linebackers coach, was promoted to run the defense. He's a rising star who one day will be a head coach. Joe Rudolph, a star Wisconsin offensive lineman in the early 1990s, is the new tight ends coach. Charlie Partridge was hired away from Pitt to coach the defensive line. Chryst nearly was lured to the Dallas Cowboys as quarterbacks coach a few years ago. And last year, he was involved in coaching searches at Washington State and Purdue. What's it mean? Chryst is destined to run a program one day.
at Fresno State
at Michigan State
Bielema is unbeaten in Camp Randall Stadium (14-0), so the Badgers have that going for them. But that mark will be severely tested. Expect a 2-0 start, but then things heat up with a visit to Fresno State. That's the key game. If Wisconsin loses at Fresno, it could set off a tailspin the team may not recover from as it enters its only off week. Wisconsin then returns to action to do what no Big Ten ever has done: open conference play with the trio of Michigan (away), Ohio State (home) and Penn State (home). Then there's a trip to Iowa, a visit from Illinois and a trip to Michigan State. Thank goodness the last three games are a breeze.
How about some props for Bucky? Wisconsin is one of only three schools (USC and West Virginia are the others) to have played in January bowls each of the past four seasons. Want more? The program is in the midst of four consecutive nine-victory seasons. That's unprecedented in Madison. And only eight other schools are riding a similar streak. I could go on, but you get my point: Wisconsin has become one of the nation's top programs. That won't change this season. The Badgers have the timber to win the Big Ten title. At the least, expect this team again to play in a premier January bowl ? again. Someone fire up the grill and tap the keg.