Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema was feeling a bit of heat going into the 2009 season, but his players responded with a 10-3 season that culminated in a dominating win over Miami in the Champs Sports Bowl.
The Badgers outperformed expectations last season, but that will be hard to do this season.
Indeed, doing so might mean playing for the national title.
Wisconsin is expected to contend for the Big Ten title, and a two-week stretch in mid-October in which the Badgers play Ohio State and Iowa likely will determine their hopes for the crown.
Running back John Clay heads into the season as a legitimate Heisman contender, and he heads what should be a productive offense.
A rebuilt defensive line holds the key to the season.
Here's a closer look at the Badgers.
THE SCHEME: The Badgers use a pro set, with frequent use of two tight ends. Wisconsin was No. 1 in total offense (416.9 ypg) and scoring offense (31.8 ppg) in the Big Ten in 2009. That shouldn't change this season, as every key contributor is back for coordinator Paul Chryst.
STAR POWER: RB John Clay, who should be a legit Heisman contender, ran for a Big Ten-best 1,517 yards in '09. Clay is the ultimate between-the-tackles runner, but he needs to battle through nicks and bruises and run with a bit more toughness. T Gabe Carimi might be the best offensive lineman in the nation; he's considered a likely first-round pick in next April's NFL draft.
IMPACT NEWCOMER: The Badgers are loaded at running back with Clay and backup Montee Ball, who is a future star who's more than capable of carrying a bigger load. Still, keep an eye on true freshman James White, who could get some carries while also helping as a return man. White has a burst that could offer a change of pace to his more bruising counterparts.
STRONGEST AREA: It all starts up front with what is one of the best Badgers lines in the past 20 years. Carimi and G John Moffitt are the anchors and leaders. The unit averages 321 pounds per man and features seven players who have starting experience.
BIGGEST PROBLEM: Is there one? With stud TE Garrett Graham gone, the staff needs to find a backup for Lance Kendricks. But Jack Byrne looks good. Another guy to watch is QB Scott Tolzien. He threw for 2,705 yards and 16 touchdowns last season, but he failed to throw a touchdown pass in five of the final seven games and also tossed 11 interceptions.
THE SCHEME: The scheme isn't going to change; it's a base 4-3 set. Ultra-intense coordinator Dave Doeren's unit excelled at stuffing the run last season, ranking No. 1 in the Big Ten and fifth in the nation (88.2 ypg). But the defensive staff underwent a shakeup. Linebackers coach Randall McCray left to be defensive coordinator at Middle Tennessee State and secondary coach Kerry Cooks took a job at Notre Dame. Wisconsin hired Chris Ash from Iowa State to coach defensive backs, while Greg Jackson was hired from Tulane to work with linebackers.
STAR POWER: SS Jay Valai is a ballhawk who also excels at playing the run. The Badgers have another rising star in LB Chris Borland, the Big Ten Freshman of the Year last season. He has great instincts and always seems to be around the ball.
IMPACT NEWCOMER: With issues at tackle, don't be shocked if true freshman Beau Allen cracks the two-deep. Allen (6-2/300) has the strength and power of an upperclassman.
STRONGEST AREA: Wisconsin must replace LB Jaevery McFadden, the team's top tackler in 2009. Still, the linebacking corps could be salty because the Badgers return five of their top six linebackers from last season. The Badgers have a rising star in Borland, an active force who plays with passion. Culmer St. Jean and Mike Taylor are the other projected starters, and both have the talent to be all-league types.
BIGGEST PROBLEM: Who will be the pass-rushing force with E O'Brien Schofield gone? He had 12 sacks in 2009. E J.J. Watt has to play like a star--and he looks equipped to do so. Three of the team's top four tackles are gone, making the middle of this defense potentially vulnerable.
David Gilreath is one of the Big Ten's most dangerous return men. He averaged 23.7 yards on kickoff returns in 2009 and returned a punt for a touchdown. P Brad Nortman and K Philip Welch are back. Nortman ranked fourth in the Big Ten with a 41.9-yard average, while Welch hit 17-of-24 field-goal attempts. The punt coverage was fine last season, but the Badgers' kick coverage was horrendous, ranking 119th nationally.
This is a mixed bag. The non-conference portion is manageable, with only a visit from Arizona State looking dicey. But the Big Ten opener at Michigan State could be a trap. The Badgers catch a break by not playing Penn State. The season figures to boil down to back-to-back games in October, when Ohio State visits Madison on Oct. 16 and Wisconsin travels to Iowa the next Saturday. The Badgers are 1-4 in their past five home games against Ohio State. A game at Michigan on November 20 may be a big game, depending on how the Wolverines develop.
Wisconsin was a young team that exceeded expectations in 2009. Give credit to Bret Bielema, who entered last season under the microscope after the Badgers' loss totals had increased in each of his first three seasons. Now, coming off a 10-3 season, much will be expected of the Badgers. Will they be able to deliver? This is a team that's capable of winning the Big Ten. And the schedule is kind, too. Still, the only victory of note in 2009 was the bowl triumph over Miami. The Badgers lost their other "showdown" games in 2009, falling to Ohio State, Iowa and Northwestern. The loss to the Wildcats was especially galling, as a win would have vaulted Wisconsin to a Jan. 1 bowl. Regardless, this is a program with momentum and a shot to win the league crown.