OVERVIEW: The arrival of North Carolina State transfer Russell Wilson answers the biggest question: Who will play quarterback? That means this offense may be more quarterback-centric than usual. But, hey, this still is Wisconsin, so the ground game will be the hallmark of this offense. But it will be interesting to see how coordinator Paul Chryst changes the passing attack because of Wilson's presence.
AN INSIDE LOOK
THE LINGERING QUESTION: Will the defense come together? There are several issues, including the search for a pass rusher and the health of LB Chris Borland. And don't forget that coordinator Dave Doeren left to become coach at Northern Illinois.
THE BEST-CASE SCENARIO: QB Russell Wilson fulfills the hype as a passer, giving the Badgers one of the nation's most balanced and deadly offenses. The defense does just enough and Wisconsin wins the Leaders Division and the Big Ten championship game.
THE WORST-CASE SCENARIO: Wilson struggles to pick up the offense and isn't embraced as a leader. The defensive front seven never develops, making this a good - but not great - team. There's a New Year's Day bowl appearance, but it's in a "lesser" bowl.
STAT TO KEEP AN EYE ON: Watch the passing numbers. While the Badgers aren't going to look like a Mike Leach-coached team, expect the ball to be in the air more. In the past two seasons with Wilson at quarterback, NC State averaged 281.2 (last season) and 272.9 (in 2009) yards per game passing; Wisconsin was at 199.5 last season and 213.1 in 2009. If the Badgers can keep the rushing total at around 230 per game and increase the passing numbers to around the same, they will win the league.
BACKFIELD: Two-year starter Scott Tolzien is gone, but Wisconsin looks to have struck gold by landing Wilson, who immediately becomes the starter (sorry, Jon Budmayr) and should contend for All-Big Ten honors. Wilson, a three-year starter for the Wolfpack, is just 5 feet 11, but he's a productive passer with a lot of mobility. He is No. 4 among current quarterbacks in career passing yards (8,545) and third in TD passes (76). The Badgers haven't had a quarterback of this ability in years, as they typically employ pedestrian signal-callers who excel at "managing" the game. In his three seasons as NCSU's starter, Wilson never had a rushing attack that averaged more than 124 yards per game; that, of course, is a good half for the Badgers. While John Clay left early for the NFL after running for 1,012 yards and Zach Brown transferred, the Badgers remain loaded at running back. Montee Ball ran for 996 yards and 18 touchdowns last season, while James White was the Big Ten's freshman of the year after rushing for 1,052 yards and 14 scores. The staff also is high on Jeff Lewis, who redshirted as a true freshman. FB Bradie Ewing is one of the top blocking backs in the Big Ten and gives coaches a lot of versatility in the backfield.
RECEIVERS: This unit lacks proven playmakers. The Badgers will miss star TE Lance Kendricks, a valuable weapon and defensive mismatch who led the team with 43 catches last season. Still, the staff likes the 1-2 punch of Nick Toon, who had 36 receptions for 459 yards in an injury-marred 2010, and Jared Abbrederis, who had a strong debut last season. Jake Byrne, a strong blocker, and Jacob Pedersen will share time at tight end, which usually is a strong position in Madison. Depth is a concern, and it will be important for other receivers to emerge so the Badgers can take full advantage of Wilson's arm.
LINE: Even without stud T Gabe Carimi and G John Moffitt, as well as valuable reserve Bill Nagy, this still may be the top line in the Big Ten. The unit returns three starters in Ricky Wagner (who will move from right to left tackle), Peter Konz (center) and Kevin Zeitler (right guard). After he started a handful of games as a true freshman, Travis Fredrick is back after redshirting in 2010 and will be plugged in at left guard. Right tackle is appears to be wide open, with once-touted prospect Josh Oglesby the favorite.
OVERVIEW: Wisconsin promoted secondary coach Chris Ash to coordinator after Dave Doeren left to become coach at Northern Illinois. The defense will remain basically the same, with Ash adding some tweaks. In the spring, Ash blitzed often. If he wants to do that this fall, he'll need good coverage.
LINE: This group could go 10 deep and should be among the best in the conference. But the pass rush is a question. E J.J. Watt left early for the NFL, and the Badgers generated little quarterback pressure from Louis Nzegwu and David Gilbert on the other side last season. Both must step up. There's a lot to like at tackle in Patrick Butrym, Jordan Kohout and Beau Allen. Running against the Badgers will be difficult.
LINEBACKERS: The return of LB Chris Borland is important. He was the 2009 Big Ten Freshman of the Year, but suffered a shoulder injury that ended his season last September. He also missed spring drills. Coaches have moved him to middle linebacker, but he must remain healthy because the backups are unproven. Look for Kevin Claxton to man the strongside, while Mike Taylor will play on the other side after ranking second on the squad in tackles for loss and interceptions last season.
SECONDARY: Aaron Henry could be one of the league's top safeties in his second season at the position after moving from corner before last season. But the Badgers must replace SS Jay Valai. Dezmen Southward or Shelton Johnson are the likely candidates to replace Valai. CB Antonio Fenelus returns, but the Badgers have to replace Niles Brinkley on the other side. Texas natives Devin Smith and Marcus Cromartie will battle for the open spot, but neither impressed last season. Wisconsin would love for true freshmen Jameson Wright and Peniel Jean to give Smith and Cromartie a serious run.
The kicker/punter duo of Philip Welch and Brad Nortman should be one of the best in the nation; each is entering his fourth season on the job. Welch hit 17-of-22 field-goal attempts last season and has a strong leg, but he can be erratic. Nortman is a primo pooch punter. The Badgers will miss David Gilreath, who compiled more kickoff-return yards than anyone in Big Ten history. Look for Abbrederis on punt returns and White on kickoffs. The coverage teams need vast improvement. The Badgers surrendered 12.0 yards per punt return and 24.2 yards per kickoff return; they also allowed one punt and two kickoffs to be returned for touchdowns.
THE RECRUITING SIDE
Average national ranking past five years: 49th
Buzz: The Badgers quietly are putting together a strong class for 2012. Of the first eight commitments, four are four-star prospects. Two in-state players - RB Vonte Jackson and LB Vince Biegel - were huge commitments, and the staff also went to Ohio and Illinois to grab OL Kyle Dodson and Dan Voltz, respectively. Combined with their recruiting efforts in Florida, California and Pennsylvania, the Badgers seem to be recruiting well nationally. - BRIAN PERRONI
No doubt, it's Wilson, who might be the most important in college football. He is a proven commodity who has thrown for 8,545 yards with 76 TD tosses and rushed for 1,089 yards and 17 scores. When a quarterback with those stats basically falls into your lap in the middle of the summer, you're living right.
You have to love a slate that features five of the first six games at home; the other game is in Chicago against a MAC team (Northern Illinois). Still, there will be tests, with Oregon State and Nebraska among the early visitors. In fact, the game vs. the Huskers could be a preview of the Big Ten title game. A fast start will be vital, since the schedule is back-loaded with lots of road games. The Badgers' league title hopes may be decided during consecutive trips to Michigan State and Ohio State in October.
Barry Alvarez's shadow no longer looms quite so large now that Bret Bielema has a Rose Bowl berth on his resume. He has this program humming as he enters his sixth season. Wisconsin is coming off back-to-back seasons with double-digit victory totals, and the Badgers last season won their first Big Ten title since 1999. Now Bielema will try to keep Wisconsin among the elite. Bielema has areas to solidify, but Wilson's arrival ends any doubt about quarterback. But some issues persist, most notably a potential lack of playmakers on defense. Bielema has a nice blend of youth and experience to make this another strong Wisconsin team, one that has a great chance to win the Leaders Division and also the overall Big Ten crown.
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