FanHouse's 2010 Preseason College Football Poll -- No. 12 Wisconsin
Every August, college football writers preview the Wisconsin Badgers. About the only thing that ever changes in those previews is the name of the starting running back. Otherwise it's "blah blah conservative, running game, blah offensive line, yada yada pass rush, 9-3." Occasionally they'll slip in a 10-2 or 8-4 and name check the tight end just to see if their editors are reading.
This year, the starting running back doesn't even change. John Clay returns for his junior season after leading the league in rushing by a sizable margin. Worst. Mad Libs. Ever.
After a thoroughly underwhelming 2008 season, Bret Bielema needed a year like last year to swing the fan base back toward thinking he's as good a coach as he seemed to be in his first two seasons. He hasn't changed much about Badger football. It's still the defense-oriented, run-first style Barry Alvarez installed.
Something strange is happening in Mad Town, however, and for a change it doesn't involve the Mifflin Street Block Party. The Badgers actually appear to have more than one offensive weapon. This is shaping up to be the year we need a new word to describe the Badger offense. "Conservative" won't cut it; it's time to start seeing Wisconsin's attack as balanced.
Joining John Clay in the backfield is senior quarterback Scott Tolzien, the Big Ten's top-rated passer last season. Tolzien's arm strength and mobility aren't exceptional, but he plays smart. It helps if you have tight ends like Garrett Graham and Lance Kendricks getting open for you. Graham is now with the Houston Texans, but Kendricks returns for his final season. If you want to know how good he is, you can ask the Miami Hurricanes, the team he torched for 128 yards in last year's Champs Sports Bowl.
The defense returns six starters but will miss the outside pass rush brought by O'Brien Schofield and the leadership Chris Maragos provided. That's the key to the argument that some people may be overrating the Badgers a bit. The general consensus holds that the Badgers have a little more going for them than Penn State does right now, but they're markedly behind Iowa and Ohio State.
THE BASICS: If the Badgers want to build on the momentum they gained in 2009, they have to put more points on the board in big games. Wisconsin was 9-1 last year in games where it scored at least 21 points, but only 1-2 when it didn't. With the defense poised to take a slight step back, the offense needs to open up. The Badgers have the tools for a good passing game. Now they just need the permission.
KEY PLAYER YOU DON'T THINK OF AS A KEY PLAYER: If that passing game is going to materialize, wide receiver Nick Toon will be at its heart. Toon, the son of former Badger and New York Jet Al Toon, was seventh in yards among Big Ten receivers last season with an impressive 14.91 yards per catch, but only found the end zone four times. The Badgers prefer to throw to the tight end, which is why it seems like every Wisconsin tight end winds up in the NFL. With defenses keying on Clay and well aware of the threat posed by Lance Kendricks, the Badgers need Toon to get open deep.
FLY IN THE OINTMENT: The Badgers had the conference's best rushing defense last year but some of that was illusory. Wisconsin led the league in time of possession, so opponents just don't get to run very many plays against it. Don't expect the same sort of run-stopping success this season. Only one defensive tackle on the entire roster, junior Patrick Butrym, has any collegiate game experience. The linebackers are solid, but Wisconsin is thin at safety, so protecting the middle of the field could be a problem. Among its first six opponents, only Michigan State ranked in the top 75 in total offense last season. This unit won't be tested before Ohio State comes calling Oct. 16.
DON'T MISS: Wisconsin at Iowa, Oct. 23. The Big Ten won't have a championship game until next year, but here's one of the semifinals. The Badgers will go into this game having just hosted Ohio State. If the Badgers are going to be taken seriously as a BCS contender, they have to beat Iowa. That goes double if they don't pick off OSU. If they should upset the Buckeyes, this game will be hyped to the point of ridiculousness.
Recent history is working against Wisconsin. Bret Bielema is just 2-2 against his alma mater, and the Badgers have dropped six of their last eight games to the Hawkeyes. They need to win this game before somebody sticks the Heartland Trophy back onto the roof of the steakhouse it fell off of.
PREDICTED RECORD: 9-3
FanHouse's Wisconsin team page with schedule