2011 record: 11-3 overall, 6-2 in Big Ten (1st-tie in Leaders)
2011 postseason: Big Ten championship game (42-39 win over Michigan State); Rose Bowl (45-38 loss to Oregon)
2011 final AP/coaches’ ranking: No. 10/No. 11
Head coach: Bret Bielema (60-19 in six seasons at Wisconsin)
Offensive coordinator: Matt Canada (first season at Wisconsin)
2011 offensive rankings: 11th rushing offense (235.6 ppg); 61st passing offense (234.3 ypg); 14th total offense (469.9 ypg); 6th scoring offense (44.1 ppg)
Returning offensive starters: four
2011 defensive rankings: 60th rushing defense (152.8 ypg); 4th passing defense (163.6 ypg); 15th total defense (316.4 ypg); 13th scoring defense (19 ppg)
Returning defensive starters: six
Location: Madison, Wis.
Stadium: Camp Randall Stadium (80,321; FieldTurf)
Last league title: 2011
2011 statistics: [view]
Having Montee Ball back for another season certainly falls under the category of good, especially in a conference like the Big Ten. Not only is Ball back, but two of the teams in the Leaders Division — Ohio State and Penn State — are ineligible for the conference title this season, which means the Badgers will merely have to “stave off” challenges from the likes of Illinois, Indiana and Purdue — combined 2011 Big Ten wins: six, the same number as Wisconsin — in order to punch its ticket to Indianapolis for a second consecutive conference title game appearance.
Of the nine assistants on Bielema’s 2011 staff, just three will be on the sidelines in 2012. Such turnover is almost unheard of in one offseason, especially for a program as successful as Wisconsin’s. Also on the returning front, just four 2011 starters are back for another season. Among the personnel departures are one-year quarterback rental Russell Wilson and two All-American offensive linemen, although the latter is not much of a worry as the Badgers churns out linemen like the state does cheese.
Which model Danny O’Brien will the Badgers get this season, the 2010 Hummer or 2011 Edsel? During his true freshman season under Ralph Friedgen, O’Brien was a freshman All-American for Maryland. Last season, under first-year Terps coach Randy Edsall, O’Brien regressed considerably as he threw more interceptions (10) than he did touchdowns (seven) just a year after throwing eight and 22, respectively. Thanks to Ball and a plethora of returning backfield talent, O’Brien, as was the case with Wilson to an extent last season, will be asked to merely manage the offense. Less on-field pressure, plus being free of the burden that led to his transfer from Maryland to Wisconsin earlier this year, has me believing the 2012 O’Brien will be much, much closer to the 2010 model.
Make-or-break game: at Nebraska, Sept. 29
The Badgers took the Cornhuskers to the woodshed in Nebraska’s first-ever game as a Big Ten school, waxing the ‘Huskers to the tune of 48-17 in Madison. This season, Wisconsin will travel to Lincoln and the ‘Huskers will be eyeing revenge. Thanks to the Leaders Division circumstances listed above, the Badgers will have a little buffer when it comes to the conference even if they drop this game. If they entertain any hope of making a run at a national title, however, this game is absolutely critical, as is a matchup with Michigan State a month later.
Heisman hopeful: running back Montee Ball
A 2011 finalist for the award, Ball finished fourth in the voting and was rewarded with a trip to New York City. Anything less than that in 2012 would be surprising and, on some level, disappointing as well. While his name Will Likely litter every preseason Heisman projection, he did enter summer camp under a cloud of uncertainty. Ball suffered a concussion in what was described as an “unprovoked attack” by multiple assailants and will be held out of at least the early portion of camp. If the head injury would happen to linger into the regular season and force Ball to miss a game or games, his Heisman hopes would, obviously, take a significant hit.