Though Ohio State was the preseason favorite going into 2010, Wisconsin had one of its best seasons in recent memory by posting an 11-1 regular season record, finishing in a three-way tie for the Big Ten championship, and earning a trip to the Rose Bowl. We’re it not for a midseason upset at the hands of Michigan State, the Badgers may very well have played for the BCS championship.
On the heels of a successful 2010 season, and with the turmoil brewing in Columbus, the Badgers find themselves in the driver’s seat in the new Big Ten Leaders Division and one of the favorites to play in the first ever Big Ten Championship Game in Indianapolis. With twelve starters returning from last year’s championship squad, the Badgers will rely on their customary sound defense and physical running game to carry them again in 2011.
Scott Tolzien rarely received significant praise for his quarterback play, but he was one of the best quarterbacks in the Big Ten by year’s end. His departure leaves a significant hole for the Badgers to fill, one that lingers as fall camp draws closer. The job could go to sophomore Joe Budmayr, who attempted just ten passes last season in relief of Tolzien. But the job could also go to former NC State quarterback Russell Wilson.
Wilson is a dynamic athlete that will have the opportunity to play immediately at another school since he has his degree from NC State already. Wilson passed for over 3,500 yards in 2010 and was also the team’s leading rusher. If Wilson does wind up in Madison, as has been widely reported, he will immediately make the Badgers the favorite in the Leaders Division. Wilson would add a dimension to an already strong rushing attack, but is an even better passer than Tolzien.
Adding Wilson would make the Badgers offense the best rushing attack in the Big Ten, perhaps in the nation. In 2010, James White and John Clay both rushed for over 1,000 yards and Montee Ball finished with 996. Clay is gone, but that just means White and Ball will absorb his carries and the running game will keep right on chugging. It will do so because three of the starting five offensive linemen from a year ago return and the line should have four senior starters. When the Badgers do go to the air, senior wideout Nick Toon and tight end Jake Byrne are reliable targets that can punish any defense that loads up to stop the run. Provided a suitable replacement steps up across from Toon, the Badgers offense should once again be potent.
Six starters return from last season’s excellent defense, but the players lost were outstanding players that won’t easily be replaced. JJ Watt was one of America’s best defensive ends in 2010, and his departure will be difficult to overcome early on. Still, the remainder of the defensive line is back led by senior tackle Patrick Butrym and end Louis Nzegwu. Brett Bielema will count on Nzegwu to become the pass rusher that Watt was last season. If he is able to come even close, the defensive line should be solid.
The linebackers and defensive backfield have many more questions. Only junior linebacker Mike Taylor returns from last year’s stellar group. In fact, all four of the team’s leading tacklers from last year are gone. The Badgers will look to senior Kevin Claxtonon the outside and sophomore Chris Borland in the middle. The secondary will be senior laden, but returns just two of four starters. Cornerback Antonio Fenelus returns after picking off four passes and breaking up an additional seven in 2010.
Free safety Aaron Henry also returns and is a competent center-fielder for Bielema. The best thing that could happen to the Badgers’ secondary is the development of a new pass-rushing weapon in the mold of JJ Watt. If that happens, the defense should be fine in 2011.
The Badgers’ schedule should allow for a hot start before hosting Nebraska on October 1. The Badgers should be 4-0 and settled at quarterback in time for what should be one of the Big Ten’s games of the year. They host Indiana before back-to-back road games at Michigan State and Ohio State that will determine if they will contend for the Leaders Division title. If they come through unscathed, they should win the division going away. If they drop one, the season finale at home against Penn State could be a play in game to the Big Ten title game.
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