(Ed. Note: In case you were wondering why we skipped Penn State, we decided to let it ride since there are so many unknowns with the team and something like 66% of last season's offense gone. We'll touch on them at the appropriate time.)
And now, back to your regularly scheduled program, where Know Your Enemy takes a hard look at the Big Ten Leaders Division favorites, the Wisconsin Badgers.
Q: Refresh my memory, how did Wisconsin do last year?
A: Wisconsin did very well last year, finishing 11-3, and winning the first ever Big Ten Title Game. The Badgers offense, led by Russell Wilson and Monte Ball's video-game like 39 touchdowns, scored at least 28 points in every game, and averaged over 40. Wisconsin dropped heart breakers against Michigan State and Ohio State (the highlight of our season!), and then lost an exceptionally exciting Rose Bowl to Oregon.
Q: Who are some famous Badgers?
A: Wisconsin has certainly graduated their share of funny people. The Onion was a Madison publication, and Kevin Murphy (MST3000) and Rich Dahm (head writer for the Colbert Report) are also grads.
As far as sports go, Wisconsin can brag about 1999 Heisman winner Ron Dayne, along with current NFLers Joe Thomas, Lee Evans and Chris Chambers. Wisky Bouncyhoops doesn't have a strong NBA tradition...they're recently produced Devin Harris, who was good that one year, and Greg Stiemsma, who is an integral part of the Timberwolves plan to snatch the "whitest team EVAR" belt from Utah or Indiana. They have apparently produced a lot of good hockey players, but I know less than nothing about hockey so I won't even try to talk about that here.
Wisconsin probably also has the douchiest coaching tandem in the Big Ten (Bo Ryan, Bret Bielema).
Q: Okay, let's look at Wisconsin's offense. What can we expect?
A: Wisconsin had one of the best offenses in the US last year, but it isn't reasonable to expect that level of production again. First, the Badgers lost one of the best QBs in their program history, Russell Wilson, to graduation. They also lost their best wideout (Nick Toon), some excellent linemen (Josh Oglesby and Kevin Zietler) AND six assistant coaches (the most prominent being offensive coordinator Paul Chryst, who took the head coaching gig at Pitt). A whole lot of talent is leaving Madison, and it would be unreasonable to think that the transition would be without any bumps.
The cupboard isn't totally empty in Madtown though. Another ACC QB refugee has found a home in Wisconsin, as Danny O'Brien (formally of Maryland) is set to take over this season. O'Brien isn't nearly as athletic as Wilson, but he is a very capable passer, and could end up being one of the Big Ten's best this year.
O'Brien will have the benefit of one of the most prolific running backs in America, Heisman Hopeful Monte Ball. Ball isn't likely to score 39 times again, but he could go for another 2,000 all purpose yards. The new braintrust at Wisconsin isn't likely to deviate from their power-running heavy strategy (I don't think their recruiting pool would really allow that honestly), so Ball will get plenty of touches behind another hulking offensive line to help take the pressure off the passing game.
If there is one thing O'Brien will need to improve, it's his efficiency. He only completed 56% of his passes last season, and the Wisky offense won't be effective at that kind of pace. Luckily, Wisconsin has a stronger pass catching corps than Maryland, led by Jared Abbrederis (933 yards receiving), who should be one of the best wideouts the Big Ten. This isn't a position of depth for Wisconsin (Jeff Duckworth had 230 yards last year, and the rest of the bunch is light on experience), but with Wisconsin looking to run run run, that may not hurt them too much.
Q: What about on defense?
A: In terms of giving up yards, Wisconsin returns a lot of personnel from a unit was very impressive (172 passing yards per game, good for the top 10). However, a lot of that came from Wisconsin's deliberate, ball hogging offense (teams can't pass on you if they never get the ball). With Wilson gone, expect Wisconsin to get tested more. Playmakers Aaron Henry and Antonio Fenelus combined for over 100 tackles and 8 picks, and both are gone. Corner Marcus Cromatrie (47 tackles) and Strong Safety Shelton Johnson (54 tackles, 4 picks) are likely to be the best returning players in the defensive backfield, but the team will need a few others to step up and make plays.
Wisconsin returns some strong linebackers, led by all-Big Ten Mike Taylor (120 tackles, 4 turnovers) and Chris Borland (143 tackles), and a capable if not exceptional front line. Wisconsin is probably going to appear less statistically impressive on defense, but they have enough experience and playmakers for their defense to keep them in every game they play.
Q: What does their schedule look like?
A: In keeping with tradition, Wisconsin's out of conference schedule is full of nobodies. The team does take a road trip to face Oregon State, but the rest of their slate (Northern Iowa, Utah State, UTEP) should present little challenge.
The Big Ten schedule is also favorable for Wisky. Their 4 road trips are *very* manageable..a toughie with Nebraska, followed by Indiana, Penn State and Purdue. The Badgers get Michigan State and Ohio State at home, and miss Michigan entirely. This team may not be quite as good as last year's squad, but their schedule is certainly set up for a deep Big Ten run, especially since Ohio State can't play in the title game, Penn State has been rocked by transfers, Illinois is installing a new coach and may not have any wideouts, Purdue's ACLs are made of gummy bears, and Indiana is Indiana.
Q: What are you obnoxiously too early thoughts on our game?
A: I've spent enough nights in Madison to know weird things happen there. It has got to be one of the hardest places in the Big Ten to play. Ohio State may go into this game with more to play for, since Wisky won't really need the win to take the division title, and OSU doesn't have a bowl game, but they will need to play an exceptional game to steal one here. If you're looking for a loss candidate, a late season date in Madtown is as good as any.