Now, history beckons. Wisconsin is aiming to be the first Big Ten team to play in three consecutive Rose Bowls since Michigan turned the trick after the 1976-78 seasons. And only three schools have won three Big Ten championships in a row: Michigan, Ohio State and Minnesota.
There are many reasons for Wisconsin fans to be excited about 2012. Here are just 10 of them.
1. Montee Ball. Mon-TEE … Mon-TAY … It doesn’t matter how you say it, the guy is a boffo running back and a Heisman front-runner who finished fourth in the balloting last season behind Robert Griffin, Andrew Luck and Trent Richardson. Ball shocked many by opting to return for his senior season after running for 1,923 yards and tying the NCAA single-season mark for touchdowns with 39. Can he possibly have a more productive season? To do so, he’ll have to overcome a recent beating he received from five assailants.
2. Running back depth. Wait, there’s more behind Ball. James White is good enough to start at any Big Ten school. The lightning quick White ran for 713 yards and six touchdowns last season and can score any time he touches the ball. White ran for 1,052 yards as a freshman in 2010. Behind him is redshirt freshman Melvin Gordon. It just isn’t fair.
3. Danny O’Brien. I know, the coaches say the quarterback job won’t be handed to the junior after he transferred from Maryland, where he made 17 starts. But, it may be considered an upset if he doesn’t win the starting job. If O’Brien can just be a reasonable facsimile of departed signal-caller Russell Wilson, this offense should be every bit as lethal as it was in 2011 when it ranked first in the Big Ten and sixth in the nation in scoring (44.1 ppg).
4. Chris Borland and Mike Taylor. Is there a better linebacking tandem in the Big Ten? Taylor ranked first in the Big Ten in tackles last season, while Borland was fourth. What the duo lacks in athletic ability it compensates for in effort, desire and hustle.
5. Jared Abbrederis. Bet you didn’t know he’s the leading returning receiver in the Big Ten, catching 55 passes for 933 yards and eight touchdowns in 2011. Along with Jeff Duckworth, Marquis Mason and Isaiah Williams–the junior is a good building block for a receiving corps that is replacing departed star Nick Toon.
6. O-line. Yes, I know three starters from last year’s offensive line are gone in tackle Josh Oglesby, guard Kevin Zeitler and center Peter Konz. But, c’mon, this is Wisconsin. The Badgers always have a good offensive line. Stud senior tackle Ricky Wagner is this year’s cornerstone, a legit contender to be the school’s third Outland Trophy winner since 2006. Junior center Travis Frederick also could be special. Others to watch are massive sophomore Rob Havenstein and junior Ryan Groy.
7. Jacob Pedersen. The junior may be the top tight end in the Big Ten. He enjoyed a breakout in 2011, making 30 catches for 356 and eight touchdowns, the most by any Big Ten tight end. Pedersen could be a deadly red-zone weapon and a third-down security blanket for the new quarterback.
8. Schedule. It is fairly user-friendly. The non-conference doesn’t feature any heavy lifting, with home games vs. Northern Iowa, Utah State and UTEP. And there is a trip to slumping Oregon State, which is a combined 8-16 the past two seasons. In league play, the Badgers could be favored in every game. The toughest road game: at Nebraska. Michigan State and Ohio State come to Madison. Bottom line: This sets up well for Wisconsin.
9. Welcome back. Junior end David Gilbert is back after missing the last 10 games of 2011 with a broken foot and didn’t take part in spring drills. Wisconsin needs Gilbert to be a pass rusher off the edge along with senior end Brendan Kelly. Also back is senior cornerback Devin Smith, who started the first two games of 2011 before incurring a season-ending broken foot. Smith will join returning senior starter Marcus Cromartie to help stabilize a cornerback slot that is in transition with Antonio Fenelus gone.
10. Bret Bielema. The guy has proven he can coach in six seasons in Madison. Now, he must show he can work in six new assistants quickly, losing the likes of offensive coordinator Paul Chryst to the Pitt head coaching job. The newbies: offensive coordinator Matt Canada; tight ends coach Eddie Faulkner; offensive line coach Mike Markuson; receivers coach Zach Azzanni; linebackers coach Andy Buh; secondary coach Ben Strickland.
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