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Hoge’s Big Ten Preview: Wisconsin Badgers

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Wisconsin running back Montee Ball attempts to leap over Oregon defenders in the 2012 Rose Bowl Game. (Photo by Jeff Gross/Getty Images)

Wisconsin running back Montee Ball attempts to leap over Oregon defenders in the 2012 Rose Bowl Game. (Photo by Jeff Gross/Getty Images)

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By Adam Hoge-

While Big Ten training camps are underway, Adam Hoge will devote an entire day to each of the 12 teams in the conference. He will include a preview on each team, plus news, notes and analysis on Twitter. He will also take your questions on Twitter and 670TheScore.com. Follow him at @AdamHogeCBS.

(CBS) It’s hard to call back-to-back Big Ten Championships and Rose Bowls a disappointment, but for the 2011 Badgers, they’ll also know that they were capable of doing more.

With Russell Wilson at quarterback and Heisman Trophy finalist Montee Ball at running back, the Badgers’ offense set records and scored on everyone. Unfortunately, Wisconsin’s defense had a knack for giving up huge plays at inopportune times and two Hail Marys kept Wisconsin out of the BCS National Championship Game. The defense also gave up big plays against Oregon in the Rose Bowl and the Badgers lost in Pasadena for the second straight year.

Despite the heartbreak in 2011, Wisconsin still won the inaugural Big Ten Championship Game and has established itself among the best programs in the Big Ten. Entering 2012, they’ve lost a lot — including six assistant coaches — but still believe they have the talent to make it to their third straight Rose Bowl.

Let’s take a look at their chances:

Top Returnees

1. RB Montee Ball (Sr.) – The best returning running back in the country tied Barry Sanders’ record with 39 touchdowns last year.

2. LT Ricky Wagner (Sr.) – Wagner is looking to follow Joe Thomas and Gabe Carimi as the third straight Wisconsin left tackle to win the Outland Trophy.

3. LB Chris Borland (Jr.) – Borland flew under the radar nationally last year, racking up a ridiculous 143 tackles, 16.5 TFLs, 2.5 sacks and two interceptions.

4. LB Mike Taylor (Sr.) – Taylor topped Borland with 150 tackles and added two interceptions.

5. WR Jared Abbrederis (Jr.) – In a conference void of elite wide receivers, the former walk-on might be the best in the Big Ten.

Key Questions

do you think having obrien start this season is a slap to all the “recruited” qb’s at wisco? -@irish0625

When the season opens Sept. 1, Danny O’Brien will become the second straight former ACC quarterback to start at the position for the Badgers. The Maryland transfer is definitely not Russell Wilson, but he comes in with experience and is back in a system that fits him well.

To answer your question, no it is not a slap in the face to the other quarterbacks at Wisconsin. Because Bielema has brought in two straight transfers, there has been a misconception that he can’t recruit quarterbacks. This is simply not true. Bielema has brought in some highly touted quarterbacks in recent years (guys like Curt Phillips, Jon Budmayr, Danny O’Brien and most recently, Bart Houston), but all of them have suffered injuries. Phillips is the only one of those guys available this year and that’s after two ACL injuries.

This year’s quarterback competition was more competitive than usual at Wisconsin and new offensive coordinator Matt Canada has repeatedly called it “a position of strength.” The Badgers gave Phillips and Joel Stave a fair shot at winning it, but O’Brien separated himself. He won the job fair and square.

As a UW alum, why the hell does everyone think they are going to be top-10 good this year? – @SparkyATS

The Badgers could be a top 10 team at the end of the year, but right now, I don’t think they are. Bielema has a knack for developing talent and I assume we’ll see that again this season. But at this point, when I look at the Badgers, I see a team that lost the best quarterback in program history, the best offensive coordinator in program history (Paul Chryst, now Pitt’s head coach) and five other assistants. Even though Montee Ball came back for his senior year, I don’t see how you can lose all that and be considered a better team in August than you were at the end of last season.

That said, there’s still a ton of talent on this team. I had concerns about the offensive line, but Bielema has said this could be the best group he’s had on the line in his tenure. That’s saying a lot considering the 2010 line had five NFL starters and a possible 2013 first-round pick in Wagner. The first impressions of O’Brien are good. He’s not Wilson, but he doesn’t have to be. Wilson was a luxury. Let’s not forget Scott Tolzien took the Badgers to the Rose Bowl two years ago. The biggest problem on offense is at wide receiver. Abbrederis is a legitimate threat, but how will he respond to getting No. 1 coverage now? He’ll need other options to develop.

There’s also the issue of Montee Ball, who was assaulted and suffered a concussion right before training camp started. He’s back to 100 percent, but Ball was also dinged in the head last year at Michigan State and it will be interested to see if it affects him at all. There’s also an open police investigation that you have to keep in the back of your head. The good news is, the Badgers have a ridiculous amount of depth at running back.

Don’t expect this offense to score 44.1 points per game again and don’t expect Ball to score 39 touchdowns again, but this offense should still be among the best in the conference.

Will the defense be better?

Even if the offense takes a small step backwards, that won’t be reflected in Wisconsin’s record if the defense improves as expected. In all honesty, you don’t need to blow teams out like the Badgers have the last two seasons. The games Wisconsin has lost has been because of the defense. UW brings back a veteran secondary and perhaps the best linebacking group in the conference. The questions are mainly on the defensive line where the coaching staff is still looking for someone to step up and replace J.J. Watt. Wisconsin struggled to get pressure last season and are hoping a healthy David Gilbert will take the next step. If the Badgers’ defense improves, this team very well could be the No. 6 overall team in the country, as Sports Illustrated tabbed them last week.

Schedule Outlook

With Ohio State and Penn State ineligible for the postseason, everyone is expecting Wisconsin to coast to the Leaders Division title. Truthfully, they should, but an Oct. 13 trip to Purdue could be a major speed bump. Let’s not forget a road game at Oregon State either. West Coast games have been tricky for Wisconsin in the past. Ultimately, if the Badgers can hold serve at home — they get Ohio State and Michigan State at Camp Randall — it’s going to be hard to keep them away from Indianapolis. The Sept. 29 night game at Nebraska is going to be a lot of fun to watch, but it’s not necessarily a must-win.

Best Case

The defense is much improved and the loss of Russell Wilson hardly matters. New offensive coordinator Matt Canada steps in and Danny O’Brien does what he should at Wisconsin: he hands the ball off to the elite running backs and doesn’t throw interceptions. The Badgers aren’t necessarily a better team than the 2011 group, but they win more games because the defense makes less mistakes and gets the critical stops. Hiccups have been common in the Bret Bielema era, but this year is the exception and with a very manageable schedule, the Badgers go undefeated in the regular season for the first time in program history, putting them in the BCS National Championship conversation.

Worst Case

The defense is pretty much the same defense as last year and the offense takes a major step backwards. The loss of Russell Wilson isn’t nearly as significant as the loss of offensive coordinator Paul Chryst and turnovers become an issue for the first time since 2008. With an easy road to Indy, the Badgers become complacent and lose to Purdue on the road. They split home games against Michigan State and Ohio State and finish 5-3 in the Big Ten, watching the Big Ten Championship Game from home.

Check out Adam’s final verdict on the Badgers when his Big Ten preview concludes later this month. Up next in the series are the Iowa Hawkeyes. Tweet your questions to Adam at @AdamHogeCBS.

Catch up on the series:
Aug. 8 – Illinois Fighting Illini
Aug. 10 – Indiana Hoosiers
Aug. 15 – Ohio State Buckeyes
Aug. 16 – Penn State Nittany Lions
Aug. 17 – Purdue Boilermakers

adam hoge 2012 small1 Hoge’s Big Ten Preview: Wisconsin Badgers

Adam Hoge

Adam is the Sports Editor for CBSChicago.com and specializes in coverage of the Bears, White Sox and college sports. He was born and raised in Lincoln Park and attended St. Ignatius College Prep before going off to the University of Wisconsin-Madison where he earned a Journalism degree. Follow him on Twitter @AdamHogeCBS and read more of his columns here.

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