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You can read the entire Wisconsin preview in Athlon Sports' 2011 Big Ten magazine, available for purchase now at the Athlon Sports store.
COLLEGE FOOTBALL PRESEASON TOP 25
Big Ten Leaders PREDICTION
HEAD COACH: Bret Bielema, 49–16 (5 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Paul Chryst | DEF. COORDINATOR: Chris Ash
UW has featured a balanced attack since offensive coordinator Paul Chryst returned in 2005, but the Badgers could be a bit more run-heavy in 2011, particularly early. Chryst has to replace quarterback Scott Tolzien, who completed 72.9 percent of his passes in winning the Unitas Award last season and was 21–5 in two seasons a starter. Also gone is tight end Lance Kendricks, who led UW in catches (43), receiving yards (663) and touchdown catches (five) last season, as well as three experienced wide receivers.
Despite the loss of All-Americans Gabe Carimi at left tackle and John Moffitt at left guard, UW’s line should be very good. Three starters are back from last season and four other players have at least one start. And with James White (1,052 yards, 14 TDs) and Montee Ball (996, 18) returning, UW figures to have the best 1-2 tailback punch in the Big Ten.
Quarterback was a question mark for Wisconsin, but the arrival of Russell Wilson should ease those concerns. Wilson started for three seasons at NC State, but his decision to pursue a baseball career led to his departure from the Wolfpack. Wilson will be eligible immediately and his arrival makes Wisconsin the favorite in the Big Ten's Leaders Division for 2011.
Can Russell Wilson keep Wisconsin in the Big Ten title hunt or will the Badgers slide back to the middle of the pack in the new-look 12-team super conference?
UW must replace five players who started in the Rose Bowl against TCU. The most critical loss is at defensive end, where J.J. Watt (21 tackles for a loss, seven sacks) often dominated opponents. Line coach Charlie Partridge acknowledges that no single player will be able to match Watt’s productivity. Three players must elevate their level of production for the unit to be a strength — ends Louis Nzegwu and David Gilbert and tackle Patrick Butrym. Butrym was the most consistent tackle on the team last year, but he needs to be more disruptive and make more plays in the backfield, though. Nzegwu and Gilbert are solid against the run, in part because they face a power-running game every day in practice. Both need to apply more consistent pressure on the quarterback.
UW has the makings of a solid linebacker corps if outside linebacker Mike Taylor and middle linebacker Chris Borland can avoid injury. Borland missed the last 11 games last season after season-ending shoulder surgery.
The front seven should be stout against the run but must generate more consistent pressure on quarterbacks. The secondary struggled in coverage last season, and with the loss of cornerback Niles Brinkley, it appears the secondary won’t be significantly better in 2011.
Montee Ball, RB: Emerged late to lead team in rushing TDs with 18 and averaged 6.1 yards per carry.
Ricky Wagner, LT: Moves from right tackle to left tackle and is good enough to replace Gabe Carimi, the Outland Trophy winner.
Nick Toon, WR: Missed four games because of injuries last season but still led the wide receivers in catches (36) and yards (459).
|Sept. 10th||Oregon State|
|Sept. 17th||Northern Illinois (at Chicago, IL)|
|Sept. 24th||South Dakota|
|Oct. 22nd||at Michigan State|
|Oct. 29th||at Ohio State|
|Nov. 12th||at Minnesota|
|Nov. 19th||at Illinois|
|Nov. 26th||Penn State|
The staff should be confident in punter Brad Nortman and kicker Philip Welch, both of whom enjoyed solid seasons in 2010 and will be seniors. The return and coverage units are the problem areas. UW must find a replacement for David Gilreath, who handled punt and kick returns. The coverage units allowed too many big returns last season.
Despite the loss of several outstanding starters, UW appears equipped to challenge Ohio State for the Leaders Division title and a berth in the first Big Ten Championship Game. UW should be able to run the ball effectively, and Wilson's arrival gives the offense a steady, proven option under center for 2011.
Losing Watt is huge, but Borland was a defensive force as the Big Ten Freshman of the Year in 2009. If he can stay healthy, the loss of Watt won’t be so profound.
The bottom line is that the staff has recruited enough talent, particularly on both lines, to compete for a division title.