Wisconsin Emerges as Favorite in Big Ten Leaders Division

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Russell Wilson's arrival in Madison makes the Badgers the favorite in the Big Ten Leaders Division.

Russell Wilson's arrival in Madison makes the Badgers the favorite in the Big Ten Leaders Division.

By Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven on Twitter)

Landing a starting quarterback in June rarely happens, but college football’s biggest free agent has landed in Madison. Russell Wilson has decided to attend Wisconsin this fall, which adds even more intrigue to an interesting Big Ten race.

When Athlon’s editors convened for our annual picks meeting, the Big Ten was one of the most difficult conferences to sort out. How would the suspensions affect Ohio State? Would Nebraska have an edge in the conference because the other teams in the Big Ten haven’t played the Cornhuskers recently? Will Michigan ascend back to the top of the conference in Brady Hoke’s first year? Those were just a small sample of the questions debated during Athlon’s picks meeting.

Thanks to Jim Tressel resigning and Terrelle Pryor leaving the team, Ohio State should no longer be considered the favorite in the Big Ten Leaders division. With Wilson joining Wisconsin as a transfer for this season, the Badgers are the favorite to represent the Leaders division in the first Big Ten title game.

Wisconsin stirred a lot of debate in the preseason meeting, largely due to where they should be ranked within the division. The Badgers had to replace some key offensive players, including quarterback Scott Tolzien and a couple of offensive linemen. Tolzien’s expected replacement – Jon Budmayr – did not fair well in the spring game, completing 10 of 23 passes for 113 yards. Depth at quarterback is also an issue, which makes landing Wilson even more important.

Although Budmayr struggled in the spring game, with two potential 1,000-yard backs a solid offensive line returning, Wisconsin was still in good shape to finish 2011 as a top 25 team. However, the stakes have been raised. The Badgers landed arguably one of the top 15 quarterbacks in college football, which immediately places them as a threat to play in a BCS bowl this season.

Wilson was a three-year starter at NC State, throwing for 8,545 yards and 76 touchdowns. He added 1,083 yards and 17 scores on the ground – a dimension Wisconsin hasn’t had at quarterback in recent years.

Although Wilson was one of the top quarterbacks in the ACC over the last three years, his decision to play minor league baseball in the spring forced NC State coach Tom O’Brien to make a decision on his future. With promising junior Mike Glennon in the wings, Wilson was going to return as the backup.

Since he will join the team this summer, Wilson won’t have much time to pickup the offense when he gets to Madison. However, the Badgers should be able to lean on one of the nation’s top rushing attacks until Wilson is settled. Wisconsin’s schedule sets up well for Wilson to be eased into the offense, with four non-conference games before facing Nebraska on Oct. 1. Although Oregon State and Northern Illinois won’t be pushovers, the Badgers should win both contests.

As Athlon’s editors discussed in our preseason meeting, Wisconsin was only a quarterback away from challenging Ohio State for the division title. With Wilson’s transfer, the Badgers have their missing piece and it would not be a surprise to see this team finish among the top 15 at the end of this season. With Wisconsin and Nebraska looking like the favorites to square off in the title game, 2011 is shaping up to be an interesting year in the Big Ten.

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<p> Wisconsin's Big Ten title hopes are on the rise after landing former NC State quarterback Russell Wilson for 2011.</p>
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