The Wisconsin Badgers check in at No. 17 in Athlon's college football 2012 top 25 countdown. Here's a look at our predictions for the most valuable players, games to watch, breakout candidates and other key categories for 2012.
Offensive MVP: Montee Ball, RB
333 touches. 2,229 yards from scrimmage. An NCAA single-season record 39 touchdowns scored. That is all that Ball did a year ago. The Heisman trophy finalist posted the most productive season in Big Ten history, but did so as the consigliore to quarterback Russell Wilson. Now, Ball must carry an offense that replaces three first-team All-Big Ten blockers as well as top wideout Nick Toon. He will be new quarterback Danny O’Brien’s best friend.
Trap Game: At Purdue (Oct. 13)
The Boilermakers have been known to pull an upset or two at home in West Lafayette and this game will be a test for the Big Red. Coming off two tough games against Nebraska in Lincoln and Illinois at home, Wisconsin has to win a road game like this to return to the Big Ten title game. With home visits from archrival Minnesota and budding new-age rival Michigan State following the trip to the Hoosier State, Bret Bielema’s bunch cannot overlook the Boilers.
Upset Alert: At Penn State (Nov. 24)
Wisconsin will be coming off a brutal home contest with the Ohio State Buckeyes in the penultimate game of the regular season before traveling to Penn State. Depending on how the season shakes out, the Badgers should enter the final game as the favorite. Yet, a trip to the Big Ten title game should be on the line — be it for the Nittany Lions or Illini or Boilermakers — in the season finale. And a trip to Happy Valley is never an easy one.
Biggest Game: Michigan State (Oct. 27)
The Spartans-Badgers rivalry has quickly become one of the most heated – and most important — rivalries in the Big Ten. After two historic contests a year ago, both have eyes set on returning to the Big Ten title game. Yet, both teams have major obstacles to overcome if they expect to get to Indianapolis. Big Red has a much easier path to the title game and a win at home against Sparty would all but assure a return trip to the Championship Game.
Revenge Game: Ohio State (Nov. 17)
Since the Badgers already got revenge on the Spartans in the form of a Big Ten Championship game victory, the Buckeyes are next on the revenge Bucket List. Russell Wilson led a miraculous comeback in the Horseshoe last season only to be undone by the second straight last second touchdown heave. This head-to-head match means little to the Buckeyes due to NCAA sanctions and Wisconsin may already be in control of the division by the time OSU visits, but there is no love lost between these two division rivals.
Freshman To Watch: Vince Biegel, LB
The 12-man Badger recruiting class was easily the smallest in the Big Ten and one of the thinnest in the nation. This is due mostly to the incredible depth already enrolled at Wisconsin — there are nine listed seniors on the roster currently. But the 6-foot-3, 225-pound in-state linebacker was one of the most highly-touted prospects in the class and could become a key reserve behind two very talented but injury-prone linebackers.
Comeback Player: Devin Smith, DB (Sr.)
Smith had played in 29 straight games for Wisconsin before suffering a season-ending leg injury in the second week of the season last fall. He made 85 total tackles and deflected 13 passes over the two previous seasons and was expected to have his best season to date in 2011. With the loss of two key defensive backs, Antonio Fenelus and Aaron Henry, Smith will be counted on to be back at full strength in 2012.
Defensive Co-MVP: Chris Borland and Mike Taylor, LB
The top two returning tacklers in the Big Ten will be playing five feet from each other in Madison. Taylor, who led the conference with 150 tackles, has dealt with knee issues throughout his career but is the consistent, stabilizing force in the heart of this defense. Borland, who has had his own shoulder issues, is a big play threat on every possession who stuffs the stat sheet — he has 10 forced fumbles, 31.5 tackles for a loss and 8.5 sacks in his career. These two form arguably the best 1-2 punch at linebacker in the Big Ten.
Unsung Hero: Jacob Pedersen, TE
Wisconsin has quickly turned into TE-U. Owen Daniels, Travis Beckum, Garrett Graham and now Jacob Pedersen all excelled in Paul Chryst’s offensive scheme. As only a sophomore, Pedersen caught eight touchdowns and finished as the second-team All-Big Ten selection. He is a complete player at the position and his blocking skills will be called upon as much as his ability to catch passes now that three first-team All-Big Ten lineman have departed.
Season Defining Moment: Big Ten Championship Game (Dec. 1)
Wisconsin appears to be the overriding favorite to make it back to Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis this fall. With Ohio State’s sanctions keeping it from playing in the title game, the Badgers need only to beat Penn State, Illinois and Purdue to win the division. UW beat those three teams, who combined for 16 losses a year ago, by 94 total points in 2011. Whether its Michigan or Nebraska in the title game, the Badgers figure to be an underdog, so should they pull the upset in Indy, it would give the program its first three-peat in school history. Otherwise, 2012 will be known as the year that UW lucked into a Division title by default.
Newcomer To Watch: Danny O’Brien, QB
It is a risky strategy, but Bret Bielema has turned to a transfer to lead his offense for the second straight season. O’Brien comes to Madison from Maryland and will undoubtedly be better suited for success behind a quality offensive line and Montee Ball to carry the load. He is a major upgrade over any other options on the UW roster and should be the deciding factor in the division this fall. However, it would be wildly unfair to compare the former Terrapin to Russell Wilson — who last year set an NCAA record for passing efficiency and posted the greatest passing season in school history.
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