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Wisconsin Football: Who Challenges the Badgers in 2012?

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The college football season is a couple of months away, but the countdown to 2012 has officially begun. Athlon Sports’ 2012 preseason annuals will be hitting newsstands in early June and its official top 25 countdown will begin on May 1. Picking the order of finish in each conference and compiling the top 25 is no easy task. Each day leading up to the release of No. 25 on May 1, Athlon’s editors will tackle some of the top preseason debates and question marks facing the teams and conferences for 2012.

With Ohio State ineligible to win the Leaders Division, which team will be the biggest threat to Wisconsin?

David Fox (@DavidFox615)
Can I say none of the above? I’m not even assuming Wisconsin will be the best team in the Leaders Division. That belongs to Ohio State, who may end up being this year’s version of USC as a potential top-10 team banned from the postseason. Ohio State’s plight leaves the Badgers as the favorite in the Leaders, especially with their quarterback situation settled with Danny O’Brien on board. If had to pick a team to be a threat I’d have to say Purdue. Defensive tackle Kawann Short is one of the Big Ten’s most underrated players. On offense, injuries have ended seasons for running back Ralph Bolden and quarterback Robert Marve. That seems unlikely to happen again. Still, I don’t have much faith in Purdue. Although the Boilermakers are good for an upset each year (Ohio State in 2011 and 2009), they also lost to Rice last year and nearly lost at home to Middle Tennessee. The Big Ten schedule also sets up well for Purdue, which has winnable road games at Minnesota, Iowa and Illinois and misses Michigan State and Nebraska from the Leaders division. All that might be enough to cobble together a nice Big Ten record which could make Wisconsin sweat for a second consecutive division title.

Braden Gall (@BradenGall)
Penn State was one win away from winning this division last season. Illinois started the year 6-0. And Purdue got back to a bowl game for the first time since 2007. All three will push Wisconsin for Leaders Division supremacy since Ohio State — the team that will own the best record — is not eligible to play in the Big Ten title game. The Nittany Lions have major quarterback and offensive line issues but the most talent of all the contenders. Illinois might have the most stability at the most important positions but it is impossible to get the second-half collapse out of my mind. I will surprise some and take the Boilermakers to be the top challenger to Wisconsin. First, they get the Badgers at home and the round robin between these four teams will likely play a big role in determining the champ. Second, they are as healthy as they have been in years (for now) and are trending upwards. And finally, they possess a defensive line that could be one of the league’s better units in a conference that places a premium on stopping the run. That said, the Badgers beat these three teams by a combined 94 points last year, so it is tough to see anyone else other than the Big Red playing in Indianapolis in December. 

Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven)
If Ohio State was eligible for the conference title, I think it would be the favorite to play in the Big Ten Championship at Indianapolis. But with a NCAA ban on postseason play, Wisconsin is the clear favorite to win the Leaders Division. Sure, the Badgers have question marks, but when you start examining the rest of the teams in the division, there isn’t much to like. There’s no question Penn State has some talent in the program, but the offensive line must replace four starters and quarterback play is an issue. I’m not sold on Bill O’Brien as a head coach either, which has me thinking Illinois might be Wisconsin’s biggest threat. The Fighting Illini collapsed after a 6-0 start, but Ron Zook didn’t leave the cupboard bare for new coach Tim Beckman. Illinois returns quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase and a defense that could be among the best in the conference. The schedule also sets up favorably, as the Fighting Illini does not play Michigan State or Nebraska in crossover games with the Legends Division. Illinois certainly has some question marks and needs to adapt to a new coaching staff. However, if Beckman can get this team to play up to its potential, the Fighting Illini has a chance to push Wisconsin for the division crown.

Kevin McGuire, Examiner.com and No. 2-Minute Warning (@KevinonCFB)
Few will argue that Wisconsin is the prohibitive favorite in the Big Ten's Leaders Division. Already with one of the top offensive players in the nation with running back Montee Ball, a Heisman frontrunner in my book, the Badgers filled the one glaring hole on their roster this spring by signing quarterback transfer Danny O'Brien. The blueprint that was used for the 2011 season seems as though it is being recycled in 2012, and for Wisconsin that should be a good sign. With the Buckeyes ruled out of the picture for us it becomes a little more obvious that Wisconsin is the team to beat in the fall.

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If there is one team that has the potential to give Wisconsin a run this year though, it may just be the team the Badgers blasted in the regular season finale last fall to advance to the Big Ten championship game, Penn State. Bill O'Brien brings a new offensive flair to the program and if he can find the right players to get things moving, most notably at quarterback, then this could be a pretty good season for Penn State. Penn State's defense hopes to get some good production out of two key defensive players returning form ACL injuries with defensive end Pete Massaro and linebacker Michael Mauti, and defensive tackle Jordan Hill is ready to pick up where Devon Still left on the inside of the defensive line. The secondary is also a huge question after losing three starters but Penn State has the schedule in their favor. Ohio State and Wisconsin, perhaps the two toughest games on the schedule other than a road trip to Nebraska, make trips to Penn State this season. After the way things went down in Madison last November for the Nittany Lions, revenge will be on the mind of many in the 2012 regular season finale in State College.

Will it once again be a game to determine which school heads to Indianapolis the following week for the Big Ten championship game? 

Patrick Snow (@AthlonSnowman)
It looks pretty bleak in the Leaders Division after Wisconsin and the postseason-ineligible Ohio State Buckeyes, but I’ll go with Penn State because of its overall tradition of winning. Illinois and Purdue return more starters, but the Nittany Lions can focus on football this season after last year’s turmoil that led to the ouster of Joe Paterno. There are obvious problems for new coach Bill O’Brien — finding some/any quarterback play, as well as revamping the offensive line and secondary. However, I think the O-line will be fine and Silas Redd will continue to lead a successful running game. The front seven on defense should be solid, led by tackle Jordan Hill and linebacker Gerald Hodges. If O’Brien can find a decent signal caller between fifth-year senior Matt McGloin, junior Rob Bolden or redshirt sophomore Paul Jones, Penn State will be the closest challenger to Wisconsin to play in the Big Ten Championship Game.

How will Athlon predict the Big Ten Leaders Division standings for 2012? Check back on May 1 as the 2012 Top 25 countdown will be released one team a day. 

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