Montee Ball Returning in 2012, but Are the Wisconsin Badgers Big Ten Favorites?

Zach DirlamSenior Analyst IIJanuary 6, 2012

Montee Ball will return to Wisconsin for his senior season in 2012.
Montee Ball will return to Wisconsin for his senior season in 2012.Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

Wisconsin Badgers running back and 2011 Heisman Trophy finalist Montee Ball will return for his senior season despite being projected as a third round pick for the National Football League Draft, but does it make the Badgers the favorite to repeat as Big Ten Conference champions in 2012? 

The nation's No. 5 junior running back, according to ESPN's draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr., made the announcement at a press conference Thursday afternoon in Madison, WI. 

Ball, who was the Big Ten's offensive player of the year this season, racked up over 2,200 total yards and tied Barry Sanders' NCAA record with 39 total touchdowns in 2011, yet he still believes he has work left to finish in a Wisconsin uniform. 

"The NFL came back and told me third round," Ball said. "Just listening to what my parents had to say and listening to my heart, I believe I had to come back for my senior season and really be a leader for this team." 

Coming off of one of the greatest seasons statistically in the history of college football there are likely a lot of people wondering whether or not Ball can boost his draft stock any more than he already has this season, but the consensus All-American tailback is not concerned with any of the doubters. 

"You don't know what I'm capable of doing," Ball said. "You have no idea what I can or cannot do next season. Like I said, sit back, relax and enjoy another great season." 

With Ball in the fold for 2012 the Badgers will garner a high amount of preseason hype and be one of the favorites to win the Big Ten, however Wisconsin has to replace four assistant coaches, three starting offensive linemen, since junior center Peter Konz opted to declare for the draft, first team All-Big Ten quarterback Russell Wilson, standout wide receiver Nick Toon and five starters on defense. 

Wisconsin's offensive coordinator Paul Chryst will take over as head coach at Pittsburgh next season and is bringing Badgers offensive line coach Bob Bostad and linebackers coach Dave Huxtable with him. 

Bostad will keep his position at Pitt, while Huxtable will be Chryst's defensive coordinator. 

Wide receivers coach DelVaughn Alexander is heading to Arizona State to join new Sun Devils head coach Todd Graham's staff. 

Meanwhile, Wilson set an NCAA record this season by finishing the year with a passer efficiency rating of 191.8 and Toon was one of his favorite targets in the Badgers explosive offense, which ranked No. 6 in the nation in scoring (44.1 points per game). 

Wilson's remarkably efficient quarterback play along with a veteran offensive line were two of the biggest reasons Ball was so successful in 2011 and without those key components returning for 2012 there is reason to believe the Badgers will take a step back in terms of offensive production. 

One good thing for the Badgers next season is that the Leaders Division will be wide open with new head coaches taking over at Penn State and Illinois, no signs that Indiana will be competitive, Purdue still not being good enough to take down the top Big Ten teams, and Ohio State's postseason ban for 2012. 

The Legends Division is a different story though. The Michigan Wolverines won 11 games and a Bowl Championship Series game in Brady Hoke's first season as head coach and return almost all of their top offensive players and seven starters on defense. 

Wisconsin's defense looked extremely slow and vulnerable on the outside against Oregon in their season ending 45-38 loss in the Rose Bowl, which the Wolverines can exploit with dual-threat quarterback Denard Robinson and their quick slot receivers in a potential Big Ten championship game matchup. 

Nebraska also returns the speedy option tandem of quarterback Taylor Martinez and running back Rex Burkhead, who will be back with a vengeance after underachieving in their first season in the Big Ten. 

Oh, and do not count out the Michigan State Spartans with defensive standouts Max Bullough and Will Gholston returning. The Spartans also boast a 3-2 record against the Badgers in their last five meetings. 

The Badgers should be able to win the Leaders Division and advance to a second consecutive Big Ten title game, but Wisconsin has too many key pieces to replace on both sides of the ball to beat whoever comes out of the Legends Division.