The Big Ten isn't going to be an easy conference to dominate this season, especially when your team seems to be increasingly relying on luck to get the job done.
The Wisconsin Badgers are 2-1—not bad—but when you consider the teams they've beaten and the slim margins of victory they've managed to get away with, the outlook doesn't look so good from the end of September going forward.
Thus far, Wisconsin has two wins—over Northern Iowa and Utah State—and its combined margin of victory has been 42-35. In its only loss, the Badgers fell 10-7 to Oregon State.
On the bright side, Wisconsin's defense has managed to stay pretty strong throughout the first three games—but its offense needs to kick things up several notches if it wants to compete in the Big Ten.
It can start proving itself by ripping apart UTEP on Saturday, but because the Miners put up 41 points the last time out, the Badgers—and whichever quarterback they choose to go with on Saturday—will first and foremost have to prove that they can keep up offensively.
Where: Camp Randall Stadium, Madison, Wis.
When: Saturday, Sept. 22 at 12 p.m. ET
Listen: 99.7 and 102.3 The Storm in Wisconsin, KOFX 92.3 in El Paso
Live Stream: WatchESPN
Betting Line (via OddsShark): Wisconsin -17
UTEP Injury Report (via USAToday.com)
- RB Nathan Jeffery (groin) is probable for Saturday's game
- WR Michael Edwards (concussion) is questionable for Saturday
- WR Devin Patterson (concussion) is questionable for Saturday
- DL Germard Reed (shoulder) is questionable for Saturday
- K Dakota Warren (back) is questionable for Saturday
- DB Traun Roberson (knee) is out indefinitely
- DB Adrian James (ankle) should be out until the end of September
Wisconsin Injury Report (via USAToday.com)
- WR Chase Hammond (foot) is probable for Saturday's game
- LB Vince Biegel (foot) is questionable for Saturday
- WR Jared Abbrederis (chest) is questionable for Saturday
- DL Pat Muldoon (thumb) is doubtful for Saturday
- DB Shelton Johnson (arm) should be out until early November
- WR Isaiah Williams (groin) is out indefinitely
- LB Cody Byers (concussion) is out for the season
Wisconsin is another one of those teams that couldn't afford an early-season loss to a major-conference opponent if it wanted to be considered one of the top teams in one of the power conferences.
There's so much talent in the Big Ten this year, given the resurgences of Ohio State and the strength of Michigan and Michigan State. The Badgers, therefore, have to prove they can beat the big-name opponents, and the little guys, if they want to be considered in the same category. Thus far, they haven't done that.
The Badgers have barely been able to skate by the lower-tier opponents on their schedule, and against Oregon State—their only big challenge so far—they couldn't get anything going offensively.
If Wisconsin wants to be included in the BCS conversation (which doesn't look incredibly likely), it's going to have to start winning big—soon. And it's going to have to find a quarterback who can enable this offense to win big.
What They're Saying
To say Wisconsin has struggled in the early going this season would be an understatement, according to Yahoo! Sports' Frank Schwab. And yet, somehow, the Badgers keep popping up in the USA Today poll.
How could that be? Schwab has a theory:
Wisconsin showed up at No. 24 on the USA Today Sports coaches poll. There's only one explanation, and it's not a good one: The Badgers were in the poll to start the year. There's no other conceivable reason for anyone to vote for Wisconsin right now. … Voters often take the previous poll and move losing teams down and winning teams up, instead of shaking the Etch-A-Sketch and starting over. Which is why preseason polls should be done away with.
It's a fair point: There is no way Wisconsin could truly be considered one of the top 25 teams in the nation, at this point. Its offense has been stagnant, and it has nearly lost to two inferior opponents at home.
What will a win over UTEP do for Wisconsin's standing in the poll(s)?
Meanwhile, UTEP is making headlines for a positive reason: the play of quarterback Nick Lamaison, who was named the Conference USA Offensive Player of the Week on Monday, according to KVIA.com in El Paso.
The move isn't surprising when you consider Lamaison's numbers in a 41-28 win over New Mexico State in Week 3: He threw for 300 yards and four touchdowns without an interception. Given how much trouble the Wisconsin offense has had putting points on the board, Lamaison's ability to get the Miners off to a hot start could dictate the winner in this one.
UTEP Player to Watch
Aside from Lamaison, UTEP's offense on Saturday could revolve around the play of Jordan Leslie, who had a big game against New Mexico State last time out.
The sophomore wide receiver caught seven passes for 147 yards and a touchdown, giving the Miners a 20-0 lead in the first quarter. This was Leslie's second straight week with a touchdown: In Week 2 against Ole Miss, he hauled in six receptions for 80 yards and a score.
But consistency could be an issue for Leslie, who only got 30 touches for two TDs overall in 2011. If he can maintain his current pace—and if he and Lamaison are able to maintain their rapport—they could have a very good shot at upstaging the Badgers.
Wisconsin Player to Watch
Montee Ball has been the big story for the Badgers ever since being attacked by a group of men over the summer. Hopefully, now that three of those Wisconsin students have been charged with substantial battery, according to the Pioneer Press, it will bring Ball some peace of mind and he can keep having games like the one he had against Utah State in Week 3.
The running back didn't have a perfect game, but he was responsible for the game-winning play, rushing 17 yards to give Wisconsin a 16-14 lead with just over three minutes remaining. He finished the day with 139 yards on 37 carries.
This team badly needs an offensive spark, and Ball could be just that.
Wisconsin can't seem to score, and it won the last time out largely because Utah State missed a potential game-winning 37-yard field goal with about six seconds left on the clock.
And all of that offensive futility has resulted in a good old quarterback controversy for the Badgers.
Wisconsin head coach Bret Bielema replaced starter Danny O'Brien with freshman Joel Stave in the second half of Saturday's eventual win. The Badgers were down 14-3 at the half, and O'Brien finished with 63 yards. Stave wasn't much better, going 2-for-6 for 15 yards—but the Badgers did win under his watch.
Now, according to the Associated Press via The Washington Post, the two QBs are listed as co-starters on the depth chart, and Bielema is staying mum about his plans for this Saturday.
Though O'Brien was pretty gracious after being replaced on Saturday, we'll see how long the positive vibes last if he gets bumped from the starting spot against UTEP. Sometimes a quarterback controversy can spark a dormant offense, but other times, it can just lead to more trouble.
Prediction: UTEP Wins
Wisconsin has looked vulnerable for too long, and it got very, very lucky at home against Utah State. This blooming quarterback controversy sets the stage perfectly for an upset loss. A solid quarterback can make or break a team, and right now, the Badgers don't appear to have one—but the Miners do.
This Badgers offense needs to find a way to work out the kinks and get some kind of passing game involved—but while they try to find a way to do so, UTEP looks like a perfect candidate to take advantage of their futility.