Wisconsin Football: 5 Things in Between the Badgers and a Conference Title
It's hard to believe that Wisconsin football went 8-6 a season ago and still managed to win its conference, but that's exactly what the Badgers did thanks to some postseason bans and a 70-point explosion in the Big Ten Championship Game.
Using conventional wisdom, Wisconsin isn't going to be so fortunate in 2013. It will have to win more than seven regular-season games if it wants to return to the Rose Bowl for the fourth consecutive season, especially with Ohio State back in the picture.
Following the 2013 season, two more teams—Maryland and Rutgers—will join the Big Ten, and divisions will be realigned. But until then, the Badgers have their sights set on another conference crown. Here are five things that stand in their way.
A Young Secondary
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Senior Dezmen Southward is all that remains from last year's secondary, and that means he will be surrounded by inexperienced players in 2013.
Three spots are up for grabs, and throughout the spring, junior Peniel Jean and sophomore Darius Hillary have lined up in the No. 1 cornerback group. Safety has been a much more fluctuating situation, with Southward holding down one spot.
Head coach Gary Andersen has tried several different players, including from the offense, alongside Southward, but things should really get interesting this summer when junior college recruit Donnell Vercher arrives on campus.
Wisconsin had a top 25 pass defense last season, and unless multiple unproven players step up and assert themselves, it will be difficult to match that efficiency next season. A lot will ride on the shoulders of Southward to lead the unit and prevent opponents from picking Wisconsin apart through the air.
Finding Another Threat on Offense
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There is no question that Jared Abbrederis, James White and Melvin Gordon are the three most electrifying threats on the Wisconsin offense. The only problem is that, for the most part, only two of them will be on the field at the same time next season.
If this remains the case, defenses will be able to key in on the run and only focus on one receiver, with that receiver being Abbrederis. That position continues to be an area of concern for the Badgers, as no one has really stepped up to claim the No. 2 receiver job this spring.
Lately, sophomores Jordan Fredrick and A.J. Jordan have been battling to line up with Abbrederis. Another source of offense could come from senior tight end Jacob Pedersen, as folks familiar with Wisconsin have been waiting for Pedersen to truly break out.
The Badgers may have been able to fool people last season with Abbrederis as the lone threat outside, but that won't be the case in 2013. Someone else will need to emerge to take the pressure off No. 4.
The Learning Curve
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Along with Andersen comes nearly a complete overhaul of the coaching staff, and that includes both the offensive and defensive coordinators.
Defensive coordinator Dave Aranda followed Andersen from Utah State to Wisconsin and will institute a 3-4 formation, which calls for a much more aggressive approach on defense. Aranda wants to see more blitzing and his secondary take more chances in coverage, and this should create more excitement around Wisconsin football.
Former San Diego State offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig assumes the same position with the Badgers, and fans can expect to see some read-option looks next season. Wisconsin will still use a pro-style formation as its base, but there will certainly be some new wrinkles in the offense that people aren't used to seeing at Madison.
These changes bring along defensive ends moving to outside linebacker and a learning curve for everyone. The faster players are able to adjust to these changes, the better off Wisconsin will be entering its first season with Andersen at the helm.
Consistent Quarterback Play
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The quarterback position was one big mess for the Badgers last season.
Maryland transfer Danny O'Brien was named the starter in the fall, only to be pulled at halftime in the third game of the season. Former walk-on Joel Stave righted the ship, and then he went down with a broken collarbone against Michigan State.
Third-string quarterback and fifth-year senior Curt Phillips took over and did enough to get the Badgers into the Rose Bowl, but couldn't get them over the hump. All three signal callers return this season, but only Stave and Phillips figure to factor into the competition.
Just like at safety, a JUCO recruit—Tanner McEvoy—will make it a three-man battle for quarterback heading into the fall. No matter who winds up winning the job, the Badgers need a healthy and consistent quarterback to keep the team even keeled and competitive all season long.
The Ohio State Buckeyes
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Depending on how division realignment sorts out, this might be the last season the Badgers have to deal with Ohio State in the standings.
Last season, the Buckeyes pulled off an undefeated season, which included a 21-14 overtime victory at Camp Randall Stadium, but they were ineligible to play in the postseason. Such is not the case this year, and Urban Meyer has his team hungry for a Big Ten championship.
On Sept. 28, Wisconsin will make the trek to Columbus to face Ohio State, and both teams have a great shot at being undefeated come the Week 5 showdown. Whoever takes home a victory will wind up having the inside track at winning the Leaders Division.
Braxton Miller will be on Heisman watch, and the Buckeyes have more talent at nearly every position, so it will come down to the Badgers executing flawlessly if they want to pull off the upset. Otherwise, the prospect of a fourth-straight B1G title will be in jeopardy.