In Bret Bielema's first season as head coach (2006), the Illinois native led a little-known Wisconsin Badgers squad to a 12-1 record and a Capital One Bowl victory over Arkansas.
Despite being unranked to begin the 2006 season, Bielema's Badgers rolled over everyone in their way, with the only setback being a 27-13 loss at Michigan (who went 11-0 before losing an epic No. 1 vs. No. 2 battle at Ohio State).
Now, three years later, Wisconsin appears to be in much the same situation. Instead of John Stocco behind center and P.J. Hill at running back, the 2009 squad has Dustin Sherer and John Clay, a pair that could be even better than that of 2006.
So the question then is, what can we expect from this year's Badgers? Should we look for a similar run from unranked to top 10? Or will they start hot and fall off the face of the earth like the last two seasons?
Many have called for Bielema to be fired over the last two seasons, but another 9+ victory season could be the first step in righting the ship for the Badgers. And with Clay appearing ready to step into the spotlight, Wisconsin could have just the right formula to reach the nine-win plateau.
First, despite losing a lot of big names—especially on the defensive side of the ball—the Badgers have returning starters in several key positions. For example, after taking over midway through last season, Sherer should be much improved at the quarterback position.
Clay is still in the backfield and without Hill in front of him, he will take the majority of carries, something that excites most UW fans.
Even more importantly for Wisconsin, its receiving corps remains—for the most part—intact, with several experienced veterans ready to shine in 2009. If Nick Toon, David Gilreath, and Kyle Jefferson perform the way the Badgers need them too, the Wisconsin offense should be pretty strong in 2009.
On the defensive side, the line is made up of almost entirely new faces. Yet, the players behind them have plenty of experience and should be able to pick up any slack.
Ultimately, when evaluating the team personnel-wise, the Badgers do not have a lot of flashy, pro prospects. What they do have is a group of guys that feels they have something to prove after the way last season ended, with an embarrassing loss to Florida State in the Champs Sports Bowl.
When looking at the schedule for Wisconsin, one cannot help but feel encouraged about their ability to improve on last season's 7-6 record.
For starters, the team begins with four straight home games, including three against the likes of Northern Illinois, Fresno State, and Wofford, which should lead to a 3-0 record as the Badgers prepare for a Big Ten opener vs. Michigan State.
And after squaring off with MSU, the Big Ten slate for Wisconsin does not appear to be too difficult. The next two are road games at Minnesota and Ohio State, which means a 2-1 start in conference play for UW would be very good.
After the first three conference games, however, the Badgers' schedule eases up with the toughest remaining games being a homecoming battle with Iowa and a game at Northwestern.
Wisconsin wraps things up December 5 at Hawaii, and it is not unreasonable to think they may bring home a 10-2 or 9-3 record from the islands.
It also would not be a huge surprise if they came back from paradise with a 6-6 record or worse, because in the end, the Badgers have too many question marks at too many positions for anyone to really know how they will perform this year.
But if the past is any indication, Bielema and Wisconsin have a good chance to turn a lot of heads in 2009, for better or worse.