Wisconsin-Northern Illinois: Week One Story Lines
As college football's first weekend approaches, many fans are no doubt feeling the excitement that comes along with the beginning of every season.
Like any other sport, the first week is the time when just about every school's fans believe this year could be "the year." And while only about five teams (Florida, USC, Texas, Oklahoma, Ohio State) have a legitimate chance at the BCS Championship, any team could make a surprise run at its respective conference title.
For the players, week one means finally playing football against someone wearing another uniform than your own. It means proving why you were given the starting role when the depth chart was released last week.
So as the Wisconsin Badgers prepare for their first game Saturday against Northern Illinois, it seems appropriate to look at the most intriguing story lines that will be in play when the game kicks off at 6 p.m.
1. Who will start on the offensive line?
Gabe Carimi just returned to practice over the weekend and head coach Bret Bielema expects John Moffitt and Bill Nagy back soon. Just how soon remains to be seen, however. Bielema offered a chance of their return this week, but said next week was more of a guarantee.
Moffitt's injury is one that becomes more of an issue the day after practice or a game, so it wouldn't be surprising to see him in the game. Nagy, on the other hand, has a pair of injuries and is more likely to sit out another week.
If Moffitt cannot go Saturday, it would open the door for an even bigger story: true freshman Travis Frederick starting at center for Wisconsin.
It's been 18 years since a true freshman started a game on the offensive line at UW and it's been much longer since a true freshman started the opener. In fact, no one is sure if it's ever happened in program history.
2. How will the carries at running back be split?
Zach Brown is the starter, but John Clay is the preseason All-Big Ten selection. In the end, they will likely see a similar number of carries, but what if they don't?
The way the carries are split between the two in this first game, and the way the two take advantage of their opportunities could go a long way in determining the way the two-back system works out over the course of the season.
If Brown is hot, he'll get the ball, there's no question about that. But if Clay has a monster game, will he get the start in week two? We'll have to wait and see.
Oh, and don't forget the Badgers have a pair of freshmen behind those two that Bielema expects to see the field against Northern Illinois. So what if true freshman Montee Ball lights up the Huskies for a big run? Will he get the number of carries Clay or Brown would get for a similar feat?
Probably not, but it could end up being a near four-way tie for rushing attempts if all four find success against the Northern Illinois front seven.
Imagine that, a four running back system.
3. How good will the defense be?
With so many new faces on the defensive side of the ball, it could easily be much better or much worse than last season.
The key will be how good the front seven are. If O'Brien Schofield and Jaevery McFadden can lead the group to success, the Wisconsin defense should be improved. But, if they cannot stop the run, it could be a long year.
In the secondary, things seem pretty straightforward. Safeties Chris Maragos and Jay Valai have starting experience from last season, Aaron Henry is one of the best athletes on the roster and Devin Smith is expected to be an upgrade from Niles Brinkley, last year's starter.
Unfortunately, however, with the still indefinite suspensions of Aubrey Pleasant and Shane Carter, it remains to be seen just how much depth this year's squad will have in the defensive secondary.
4. What will the Badgers' two quarterback system look like?
Will Curt Phillips play with the sole intention of running the ball? Could he and Scott Tolzien simply switch off from series to series? Or maybe Tolzien will play the first half and Phillips the second in an NFL preseason type game plan?
Whatever Bielema's plan may be, it should be an improvement from the starting quarterback play of a year ago. Allan Evridge and Dustin Sherer were, at best, inadequate as signal callers last season.
Phillips shows a lot of upside, but clearly is not yet the starting quarterback the Badgers need him to be. It's likely a playbook and experience issue as Tolzien is renowned among teammates and coaches for his knowledge of the offense.
Yet, with the same wide receiver corps as last season, another key could be whether or not the players they throw the ball to have improved. Certainly, if the Badgers' receivers had not dropped so many passes in 2008, Evridge and Sherer would have fared much better.
Nonetheless, the Tolzien/Phillips system is one that will draw the attention of many. Lucky for the Big Ten Network, they get to show the game in almost-primetime at 6 p.m. Saturday.
For the Badgers' sake, let's hope Bielema's experiments at quarterback, running back and elsewhere work out better than the decision to call timeout late in the game against Michigan State last year.
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