Considered by many to be the darkhorse in the Big Ten, the Wisconsin Badgers should have their best team in years for the 2010 season.
You can just feel the excitement and anticipation in the air.
Many experts pick them to finish third in the conference behind Iowa and Ohio State, but there are many Wisconsin fans who think the Badgers can make a run for the Rose Bowl.
Read on to find out.
With 10 starters returning for an offense that last year averaged almost 33 points a game, it's not hard to imagine why many are predicting the Badger "O" to be the best in the Big Ten.
Star tight end Garrett Graham, the only starter not returning to Madison next year, will be replaced by Lance Kendricks—a more-than-capable fill-in.
If the returning starters play anything like they're capable of, Wisconsin should easily put up over 30 points a game.
On defense, the Badgers do lose five of their 2009 starters, including standout defensive end O'Brien Schofield.
But that means they will return six players, including the entire linebacking corps and almost all of their secondary.
The defense certainly won't be as solid as the offense, but if they can play with poise and determination, they should be capable of keeping the Badgers in the Big Ten race.
This one is pretty obvious.
Among the returning starters on offense for Wisconsin is the reigning Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year, John Clay.
After rushing for over 1,500 yards and almost 20 touchdowns last year, expectations are sky-high for the junior. A repeat of last year's numbers is expected, but many think Clay can put up even bigger stats.
He should be a Heisman candidate right off the bat, and if he does put up similar numbers as last year (certainly a possibility with his entire offensive line returning) and leads Wisconsin to a BCS bowl, it's not unthinkable that Wisconsin could have their third Heisman-winning running back.
Certainly the key to the Badger offense, Clay's performance in 2010 should tell the story of Wisconsin's season.
Wisconsin football is not known for producing star quarterbacks. Far from it.
Brooks Bollinger, Jim Sorgi, John Stocco.
Certainly not stars, but they were stable. And led the Badgers to wins.
That's exactly what Scott Tolzien will try to do in his senior season. He did it last year as a first-year starter.
It's safe to say if he plays with the same kind of poise that earned him 10 wins in 2009, he'll be able to lead Wisconsin to back-to-back big-time bowl seasons.
He's not flashy, but Wisconsin quarterbacks aren't supposed to be. He rarely turns the ball over, makes plays when called upon, and simply wins.
If the Badgers' defense is to play well next year, redshirt junior defensive end J.J. Watt and sophomore linebacker Chris Borland will have to perform to their full potential.
And their full potential could definitely turn the Badger D into something special.
Last year, Watt finished with 44 tackles and 4.5 sacks while playing second fiddle to Schofield on the defensive line.
With Schofield in the NFL, Watt should emerge as Wisconsin's defensive leader and could turn in a monster season.
As far as Borland... where to start?
Last year, as a backup for most of the season, Borland recorded 54 tackles and five sacks, winning Big Ten Freshman of the Year honors.
Next year, as an expected starter, Borland could be in the running for a spot on the All-America team.
For a defense that has more than a few question marks, it's quite reassuring to know you've got two of the best players in the Big Ten.
Now that I've highlighted why Wisconsin could win the Big Ten based on what assets they possess, I'll turn to why Iowa and Ohio State may fall short in the end because of what they lack, respectively.
Honestly, Iowa is in probably the best position to win the Big Ten of any school.
They get both Wisconsin and Ohio State at Kinnick Stadium and return many key pieces from a team that won the Orange Bowl last season.
But, that's not to say they don't have their flaws.
And one of those flaws, quarterback Ricky Stanzi's history of inconsistency and turnovers, could be a deciding factor in whether Iowa takes the conference crown.
Stanzi is a talented quarterback. There's no doubt about that. He's led Iowa to wins, plain and simple.
But one thing is clear. For Iowa to win the Big Ten next year, they have to win games because of Ricky Stanzi, not in spite of him.
Last year, Stanzi completed only 56 percent of his passes and threw 15 interceptions.
Those numbers, especially his interception total, need to improve next season.
If there's one thing that kills championship dreams, it's turnovers. And if there's one thing that kills Iowa's dreams in 2010, it may be just that.
With three of Iowa's five starting offensive linemen from 2009 now departed (including Brian Bulaga, the Green Bay Packers first-round draft pick), the Hawkeyes have to hope that their relatively inexperienced replacements can mature quickly.
The offensive line provides stability for any offense. Without one that can open up holes for the running game or protect the quarterback, an offense falters quickly.
This is especially true with Iowa.
If Ricky Stanzi doesn't have adequate time to find his receivers, chances are he will make mistakes. And for Stanzi, mistakes equals interceptions.
Iowa's offense will hinge on the play of their offensive line and if they can't get it done, neither will the Hawkeyes.
Probably the single-most important player to any team in the country in 2010, Terrelle Pryor's play will determine the fate of Ohio State next year.
If he plays poorly, the Buckeyes are in for a disappointing season. If he plays well, they could go undefeated. It's as simple as that.
He's that crucial to this squad.
And, the fact is, many are still unsure if he can play consistently enough throughout the entire year to lead Ohio State to their ultimate goal: the national championship.
Last year, he played great in the Rose Bowl, but his numbers for the year (under 60 percent completion rate and 11 interceptions) weren't spectacular.
For Ohio State to win the Big Ten, he will need to improve on his passing skills to go along with his impressive running ability.
For now, this uncertainty surrounding Pryor gives both Iowa and Wisconsin fans hope going into the 2010 season.
Although the Buckeyes return star linebackers Ross Homan and Brian Rolle along with defensive end Cam Heyward and their two starting cornerbacks, they will still be without six of their defensive starters from last year.
And even though the Buckeyes defense will probably still be solid, losing over half your defensive starters from the year before means there are still many questions floating around Columbus.
After all, this was a defense that allowed only 12.2 points a contest in 2009. For Ohio State to succeed in 2010, their defense needs to be of the same quality as last year's.
Three new defensive linemen, one new linebacker, and two new defensive backs have to got to make Buckeye fans a little nervous, even if the newcomers are expected to transition well.
That said, Ohio State never seems to have a poor defense. It just doesn't happen.
The newly-anointed starters should be able to step up to the challenge and the returning starters will pick up the slack if they don't.
The Buckeyes are a team that just doesn't falter too often on D.
But, the influx of new starters does give the rest of the Big Ten hope. All it takes is a little uncertainty or hesitance for an offense to score some big plays on a somewhat inexperienced defense.
Especially when those games on are on the road.
Ohio State's schedule in 2010, especially their road games, are anything but conducive to a national championship run.
They not only get a couple tough home games (vs. Miami (FL) and Penn State), but they must also travel to Wisconsin and Iowa.
If Ohio State does falter in one or two of those games and the Badgers can win the games they're supposed to, the Buckeyes may be out of the race fairly early, leaving only Iowa in Wisconsin's path.
That said, Wisconsin could just as easily fall to a team they aren't supposed to.
But assuming they don't, Ohio State's tough schedule could really work to the Badgers' advantage.
The Badgers don't even play Penn State in the 2010 season, but the fact that the Nittany Lions will be in rebuilding mode next year could play a role in Wisconsin's Big Ten title hopes.
Penn State has been a perennial contender for the conference crown ever since they joined the league back in 1993.
Just the fact that they may not be a legitimate contender in 2010 makes it that much easier for Wisconsin to have a shot.
One less program to worry about.
So, that brings us to the ultimate question: Can Wisconsin win the 2010 Big Ten title?
Can they? Yes.
Will They? Unfortunately, I don't think they will.
The 2010 Badgers should be one of Wisconsin's best teams in years. But, in a fit of bad timing, the same goes for both Iowa and Ohio State.
I do, however, believe the Badgers could still reach a BCS bowl.
If they can manage to go through their conference schedule without being upset, and can manage a victory at home against Ohio State, I believe they could go as an at-large bid with Iowa taking the conference crown.
However, if Ohio State does indeed win the Big Ten (as many expect them to do), I find it unlikely that Wisconsin would get a BCS bid.
If the Buckeyes win the crown, that would mean they would have likely defeated the Badgers in Madison, and I don't foresee Wisconsin knocking off Iowa in Iowa City to take their at-large BCS spot.
That said, if things can go right for the Badgers and they play their best, the Big Ten title is not out of reach.