At the end of 2008, I had my doubts about Bret Bielema.
His Badgers finished a disappointing 7-6, including a Champs Sports Bowl curb stomping at the hands of the Florida State Seminoles.
The season was filled with a number of questionable coaching decisions, and the team looked like it had quit on its coach by the end of the year.
Bielema's first two seasons as head coach had been successful. UW went 21-5 over that time, which was eighth in the country in that span and fifth in the country for teams in AQ conferences.
The problem was there were a lot of could-a-beens and would-a-beens in that stretch. In Bielema's first three seasons he had a record of 3-10 against ranked teams. He was 0-4 against top-10 teams.
It just seemed that his Badgers could beat the teams they were supposed to beat, but they couldn't get over the hump.
In 2009, he redeemed himself from the previous year's debacle, but he still had trouble winning the big ones. Though the 2009 Badgers won 10 games, they lost the two games that really mattered, against No. 7 Iowa and No. 5 Ohio State. And once again, questionable coaching played a part.
Due to this, I was skeptical going into 2010. I felt Wisconsin would be good, but I felt that "Bret Bielema has consistently demonstrated a tendency to crumble to the conference's best teams. Until he shows that his Badgers can hang with the big boys, I, for one, have no reason to think that he, or they, can."
As I felt the Big Ten would have a number of very good teams last year, I had the Badgers at 9-3. However, Bielema proved the skeptics wrong and got over the proverbial hump.
Though they gave away a game to a good—though not great—Michigan State, they soundly thumped Ohio State, and they beat an Iowa team that was much better than their 8-5 record indicated.
UW lost the Rose Bowl to TCU due to a terrible second-half offensive game plan, but I honestly feel by the end of the year, the Badgers were as good as any team in the country.
Moving into this season, everything seems to be coming up roses for Bret Bielema and his Badgers. What would have been their primary divisional foe in OSU is embroiled in a scandalous mess.
Furthermore, their biggest question mark at the end of the 2010 season was answered when North Carolina State's Russell Wilson announced his intentions to transfer to Madison for one season.
This year, many odds makers favor the Badgers to win the eastern division of the Big Ten, as well the entire conference. They are even a dark horse to run the table and go to the national championship game.
With this in mind, we know Bret Bielema has a solid program in place. We know he can win the big games. Now, can he win with a target on his back?
2010 Scoring Offense: 41.5 PPG (first in the conference), total offense: 445.2 YPG (third), rushing YPC: 5.47 (second), passing efficiency: 168.08 (first).
Average scoring offense conference ranking over last five years: 3.2.
Best scoring offense conference ranking over last five years: First (2009 and 2010).
Worst scoring offense conference ranking over last five years: Sixth (2007).
Returning Starters: QB Russell Wilson (transfer), RB Montee Ball, FB Bradie Ewing, WR Nick Toon, TE Jake Byrne, OT Ricky Wagner, C Peter Konz, OT Josh Oglesby, OL Travis Frederick, OL Kevin Zeitler.
Open Positions: WR.
The fullback lines up on the weak side. The tight end motions to the weak side. The opposing team knows exactly what the Badgers are going to do. Everybody in the stadium knows what the Badgers are going to do.
They are going to run over the left tackle. All the opposing team has to do is stop them. They rarely do.
Therein lies the not-so-well-kept secret of the Wisconsin Badgers' offense. There is no mystery. There is no trickery. There are no smoke and mirrors or guessing games. Everybody knows what the Badgers are going to do, and very few can stop them.
That not only simplifies learning the offense for the UW players, but it also gives a psychological edge to the Badgers. When a team knows what's coming and can't stop it, that team is beaten.
UW runs multiple power sets. They like to use a lot of tight ends, H-backs and fullbacks in every possible formation.
They also use three-wide sets in some situations and like to rotate their running backs.
Over the last five years, the Badgers have had the second-best scoring offense in the Big Ten (behind Ohio State)
The Badgers' offensive coordinator is Paul Chryst, who is arguably the best OC in the conference. His primary strength is his ability to adjust his offense to the strengths of his quarterback.
That will be key this season, as his new quarterback has a decidedly different skill set than any Badger signal caller in recent memory.
That quarterback is Russell Wilson. To make a long story short, there is a NCAA rule that allows a player to transfer without a mandatory one-year waiting period if the player in question has earned his degree in the appropriate amount of time or less.
This rule is primarily for players that know they will never see the field if they stay at their current institution but would like to gain some playing time before they run out of eligibility. But sometimes, players that don't fit this mold slip through. Wilson is such an example.
In three seasons at North Carolina State, Wilson had a passer efficiency rating of 139.13. Interestingly, his senior efficiency rating was 20 full points lower than his junior efficiency rating.
He also threw three more interceptions his senior year, and had a slightly lower completion percentage.
Of course, there are peripheral elements that could have contributed to that, and I don't watch enough ACC football to say one way or the other.
One other important statistic is that Wilson rushed for 1,070 yards in his three seasons.
It is difficult to say just how fluidly Wilson will make the transition to the new offense. Basically, the offense he ran at NC State and the offense he will run in Wisconsin both feature pro sets.
That is, having a fullback behind him and working under center will not be new experiences for him.
The difference will be what happens out of those sets.
In 2010, his Wolfpack offense rushed just under 46 percent of the time. The 2010 Badgers rushed on just under 68 percent of their plays. The Wolfpack had 11 players with 10 or more receptions.
The Badgers had seven, which was an abnormally large amount for them (usually there are six or even five players in that category).
Wilson has been the clear No. 1 quarterback in practices. Also, something that should help his game tremendously will be a quality running game.
In his three seasons at North Carolina State, the Wolfpack never had a 1,000-yard rusher. Last year, UW had two, with a third that had 996 yards.
A good offensive line will also aid Wilson. In 2010, the Wolfpack O-line let up an ACC-worst 40 sacks. In 2009, they let up 32, In 2008, they let up 27.
Last year, the Badgers let up 14 sacks, which was particularly good for them, but either way, they will protect Wilson much better than NC State.
Behind Wilson, sophomore Jon Budmayr is still waiting in the wings. Redshirt freshman Joe Brennan is behind him, though true freshman Joel Stave might be a better option than either of them.
In closing, this offense will suffer if Russell Wilson is injured. There is a reason UW actively recruited him, and it's both because of his talents and the lack of development of their current quarterbacks.
If Wilson can adjust to the new offense and Chryst can make whatever tweaks he has to, Wisconsin should have the best scoring offense in the Big Ten for the third season in a row.
As previously mentioned, UW had two 1,000-yard rushers last year with a third that went for 996 yards.
The top rusher—true sophomore James White—is back. He ran for 1,052 yards for 6.74 YPC and 14 touchdowns. He also had 11 receptions for 88 yards.
The 996-yard rusher—junior Montee Ball—is also back. His 996 yards went for 6.11 YPC and 18 touchdowns. He had 16 receptions for 128 yards.
Throughout much of last season, I contended that I could have run behind that offensive line and managed three YPC. On the other hand, I couldn't have managed six YPC and over 30 cumulative touchdowns.
Ball will come into the season as the starter. He is a typical Wisconsin, between-the-tackles back. He is 230 lbs. and will be a load for any opposing defense.
Meanwhile, White is not a typical Wisconsin back. He is just shy of 200-lbs. and is a burner rather than a banger. He might have the most upside of any UW back since Anthony Davis, primarily because unlike most UW backs, he has more of an ability to turn it up field.
This aspect of his game should work well as a complement to Ball. After a defense is done dealing with Ball for two series, White will be in a prime position to turn a five-yard gain into a 40-yard touchdown.
The third back will either be redshirt freshman Jeffery Lewis or true freshman Melvin Gordon.
Lewis is another big back that is beginning to learn what his responsibilities are. According to Bret Bielema, "I think Jeff has probably had as good a camp as I can expect."
Gordon also fits the mold of a Wisconsin back and has a similar running style to Lewis. On the other hand, most indications are that Gordon has a higher upside than Lewis.
Senior Bradie Ewing will be the fullback. He is unlikely to touch the ball much, but he is a tenacious blocker that has proven his worth as an outlet receiver.
His backup will be redshirt freshman Sherard Cadogan or fellow redshirt freshman Jason Hengel.
Overall, UW will be in good hands in the backfield. The fullback will serve his role and it is always a good thing when the biggest worry at tailback is who will be the third-string player.
Big Ten Group Position Ranking: 1
Wide Receivers and Tight Ends
The Badgers graduated three of their top five pass catchers, including All-American tight end, Lance Kendricks.
Heading into fall camp, their top two receivers were senior Nick Toon and sophomore Jared Abbrederis. Both are solid options, but UW boasts very little depth at wide receiver.
Toon was the Badgers' leading receiver in 2009 and would have been the top pass catcher last season, if not for an injury that kept him out of four games. He missed spring practices with a foot injury and is currently missing camp with "mild discomfort" in the same foot.
He should be ready to play when the season starts, but this could be one of those nagging injuries that causes problems during the season.
Abbrederis is a former walk-on and the Badgers' only other experienced receiver. As a redshirt freshman last season, he started two games, played in every contest and was UW's fourth-leading receiver with 20 receptions for 289 yards and three touchdowns.
He is unlikely to burn many teams long, but he is sure-handed and finds ways to get open.
After that, there are a lot of sophomores and freshmen. The only player with any collegiate experience is sophomore Jeff Duckworth, who had three catches in garbage time last season.
Manasseh Garner was behind Toon on the depth chart, but he is out following a sports hernia operation.
That leaves true freshman Kenzel Doe as the most likely third receiver. He has been on campus since January and participated in spring practice. All indications are that he was unlikely to redshirt this season, but he could be one injury away from taking on a starting role.
At tight end, the likely starter is senior Jake Byrne. Byrne is a solid blocker, but when one looks at his record as a pass catcher, he seems to have a ceiling.
Last year, as the backup tight end he started six games and only came away with five catches.
Meanwhile, sophomore Jacob Pedersen will probably line up in Lance Kendricks' vacated H-back position, where he will be more likely to get the ball in his hands. In 2010, Pedersen had eight receptions for 132 yards and two touchdowns.
The third player in this mix will be sophomore Brian Wozniak.
There are some worries with this group. Toon and Abbrederis are solid if not spectacular, but there is a huge depth problem, especially given Toon's foot issue.
Moreover, while Byrne is a strong blocker and Pedersen will step nicely into the H-back role, there doesn't look to be anybody that can immediately fill the vacuum left by Lance Kendricks.
Big Ten Group Position Ranking: 9
The Badgers, under both Bret Bielama and previous coach (and current Wisconsin athletic director) Barry Alvarez, are known for big, punishing classic Big Ten offensive lines, and this year won't be an exception.
The starting five at the beginning of camp was (from left-to-right): junior Ricky Wagner, sophomore Travis Frederick, junior Peter Konz, senior Kevin Zeitler and senior Josh Oglesby. Their average weight is 322 lbs.
Other linemen that will contend for playing time are sophomore Casey Dehn and redshirt freshman Rob Havenstein.
Oglesby came into 2010 as the starting right tackle, but his season ended with a knee injury after six games. Oglesby also had 10 starts in 2009 and three starts in 2008. His problem has been his knees.
It is difficult to know how many knee surgeries he's had, as Oglesby has lost count.
Ricky Wagner was last season's starting right tackle for the final nine games. This year, he moved to left tackle to take the place of the now-departed Gabe Carimi.
Peter Konz is a two-year starter at center. In 2009, he beat out Travis Frederick, who in turn, took a redshirt last season, as there wasn't enough playing time to go around.
Frederick is developing and could eventually be all-conference, but Konz will be All-American, if not this year then in 2012.
Finally, Kevin Zeitler is a two-year starter, the quiet elder statesman of the line and according to former Badger John Moffitt, "not the loosest guy on the team."
In closing, the Badgers have been one of the most successful producers of offensive linemen in the decade, and that tradition will continue.
In my opinion, this line is not as good as last season's and is certainly not as deep. However, only a top-notch defensive line stands a chance of containing the Badgers' running game.
Big Ten Group Position Ranking: 1
Coming next week, defense and specialists
Be sure to check out past installments of Big Ten Breakdown, beginning with the most recent, the Michigan Wolverines.