James White (right) is expected be part of one of the most explosive one-two punches in college football, which also includes Montee Ball.
Following a successful 2010 season that saw Wisconsin win a share of the Big Ten title and earn a Rose Bowl appearance, head coach Bret Bielema and his staff watched as players like J.J. Watt, Gabe Carimi, Scott Tolzien, Lance Kendricks, John Moffitt and John Clay leave Wisconsin for the NFL.
The loss of these players will be felt in 2011, but recent history has shown that Wisconsin knows how to reload on the offensive line, defensive line, running back and tight end positions.
The big question mark following the Rose Bowl was how to replace two-year starter and Johnny Unitas Award winner, Scott Tolzien.
That question was answered in late June as news broke, per Adam Rittenberg of ESPN, that former NC State quarterback Russell Wilson chose to transfer to the Badgers over national champion, Auburn.
Despite losing the previously mentioned performers, a plethora of experience and players return for the 2011 season. Expectations in Madison are high as the Badgers start out at No. 10 in the USA Today preseason poll and No. 11 in the AP Top 25.
Here are seven reasons why Wisconsin is a BCS title contender this season (in no particular order).
Russell Wilson is also a 2010 fourth round draft pick by the Colorado Rockies
Before the transfer of Russell Wilson, Wisconsin' staff and fans caught a glimpse of their potential future as Joel Stave, Joe Brennan, Nate Tice and then-expected starter Jon Budmayr combined for just 22 completions on 61 attempts with three interceptions and no touchdowns in the spring game.
This prompted many Badger fans to take a more agreeable stance on a one-and-done transfer like Russell Wilson with the expectations of a repeat Rose Bowl trip.
Despite being touted as one of the better collegiate quarterbacks in the country during his tenure at NC State, Wilson also had an inferior supporting cast in comparison to his counterparts. His offensive line struggled as Wilson was sacked 94 times in three seasons, and often found himself throwing on the run.
As well as having a backfield derailed by injuries and inconsistency, Wilson was forced to do more than he maybe had to, attempting over 500 passes in 2010. The problems he encountered in the past will not be repeated in Madison, as the Badgers have boasted one of the top backfields and offensive lines in the country each year for the past 15 seasons.
Fans and critics salivate at the opportunity to criticize Wilson for his decision making in comparison to Badger quarterbacks of the past; Brooks Bollinger, Jim Sorgi, John Stocco, and Scott Tolzien were all considered game managers.
Their job was to win the Badger way—taking advantage of the offensive line and talented backs by running first, passing second. They were put in position to limit mistakes and let the plays be made by the offensive line and backfield in order to control the clock.
This runs opposite of Russell Wilson's time at NC State, which saw him force many throws and try making something out of nothing more times than not. This may be a product of his poor offensive line and inconsistent running backs, but he is a smart man who graduated in three years at NC State, and came from a family that saw his late father play two sports and graduate from Dartmouth College, an Ivy League school.
He has the intelligence to know that he does not have to do too much and it showed in Wisconsin's first live scrimmage of fall camp. The first six plays were all runs that combined for 98 yards, including a 14-yard scamper from Wilson off an option, a new fold to Wisconsin's offense.
The issue of chemistry with his new teammates can be put to rest as well.
Not only did his teammates vote him as a team captain, but within his first days in Madison, Wilson called a team meeting stating he is there to work hard and not expect anything to be given to him.
This was reiterated by center, Peter Konz, who told the Wisconsin State Journal: “The first thing you always have to do is show someone, it’s not only talk, it’s what you do,” Konz said. “That’s pretty much what (Wilson) has done. He hasn’t really said, ‘I’m the starting quarterback.’ He hasn’t done anything like that. All he has done is his best. How can you not like that? How can you not respect someone who gives everyone respect right back?”
Russell Wilson's accolades as one of the most decorated ACC quarterbacks to ever play, the chemistry he has established with his teammates, and his intelligence are one of the big reasons why Wisconsin is a sleeper to win a BCS title in 2011.
The 2010 season showcased the talents of Montee Ball and James White. As a true freshman in 2009, Montee Ball was the No. 2 back for the Badgers as he rushed for almost 400 yards and four TDs playing second fiddle to the eventual Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year, John Clay.
Ball sought to expand his role in 2010, but a freshman by the name of James White emerged as the No. 2 back behind John Clay after a season-opening win at UNLV. Ball saw his carries diminish until a late October afternoon at Iowa when White went down with an injury. White missed the next game against Purdue, and Clay found himself fighting an injury bug that forced him to miss time.
This catapulted Ball into an expanded role for Wisconsin's remaining five contests, which included four starts. He took advantage of the opportunity and in these games (including a loss to TCU in the Rose Bowl), Ball rushed for 777 yards (6.9 YPC) and 14 TDs as he became the nation's hottest back in the second half of the season.
He finished the season with 18 TDs on 996 yards, an amazing feat considering he missed a game and saw single-digit carries in five others.
The other half of this two-headed monster, James White, a sophomore that played high school at powerhouse St. Thomas Aquinas in Fort Lauderdale, FL., exploded onto the scene in 2010 as he rushed for 1,052 yards and 14 TDs as a true freshman. This is all despite him missing a game and a half, as well as sharing carries with Ball and Clay.
With the running backs that Wisconsin has produced since Ron Dayne, eyes turn when a freshman is able to amass the 1,000 yard barrier. What made White even more special was his touchdown against Ohio State to ultimately put the game out of the reach. The run showcased his elusiveness, balance, vision and poise, something not often seen from a freshman.
Montee Ball and James White are popularly regarded as one of the best running back duos in the country after combining for 2,048 rushing yards (6.4 YPC) and 32 TDs in 2010.
Anytime your offense returns those numbers behind a traditional top-tier offensive line, good things are bound to happen. It makes a quarterback's job easier, it keeps your defense off the field, and can eventually help open up play-action passes.
Wisconsin starts off 2011 with five true home games in their first six contests in front of the craziest, most vulgar student section in the country.
Wisconsin starts off the year playing five true home games in their first six contests. Wisconsin is very tough at Camp Randall under head coach Bret Bielema. Since 2006 (Bielema's first season), Wisconsin is 32-3 with a perfect 15-0 record against non-conference opponents at home. History shows us that non-conference games at Camp Randall, though competitive, usually end up in favor of the Badgers.
Bielema and co. do have a tough game against non-AQ Northern Illinois at Soldier Field in Chicago. For Badger fans, Northern Illinois rings a bell as former defensive coordinator Dave Doeren is now the head coach there. The Huskies of Northern Illinois also traveled to Madison in 2009 and gave Wisconsin fits as they hung around, but eventually lost 28-20.
Wisconsin's road schedule is manageable as well.
The rivalry with Minnesota hasn't been one as of late, and a date with the Fighting Illini in Champaign was made easier with the departure of Mikel Leshoure to the NFL.
Even with the turmoil at Ohio State, Bielema is just 1-3 against the Buckeyes, which includes two lopsided losses in Columbus. He may be breathing a little easier as Ohio State's identity has not been established yet with an interim head coach and possibly a freshman QB under center.
Two other big games in question are a home game against Nebraska and an away game in East Lansing against Michigan State. Wisconsin has shown to be tough at home, especially at night.
This years game against Nebraska looks to be one of the most highly anticipated games in recent memory, rivaling that of Ohio State. Nebraska will be introduced to a superior run attack against their defense, something not consistently seen in the Big 12. Nebraska is a good team and should be considered a favorite in the B1G, but Wisconsin is just that much tougher in Madison.
If Wisconsin can avoid another defeat at Michigan State, it's hard to find another game on that schedule that the Badgers cannot win.
Bret Bielema is the successor of hall of fame coach, Barry Alvarez, and is 49-16 at Wisconsin since taking over as head coach.
Bret Bielema is starting to creep up lists as one of the best head coaches in the country. How can you blame anyone for placing him so high?
He is just 41-years-old, was a named defensive coordinator at Kansas State at the age of 32, and after two years as a Wisconsin's defensive mind, took the reins as a head coach when he was just 36-years-old. In five years as head coach in Madison, he has achieved a 49-16 record, and at the same time, expects the most out of his players in the classroom.
UW had a record 22 players selected for the Academic All-Big Ten team in 2010. That number brings to light how disciplined Badger players are under the direction of Bielema and his staff as they also led the nation in fewest penalties and turnovers per game in 2010.
Very impressively, Bielema was taught by and coached for some very well-known and respected head coaches as an assistant at Iowa, Kansas State and Wisconsin.
At Iowa, he was an assistant under Hayden Fry and Kirk Ferentz. As a co-defensive coordinator at Kansas State, he coached under Bill Snyder. Lastly, before his head coaching opportunity in Madison, he was a defensive coordinator under head coach and Hall of Famer, Barry Alvarez.
Very good mentors for a still very young coach with a future as bright as anyone.
Paul Chryst is another coach and offensive coordinator that is highly thought of and one of the most respected in the country. Though criticized for his play-calling in the Rose Bowl, Chryst has been known for staying true to his identity as Wisconsin's offensive coordinator: run first, pass second.
In his first stint as an offensive coordinator at Oregon State in 2003, he was instrumental in helping the Beaver offense achieve a 4,000-yard passer, 1,500-yard rusher, and two 1,000-yard receivers for the first time in NCAA history. He has had no shortage of developing tight ends, which will be crucial for Russell Wilson in 2011 if plays break down.
As a six-year offensive coordinator in Madison, many of Chryst's offenses have broken school records, but none were more prolific than last season's, which tied the Big Ten rushing record of 48 touchdowns. This past offseason, Chryst was courted by the Texas Longhorns and longtime friend and current Dallas Cowboys coach, Jason Garrett.
Chris Ash is in his first season as defensive coordinator, but will have a plethora of experience players on his defense. Prior to this season, Ash served as Wisconsin's secondary coach as three Badger defensive backs earned All-Big Ten honors.
Chris Borland (right) won Big Ten Freshman of the Year in 2009.
Bret Bielema calls him a "throwback". Former Badger defensive back, Jay Valai, calls him a "freak".
As a freshman in 2009, Chris Borland won Big Ten Freshman of the Year after recording 54 tackles (10.5 TFL), five sacks, five FF (three FR) and seven QB hurries. Even more impressively, he returned seven kicks, a punt, and converted 3-3 extra points.
His statistics and accolades as a freshman definitely fit the "throwback" and "freak" labels that Bielema and Valai gave to him.
In 2010, he played a short stint against Arizona State in Wisconsin's third game, but eventually left with a season-ending shoulder injury. A tough blow for one of the B1G's best linebackers.
He will make the transition from outside to the middle, where coaches believe he can be a natural if he stays healthy. The coaching staff this offseason has helped Borland avoid situations where he may feel inclined to arm tackle, which can often result in shoulder injuries.
Most importantly, Borland's return may soften the blow after J.J. Watt bolted for the NFL. Though he understands that "you really don't replace J.J.", he hopes he can shoulder some of what [Watt] was able to do.
After undergoing two shoulder surgeries this offseason, Borland is practicing and looks healthy. With his return, Borland can help form one of the B1G's best linebacking corps that also features All-Big Ten performer Mike Taylor and senior Kevin Claxton.
Mike Taylor (left) and Aaron Henry (right) will be expected to help the Badgers contend for a title in 2011.
J.J. Watt was a highly-publicized product for the Badger defense as he garnered All-American honors in 2010, and became an eventual first-round draft pick to the Houston Texans. The loss of Watt will no doubt be felt, but there is no shortage of experience on the defensive side of the ball.
In the secondary, the Badgers return All-Conference performers, Aaron Henry (free safety) and Antonio Fenelus (cornerback). Also in the secondary is Devin Smith (cornerback), a 2010 pre-season All-Conference selection and Shelton Johnson (strong safety), a player that has started just one game, but saw action in every contest.
Prior to committing to Wisconsin, Bielema visited Aaron Henry and said he had the ability to be a leader. Now in his senior season, Henry has been named a team captain with no shortage of confidence, something needed at the CB position.
The linebacker core features Chris Borland (MLB), Mike Taylor (OLB) and senior MLB Kevin Claxton who has just one start in his career, but has seen playing time since his freshman season.
There is experience at these positions, and Borland will be expected to be the anchor of the defense after converting to middle linebacker from outside linebacker, a position that helped him garner Big Ten Freshman of the Year in 2009.
The defensive line is not as highly acclaimed as the linebackers and defensive backs, but there is plenty of experience along the front four. Louis Nzegwu started every game in 2010 opposite of J.J. Watt. He was second on the team in sacks and will be expected to increase those numbers.
Playing opposite of Nzegwu will be first year starter David Gilbert, who saw action in every game next season. As the two defensive tackles in the 4-3 scheme, Patrick Butrym, a captain, and 6'6" mammoth Ethem Hemer will man the trenches. Butrym started every game in 2010, and Hemer started the final six contests.
The defense may not flash the big names that the offense features, but they certainly have the ability to help the Badgers contend for a title with their experience at each position.
Junior (RS), Peter Konz, will help propel the Badgers run attack
When a team loses three offensive lineman to the NFL, the following season is thought of as a rebuilding process on the offensive line. This isn't the case at Wisconsin as they have become a team that reloads on the offensive line and skips the rebuilding process.
Though it will be hard to replace a first-rounder like Gabe Carimi, 6'6" Ricky Wagner is more than capable with his towering size and experience. Starting just 10 games in 2010, Wagner garnered honorable mention Big Ten honors at right tackle.
Opposite of Wagner will be former 5-star recruit, Josh Oglesby (6'7" 330 pounds). Expectations were soaring for Oglesby as a freshman in 2007 as he was one of the highest recruits to ever sign for the Badgers. After redshirting in 2007, Oglesby started three games in 2008 and 10 games in 2009. His 2010 season was cut short after a knee injury.
Russell Wilson's center will be Peter Konz, a two-year starter and All-Conference performer, who boasts tremendous size.
The two guards will be Travis Frederick and Kevin Zeitler. Frederick became the first player in school history to start a season opener on the offensive line in 2009. Known for his "nice-guy" attitude, Frederick is trying to develop a mean streak attitude, something that should come with time as being a starter on an always dominant Badger offensive line.
The other guard position will be filled by Zeitler, a two-year starter and an all-conference performer in 2010.
Together, the five Wisconsin starters on the offensive line average 6'5" 332 pounds. Wilson's excitement about this isn't verbal, but his body language absolutely shows his excitement.
In a recent article by the Wisconsin State Journal, Tom Mulhern was told by junior center Peter Konz, “There was one point during the summer where we were doing some heavy squatting. I think (guard) Travis (Frederick) was doing well over 600. (Wilson) is looking around like, ‘Oh, my gosh.’ When you see seven (45-pound) plates on (each end of) the bar and Travis Frederick is squatting like it’s nothing, you’re amazed. Everybody’s amazed the first time. But especially when those guys are going to be blocking for you."