Wisconsin Badgers: 5 Keys to Winning Big Ten Title
The college football season is nearly upon us. September is almost here, and teams across the country are gearing up for another season.
The Big Ten is one conference that has seen plenty of action in the offseason. With the addition of the Nebraska Cornhuskers, the conference now has 12 teams and has added a championship game to the equation. The Big Ten also has now been split into to two divisions.
The Wisconsin Badgers are one of the early favorites to vie for the Big Ten Title. They return a number of key contributors from last season's Rose Bowl squad and appear poised to make a run at the Big Ten Title. There are a few things that must go the Badgers' way if they are to achieve this goal. Let's start on offense.
Russell Wilson's Performance
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During the offseason, last year's starting quarterback graduated and moved to the NFL. Scott Tolzien excelled in managing the game and making great decisions with the football. His experience and poise will certainly be missed.
Hope is not lost, however. Coach Brett Bielema swayed former North Carolina State quarterback Russell Wilson to come play at Madison. Wilson was a three-year starter for the Wolfpack until he left the school following his junior season to focus on baseball, playing in the Colorado Rockies' minor league system.
Wilson is not a typical Wisconsin quarterback. While at N.C. State, Wilson was asked to throw often in a pass-friendly offense. He amassed 76 touchdown passes in three seasons as a starter, in addition to throwing for more than 3,000 yards in two of those seasons.
How Wilson adjusts to his new team will be a key factor in how the Badgers fair this year. Does he still have the quarterbacking skills that made him a star for the Wolfpack? That answer to that question will go a long way toward deciding Wisconsin's season.
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Wisconsin should have an advantage against most Big Ten teams in the special teams area. The Badgers return four-year players at both kicker and punter. Kicker Philip Welch is among the best in the country, connecting on 77 percent of field goals in 2010. Punter Brad Nortman is an exceptional specialist, averaging more than 42 yards per punt last season. The Badgers should have an edge in the kicking game.
The coverage teams will need to improve this season. The Badgers gave up three return touchdowns last season, something that could really hurt them in a close game. If the coverage units can be shored up, the Badgers should have an edge in this facet of the game.
The Dynamic Duo
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Wisconsin has the luxury of having two excellent running backs in the backfield. Junior Montee Ball and sophomore James White form one of the best running back tandems in the country. Ball is a bruising back who excels between the tackles and does not go down easily. White is a speedster and is able to take the ball to the house from anywhere on the field at any given time.
The dynamic play of Ball and White is key for Wisconsin to be successful. Both runners gained more than 1,000 yards rushing in 2010, and they will need to continue that stellar play in 2011. They will set the tone in every game and are extremely valuable members of the offense.
A Playmaking Tight End Must Emerge
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In recent years, Wisconsin quarterbacks have been blessed with outstanding tight ends. Owen Daniels (Houston Texans), Travis Beckum (New York Giants) and Lance Kendricks (St. Louis Rams) have all had stellar careers in Madison. They were often counted on as the primary weapon in the passing game while playing for the Badgers.
Kendricks, who was a 2nd Team All-American in 2010, has moved on to the NFL, and his presence as a receiver needs to be replaced. Tight end Jacob Pedersen is likely first in line for the opportunity to replace the departed Kendricks. Pedersen averaged 16.5 yards per catch last season on eight receptions. If he can become a consistent threat in the passing game, the Wisconsin offense will be all the more formidable.
Take Care of Business at Home
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The home schedule for Wisconsin in 2011 is not short on tests. A non-conference game versus UNLV will be tough, considering the Rebels always play the Badgers tough. The Badgers have Oregon State the following week and must be careful not to overlook the sneaky Beavers.
The result of a showdown versus Nebraska in October will likely go a long way toward deciding who plays in the Big Ten Championship game. The regular season finale versus Penn State will also be a tough match-up for Coach Brett Bielema and the Badgers.
Wisconsin has been stellar at home in recent years, losing only once since 2009. Continuing that success is crucial for the Badgers.