A fresh ACC quarterback transfer, six new assistant coaches and the surprising return of a Heisman finalist later, expectations for Wisconsin football are soaring.
As Wisconsin continues its march to stamping its name among college football’s elite, a third consecutive Big Ten title and BCS berth are no longer simply within reach — they are expected. Bret Bielema continues to build the program around his precious 1-0 mentality, but Monteé Ball’s return in the backfield and a defense loaded with experience have redefined the goals of a team that not along ago stood as an outside conference contender.
Ranked inside the top 10 in many preseason polls and at No. 12 in the AP and coaches poll, anything less than an appearance in the Big Ten Championship game will qualify as a bust.
Following back-to-back losses in Pasadena, questions circulate around a team that lost offensive juggernaut Russell Wilson, three starters along the offensive line and its top receiver. But with a favorable schedule, tremendous depth in the backfield and 2010 ACC Rookie of the Year and Maryland transfer Danny O’Brien behind center, there is no shortage of potential.
“It’s not necessarily redemption; I think it’s just every game is an opportunity and they have a chance to show how far they’ve come from last year,” first-year secondary coach Ben Strickland said. “Less opportunities [for the seniors] that are still out there for us to show what we have and get better every week.”
It’s hard to believe such expectations exist for what first looked to be a down year as fans waited for Ball to dart for the NFL and struggled with the thought of starting one of UW’s three quarterbacks with minimal game experience. But much has changed in the past seven months.
For the five seniors starting on the defensive side — a group led by Mike Taylor, who finished with 150 tackles, third-best nationally in 2011 — it’s the final opportunity to earn the elusive big game win. Taylor is joined by First Team All-Big Ten selection Chris Borland, together forming one of the most productive linebacker units in the conference.
Though the defense may be home to the most significant improvements, the 2012 campaign will once again be one built around offense.
The Badgers will not be able to escape comparisons to a Wilson-led offense that posted a still-hard-to-believe 44.1 points per game in 2011. How O’Brien performs in a new offense and a more physical conference will play a large role in the offensive explosiveness in the year’s most hyped games — a road game at Nebraska and battles on home turf with Michigan State and Ohio State.
But the run-first approach deeply engrained in the pale brick walls of Camp Randall may be stronger than ever, with two tailbacks, James White and redshirt freshman Melvin Gordon, alongside Ball who would likely start on other Big Ten squads.
“It’s a unique situation, it’s not a problem,” said offensive coordinator Matt Canada, also in his first year in Madison. “You got to spread it around and certainly I think competition is a great thing. Whoever gets rolling is going to get the ball more.”
It’s a formula that has brought success for decades, and Canada, taking over the play-calling duties of longtime coach Paul Chryst, says an emphasis on the ground game and limiting turnovers will remain staples of Wisconsin’s offense.
Left tackle Ricky Wagner and center Travis Frederick serve as the cornerstones of the line that will open holes for an unusually deep backfield and one of the nation’s premier runners.
“[In 2009] what we did really changed and those guys really set the bar high,” said Frederick, a redshirt junior, beads of sweat falling from his signature beard. “From there, it’s really been a push for us every year, to push that bar just a little bit higher and never sink below that, never sink below expectations.”
Pegged by some as an outside national title contender, the expectations for Wisconsin may be even higher than in the preceding seasons that ended in Rose Bowl defeats.
Strickland spoke of a “sense of urgency” around this team, and in Ball’s final campaign, such urgency may be the driving force.
After a disappointing 7-6 record — including a debilitating 13-42 loss to Florida State in the Champs Sports Bowl — in 2008, the Badgers have won at least 10 games in each of the three seasons since. Despite collecting a 1-2 record in bowl games, the growing measuring tape of success has changed the status of Wisconsin football.
“The only option is really for everyone to think that Wisconsin’s a power,” Taylor said before the season-opening victory over Northern Iowa. “We got to play like that and we got to live up to the hype.”
Helping them live up to that hype is an improved secondary, a perennial weakness over the last several seasons. Three seniors (strong safety Shelton Johnson, cornerback Marcus Cromartie and cornerback Devin Smith) and junior free safety Dezmen Southward should lead a marked improvement over a Badgers’ defense that often looked overmatched against the conference’s best passers.
Even though these veterans on the Wisconsin team have twice experienced heartbreak in Pasadena, the moments spent pondering what could have been have passed with the arrival of the new season and the reinstatement of the 1-0 mantra.
But, as Abbrederis and Taylor pointed out, the memory of the losses still serve their purpose.
“In the winter you got spring ball; summer workouts you kind of have that taste of defeat in your mouth,” Abbrederis said. “So that makes you work a little bit harder.”
“You just got to move on, learn from your mistakes,” Taylor said, his eyes locked on the ground. “I wouldn’t say forget it. You always got to know what it feels like to lose.”