After three straight appearances in the Rose Bowl and two straight wins in the Big Ten Championship game, it is not too much to say that expectations for Wisconsin football have been raised during the last three seasons.
Take a look at the current team and the University of Wisconsin student body as a whole, and for many of them – besides any remaining fifth-year seniors – a bowl destination in Pasadena is all they have ever known in their time at UW.
Add to that a team entering the season with a No. 23 AP ranking, and it appears the expectations will be back once again for the cardinal and white in 2013.
Gone are the days when Wisconsin was allowed to have a down year every now and again as it prepared for its next meeting with Pasadena and the Rose Bowl.
Gone are the days when Wisconsin struggled to get noticed by the weekly rankings or visited by ESPN’s College Gameday.
Gone are the days when Wisconsin had to play second fiddle to many other top programs in the quest to recruit the best talent in the country.
Still, despite their ascension into the upper echelon of the Big Ten and college football as a whole, the players and coaches will be the first to tell you that the successful program they have built during the last few years could just as easily be knocked right back down.
“You look at three [Rose Bowls] in a row and you can forget everything in front of you. You can slip and fall and that’s how you lose ball games,” sophomore running back Melvin Gordon said.
“You have to take it day-by-day and if those opportunities – the Big Ten Championship or the Rose Bowl – come around then we are going to take care of things.”
However, finding its way to those opportunities might be easier said than done for the team as it enters the 2013 season.
In a year that seems to be filled with more unknowns than in the past, first-year coach Gary Andersen has been left with the difficult task of continuing past success rather than turning around a sinking ship – a task more common for a first-year coach at a well-known football school.
Looking at the loss of Doak Walker Award winner Montee Ball to the NFL and the summer battle between multiple quarterbacks for the starting job, continuing that success will be far from easy.
But while the stage may be a bigger one and the players different, Andersen made it clear in his Monday press conference none of that fazes him. Coaching is coaching.
“Once you get in a game, it’s standard operating procedure,” Andersen said. “I believe the staff is ready to go in the way we prepare and handle [games.] We’re ready.”
If there was a perfect year for a new coach to take control at Wisconsin, this might be the year.
With one of its weakest schedules in recent memory, Wisconsin will face only two teams ranked in the AP preseason top 25 (Ohio State and Northwestern), while avoiding perennial Big Ten heavyweights Michigan, Michigan State and Nebraska.
One look at the schedule and it seems the fate of the season would rest on just one game: a Sept. 28 clash with No. 2 Ohio State, a game that may decide which team goes to the 2013 Big Ten Championship and perhaps the 2014 Rose Bowl and which team watches.
This fall belongs to … White and Gordon
Taking over the reigns in the newest edition of the run-oriented Wisconsin offense, Gordon and senior running back James White will be faced with the daunting task of replacing now-Denver Broncos running back Montee Ball. But after years of tutelage learning from Ball, Gordon says they are ready.
“With Montee gone, me and James just expect to step up,” Gordon said. “We know it is big shoes to fill, but we want to fill them. We’re just excited for the chance to see what we can do.”
White, who ran for 1,052 yards as a freshman in 2010 and 806 yards last year, is poised to finally get his chance to start in 2013 after nearly stealing the job from John Clay as a freshman.
Meanwhile, Gordon added an impressive 621 yards as the No. 3 running back last year, a statistic he will look to improve with a bigger share of the carries this fall.
Learning a new defense
On the defensive side of the ball, changes are on the way as well. With the addition of Dave Aranda as the new defensive coordinator, it’s out with the 4-3 scheme and in with the 3-4 defense.
If Aranda’s time with Utah State is any indication, his version of the 3-4 defense has been proven to be effective.
Last season, Utah State finished the season ranked eighth in scoring defense (15.4 points per game) and 15th in total defense.
At the center of Aranda’s Wisconsin defense, senior Chris Borland has already found himself on a handful of award watch lists this preseason.
The 5-foot-11 linebacker finished second for the Badgers with 104 tackles accumulated over the 2012 season and led the way against Stanford with a team-high nine tackles in Wisconsin’s 20-14 Rose Bowl loss.
The passing game
One of the biggest unknowns of the spring and summer – the quarterback situation – became a media frenzy in August with the heavily-hyped addition of redshirt sophomore Tanner McEvoy to the offense.
After originally splitting time with both sixth-year senior Curt Phillips and redshirt sophomore Joel Stave, McEvoy quickly fell behind in the pecking order and now looks prepared to log some time on the field, not in the pocket, but running routes as a receiver.
McEvoy, who played wide receiver in high school, is an athletic 6-foot-6, 10 inches taller than the diminutive No. 3 wide receiver redshirt junior Kenzel Doe.
While Doe knows the addition of McEvoy to the receiving corps will likely mean fewer reps for him each game, the selfless Doe expressed excitement at the prospect of McEvoy bringing something new to the 2013 receiving corps.
“We want to win,” Doe said. “So we’re not going to sit up here and say, ‘awe man he’s playing receiver and taking reps.’ We don’t really look at it like that … Whatever he can do to help us out. That’s better for us.”