by P. Carl Giordano, Managing Editor

Wisconsin HC Bret Bielema has to feel like a “badger rooting in sorghum,” to coin a phrase. With Ohio State in turmoil, Bielema’s Wiscy team has to be the favorite to win the Big Ten’s “Leaders” division and seal a birth in the first-ever conference championship game in Indianapolis in December.

With the arrival of North Carolina State transfer QB Russell Wilson this summer, the Badger offense is loaded again. After ranking fifth in scoring a year ago, Wisconsin figures to have the best rushing game in the midwest this season. Normally there might be a dropoff in production when a team loses a player of the caliber of RB John Clay (2576 YR & 32 TDs the last two seasons), who opted for the NFL rather than return for his final year of eligibility, but that’s not the case in Madison. Soph James White and jr. Montee Ball combined for 2,048 yards and 32 TDs in 2010. Add in the potential of 6-2 redshirt frosh Jeffrey Lewis (the fastest of the Wisconsin backs), and you can see why fifth-year senior Zach Brown (1152 career YR, 4.8 ypc, 11 TDs) decided to transfer to Pittsburgh in June.

The Badger offensive line once again looks awesome, which is saying something, considering it lost a pair of first team all-Americans in LT Gabe Carimi and G John Moffitt. This 10-deep unit has tremendous returning starting experience, and there is a fierce ongoing battle for jobs. TGS observers say the OL turned in an “unbelievable” performance in spring drills. Wisconsin continually recruits high-quality offensive linemen, and this group is no exception. Most have already redshirted, adding to their experience, and all have started at one time or another. The group is augmented by TE Jake Byrne, who was used mainly as the blocker in a 2-TE formation a year ago.

WR Nick Toon is the lead receiver, and he’s had 107 catches in his career despite missing time with injuries. Toon didn’t participate in spring due to a foot injury, but he’s being counted on to put up big numbers in the fall. Redshirt freshman Jacob Hengel and soph Manasseh Garner had four catches apiece in the spring game, and the coaching staff expects a candidate to emerge opposite Toon. Garner played wideout in the spring, but could fill in at the pass-catching TE spot previously occupied by the graduated Lance Kendricks. Bielema is excited about frosh WR Kenzel Doe, a speedburner who can help right away. Doe spent last year at an academy and was slowed somewhat in spring practice by a broken hand, but he is a potential high-impact player as a return specialist as well as pass-catcher.

It looks as if the quarterback position is no longer an area of concern on the offense, and might turn into a team strength. Bielema (right) has several homegrown options, but the situation changed dramatically in late June when NC State star Russell Wilson made the decision to play in Madison. Originally, soph Jon Budmayr was named the starter after spring drills, but that could very well change. Budmayr isn’t a prototypical QB at 6-0, 190, but he’s mobile and would be a decent option. Additionally, the Wiscy coaching staff has been extremely impressed with true frosh walk-on Joel Stave. Stave is 6-5, 212 and was offered a scholarship at Western Michigan, but turned it down to attend Wisconsin. Stave has a gun for an arm and caught the coaching staff’s attention in spring.

Ultimately, the most intriguing possibility is ex-N.C. State QB Wilson. Wilson threw for 6590 yds. & 59 scores for the Wolf Pack in the last two seasons, but was cut loose by the program due to his baseball career (he’s a second baseman for the Rockies “A” ball team). Wilson decided in late June to choose Wisconsin over Auburn. He is struggling at the plate and is reconsidering his baseball future. Part of the reason Wilson chose Wisconsin was that the offensive system was a better fit for him, similar to what he was used to running and that he would be able to pick it up quickly. Provided Wilson is a quick study, Bielema now has an "X-factor" on offense that could tip the scales in the national championship race.

The defense lost a couple of high-impact players in DE J.J. Watt and S Jay Valai, but the Badgers have more than enough talent returning to fill the gaps. Fifth-year sr. CB Antonio Fenelus was on the first-team all-Big Ten team a year ago, and S Aaron Henry earned second-team honors. LB Mike Taylor is the leading returning tackler with 58, and the defensive line has three starters back. The defense should be able to duplicate if not better last year’s good (but not great) 21 ppg allowed (25th in the country). Returning starting DE Louis Nzegwu made enough big plays in spring to indicate he is capable of matching Watt’s team-leading 7 sacks of a year ago. The opportunistic Badger defense had 23 takeaways last season, and all of its leaders in interceptions and fumble recoveries return.

Summary: Wisconsin is 21-5 in the last two seasons, sharing the Big Ten title a year ago. The program is rolling along and sending players to the NFL on a regular basis. Have to expect more of the same in the fall, as Wisconsin enters the season as the favorite to win the Big Ten. With Wilson deciding to go to Madison, Bielema’s Badgers might just find themselves not only in the first Big Ten championship game, but also in the BCS title game.

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