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MADISON - For the last two college football seasons, Wisconsin fans have enjoyed a surreal journey that allows a good portion of its fans to think back to the early 2000s. Under head coach Barry Alvarez, Wisconsin utilized the ground-and-pound running game of Ron Dayne to win a pair of conference championships, earn two double digit-win seasons and a couple titles out in Pasadena.
Head coach Bret Bielema has resurrected the Wisconsin program over the last two years with back-to-back 11-win seasons, the school's first two Big Ten titles since Alvarez' 2000 Rose Bowl team and two second-place finishes at the Rose Bowl. But while Alvarez went six years without a 10-win season after winning his third and final Rose Bowl, Bielema has Wisconsin primed for even bigger success in 2012 and beyond.
With only eight scholarship seniors, one would surmise the Badgers are a young, inexperienced team. Young they are, but it's an experienced group with 40 returning letterwinners and 18 players that have previously started games.
"This year we have a small tight-knit (senior) group where we can all be on the same page and lead the team," said senior cornerback Devin Smith. "We have a lot of guys that have been here for a number of years, so they understand where to go and what to do. We understand the big picture and we need to help our team get to where we want to go."
One of those destinations once again is in Indianapolis playing for a conference championship. After winning the inaugural title last year over Michigan State, the Badgers are again heavy favorites to get back to the title game based on two things: 1) returning personnel 2) a lack of divisional competition.
We already knew Ohio State was not going to be a factor in the Big Ten Leaders Division after the Buckeyes football program was banned this upcoming season from postseason competition due to the fallout of improper benefits and the ensuing cover up by then head coach Jim Tressel. But with the bombshell delivered by NCAA president Mark Emmert Monday, Penn State figures to be an afterthought for the next decade.
In the wake of the Jerry Sandusky sex abuse scandal and ensuing cover up by the athletic department, including former head coach Joe Paterno, Penn State football will be banned from postseason play for four years, must vacate all 112 wins from 1998 to 2011 and will be fined approximately $73 million by the NCAA and the Big Ten; those funds will be used as an endowment for non-university programs preventing child sexual abuse or assisting victims.
Illinois is under first year coach Tim Beckman and needs to turn around a program that lost six straight games last season, Purdue lost to UW by 45 points last year and Indiana went 1-11 last season with no wins over FBS teams. Needless to say, the level of competition doesn't scream the ‘competitive balance' Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany cited when he created the two divisions prior to last season.
But even if those teams were eligible, Wisconsin would arguably still be the favorite in its division. The Badgers will be stronger defensively in the second year under co-defensive coordinators Chris Ash and Charlie Partridge, as the coordinators will have a deep defensive line rotation, three seniors in the secondary and a linebacking duo of Chris Borland and Mike Taylor who combined for nearly 300 tackles last season.
Wisconsin may take a step back offensively without quarterback Russell Wilson, but the Badgers should still be a powerful unit with Heisman Trophy finalist Montee Ball returning at tailback for his senior year, four projected starters on the offensive line with staring experience, a preseason candidate for the Mackey Award in junior tight end Jacob Pedersen and another experienced transfer quarterback in junior Danny O'Brien.
According to strength and conditioning coach Ben Herbert, O'Brien has followed the path laid out last season by Wilson, showing leadership ability in the offseason by simply lacing up his shoes and going to work. A player who has admitted previously that he strives to be perfect, O'Brien has already built up a solid reputation with his teammates.
"He's been great," said junior receiver Jared Abbrederis about O'Brien. "All the quarterbacks get along really well and have been doing well this summer, so it will hopefully be a good battle in fall camp. Everyone on the team has accepted him. I didn't think there was going to be any problems coming in with how we accepted Russell last year. We have a good group of guys around here, so it's been a good transition."
The balance of power in the Big Ten conference has shifted over the past two seasons, with Wisconsin going 22-5 overall and 13-3 in the Big Ten. With the teams facing sanctions this season and with UW only losing eight scholarship seniors off this year's roster, don't expect fans to wait long for another 10-win season.
In fact, Wisconsin fans shouldn't have to wait long for another trip to Indianapolis and a BCS bowl at all.