As the dog days of summer arrive, the longing for football becomes all the more intense. Well, we here at CSNChicago.com are here to provide you with a summertime football fix. Over 40 days, CSN's Vinnie Duber will have 40 posts pondering the biggest questions heading into the 2014 Big Ten football season — the B1G 40 questions. Be sure to check out the entire B1G 40 series at csnchicago.com/big-ten.
Can the Badgers finally reach the ultimate goal?
At times over the past few seasons, Wisconsin has been a national-championship-caliber team. But it’s never really showed it. The Badgers have a nasty habit of tripping up at the worst possible time to spoil what could have resulted in unprecedented success.
In 2010, it was a midseason loss at Michigan State that was the only one of the regular season for the Badgers, meaning nothing more than a Rose Bowl berth (and eventual loss) even after scoring a combined 201 points in their final three regular-season games. In 2011, the Badgers only lost twice in the regular season, in back-to-back weeks at Michigan State and Ohio State. They were the No. 4 team in the nation before those losses. They’d get no higher than No. 9 and lose another Rose Bowl.
Even after a disappointing 8-6 2012 season — and another Rose Bowl loss — Wisconsin was at the oh-so-close game again. Though any national-title hopes were likely dashed thanks to a bizarre, official-caused loss at Arizona State, there were hopes for a BCS-bowl berth as late as the final week of the regular season. The Badgers just needed to beat Penn State — at home — to keep themselves in the BCS mix. But they couldn’t. Instead, the Wisconsin defense played its worst game in weeks, and the Nittany Lions left Madison with a 31-24 win. They went to the Capital One Bowl and lost to South Carolina.
So can this pattern of near misses finally end in 2014? And not only that, can the Badgers win a bowl game for the first time since the 2009 Champs Sports Bowl in Year 2 of the Gary Andersen Era?
The Badgers have lost a lot, including their entire front seven on defense. There are just three returners on that side of the ball, and they’re all playing in the secondary. Among those lost is linebacker Chris Borland, the reigning conference Defensive Player of the Year and Wisconsin’s team leader a year ago. On offense, the losses are fewer in number but not necessarily in impact. Gone are a few key cogs along the offensive line, leading receiver Jared Abbrederis (one of four leading pass-catchers gone) and backup running back James White, who rushed for 1,444 yards last season.
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Wisconsin is the heavy favorite in the new Big Ten West Division, thanks to Michigan State and Ohio State residing in the East. The Badgers seem to be the lone perennial power in the West, with Nebraska in the midst of a slump. But the competition might be tougher than some think. Iowa returns a ton of talent and looks to be a big threat for the Badgers. Same goes for Northwestern, which returns practically the entirety of last year’s group that quite frankly should have won twice as many games as it did.
Then there’s the season-opener against LSU in Houston, a whale of an opponent that the depleted Badgers might have trouble with. So while most prognosticators will have the Badgers playing for a Big Ten title, the hopes of a spot in the new College Football Playoff could hinge on that game the opening week of the season.
All that being said, however, the Badgers could very easily land in that Big Ten title game. Even with a loss to LSU, there are only two real pitfalls for season-ruining losses: games at Northwestern (Oct. 4) and at Iowa (Nov. 22). The latter could be for a West Division championship. If the Badgers win those games, they’ve got as good a shot as any Big Ten team for a berth in the College Football Playoff. Beat LSU, and an undefeated regular season is certainly a possibility.
Despite the losses, Wisconsin still boasts Melvin Gordon, who could wind up as one of the country’s best running backs. The Badger offensive line is always a force, and if quarterback Joel Stave can put together any kind of passing attack, Gordon figures to run all over every opponent. That’s what he did last season, to the tune of 1,609 yards.
For the Badgers, it just comes down to avoiding those midseason and late-season stumbles that have plagued their chances in years past. If they can do it, there’s no reason they can’t be Big Ten champs for the fourth time in five seasons.