Big Ten football preview: Wisconsin Badgers

Big Ten football preview: Wisconsin Badgers
August 7, 2013, 10:15 am
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Vinnie Duber

Consistency has always been the name of the game for Wisconsin.

Eighteen of the past 19 seasons have featured a 1,000-yard running back. And the last 23 years have seen just two head coaches: Barry Alvarez and Bret Bielema.

But, during this offseason, that consistency was torn asunder. Bielema shocked the college football world by departing for the SEC and the head coaching job at Arkansas. And Montee Ball, a mainstay at running back for the Badgers for the past three seasons, moved on to the NFL.

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The task of continuing the success at Wisconsin falls to Gary Andersen, hired to helm the program after four years at Utah State.

“I'm not interested in comparing what was different, whether that may have been what we deem as being great, good or indifferent,” Andersen said at Big Ten media day. “There's going to be differences when you take over a program. It's important to put your own stamp on it. So I've never asked the question of how things work. There's a lot of different ways to do it. And there was a lot of success.”

The task of keeping the current running back streak alive falls to James White and Melvin Gordon. A senior and sophomore, respectively, these two were able to put together pretty solid numbers in Ball’s shadow last season, with White rushing for 840 yards and 12 touchdowns and Gordon leading the country with 10 yards per carry.

This could mark year No. 2 in 20 without a 1,000-yard rusher. Why? Because these two running backs are both that good.

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“James and Melvin (are) very complementary to each other, very different in their styles,” Andersen said. “Those two packaged together, whether they're on the field at the same time or separately, cause a lot of problems. You saw it last year when there was times when Melvin got out there and lined up and the fly sweep was very effective in some games for them, and James was in the backfield sometimes. Montee was there a lot obviously, but James was in there, too. So it will be hopefully a very powerful 1-2 punch.”

Heck, maybe they’ll just both be 1,000-yard backs.

Last year

Record: 8-6 (4-4 Big Ten)

Bowl: Wisconsin went to their third consecutive Rose Bowl after knocking off Nebraska in the Big Ten Championship Game. The Badgers suffered their third straight Rose Bowl loss, as well, falling, 20-14, to Stanford.

At the helm

Gary Andersen is one of two brand-new coaches in the Big Ten this season and takes over a Wisconsin program after the stunning departure of Bret Bielema. He spent the past four seasons at Utah State, and he was previously an assistant coach under Urban Meyer, now a Big Ten rival head coach, at Utah.

On the 2013 schedule

Wisconsin will play on the road at Arizona State in a game that is, unimpressively, one of the Big Ten’s premier non-conference games. The Badgers also play a non-conference game in the middle of the Big Ten season. They host Brigham Young on Nov. 9.

The Badgers have a favorable conference schedule, but they’ll be hard-pressed to get past a Sep. 28 trip to Columbus unscathed. If they can win in what would figure to be an upset over Ohio State, only home games against Northwestern and Penn State would provide much of a challenge.

Under center

For the first time in three seasons, the Badgers return their starting quarterback(s) from the year prior, but that doesn’t mean anyone who started last year will take the reins in 2013. Andersen said it’d be a three-way competition between senior Curt Phillips (five starts last season), freshman Joe Ferguson and junior college transfer Tanner McEvoy.

“It will be a three-man race. I have no timeline on it,” Andersen said. “And we may jog out there the first play of the game with two quarterbacks on the field and see what happens from there. So who knows, it will be interesting.”

Back in the fold

Wisconsin returns 14 starters from a year ago, though none of them are Montee Ball. Still, the running game should be strong with White and Gordon, plus three returning offensive lineman. Chris Borland, a senior linebacker, anchors the defense. His new coach calls him the best linebacker in the country.

“Chris is the heart and soul of that defense,” Andersen said. “A lot of people talk about leadership on and off the field. And his consistency with his leadership is the key. There's no ups and downs, no really good days or bad days. He's not overly flashy. He's not a rah-rah guy. ... So I don't know how he does it, but that's kind of his deal.”

Season outlook

Wisconsin looks to be a quality team, and being in BCS bowl contention would not be unlikely. But there’s one game on the calendar that will determine their season: Ohio State. The Buckeyes are big favorites to win the Big Ten, and if Wisconsin can knock them off, it could assume a place on top of the conference heap.