Top 25 Team Previews
Top 25 Athlon Team Previews: Wisconsin Badgers
2009 Record: 10-3 (6-3 in Big Ten)
Head Coach: Bret Bielema
John Clay :: David Stluka/Icon SMI
San Jose State
at Michigan State
at Ohio State
Miami (Champs Sports Bowl)
PLAYERS TO WATCH
Scott Tolzien, QB: He still has plenty of room to improve after throwing 16 TD passes and 11 interceptions in 2009.
John Clay, RB: He posted nine games of at least 100 yards and one score in '09. Will ankle surgery slow him down?
Lance Kendricks, TE: He's shown signs of becoming the next great Wisconsin tight end.
O'Brien Schofield, DE: He provided emarkable production and tremendous leadership.
Jeff Stehle, DT: He didn't post gaudy numbers, but he helped hold the point of attack.
Chris Maragos, FS: He provided smarts, toughness and playmaking ability.
6: Wisconsin was one of six teams in the nation to average over 200 yards rushing and 200 yards passing last year.
When a team welcomes back its starting quarterback, top three tailbacks, top four wide receivers, seven linemen who have started a game and a pro prospect at tight end, its offense should be good.
Senior Scott Tolzien (64.3 percent completion rate, 2,705 passing yards) was the most efficient quarterback in the Big Ten last season; junior tailback John Clay (1,517 rushing yards, 18 TDs) was the league's Offensive Player of the Year; and junior wide receiver Nick Toon (54 catches, 14.9-yard average) and senior tight end Lance Kendricks (29 catches, 12.3-yard average) are premier receiving threats.
Tackles Gabe Carimi and Josh Oglesby headline a deep offensive line that could be the Big Ten's best. Because the line was struck by injuries last season, position coach Bob Bostad had to mix and match throughout the year. The result is that UW returns seven linemen with starting experience.
UW rebuilt its front seven after a disappointing 7-6 finish in 2008 and improved its defensive numbers dramatically in '09. Opponents rushed for 88.2 yards per game last season (a drop of 45.1 yards) and eight touchdowns (a drop of 15).
For the second straight year, defensive coordinator Dave Doeren and line coach Charlie Partridge must plug several holes in the front four. Junior defensive end J.J. Watt has the potential to be a first-team all-conference pick. However, his talent won't mean much if junior Patrick Butrym and redshirt freshman Jordan Kohout can't provide solid play at tackle and if UW can't find a playmaking end (either Louis Nzegwu or David Gilbert) to complement Watt.
Linebackers Mike Taylor and Chris Borland could be dynamic if they return from offseason surgery, but the secondary remains a question mark. The cornerback play was inconsistent last season, and free safety Chris Maragos must be replaced. If the cornerbacks don't improve and no one steps to fill Maragos' shoes, the pass defense will again be the team's Achilles' heel.
Junior punter Brad Nortman and junior kicker Philip Welch are two-year starters and could form the best tandem of specialists in the Big Ten this season -- if they continue to improve. The return games have been mediocre for the past two seasons and must be bolstered, either by changing schemes or adding more starters to the units.
Wisconsin capped a 10-3 finish last season by upsetting Miami in the Champs Sports Bowl, giving the team its first 10-win season since 2006. At least 36 players listed on the two-deep for the bowl game should be back. That group doesn't include center Peter Konz (blood clots) and linebacker Mike Taylor (knee), both of whom should return to the starting lineup if healthy.
UW's depth and experience on offense will rival that of most teams in the Big Ten. The Badgers led the league in scoring last season and could do so again in 2010. Now the defense needs to take another step to keep pace.
If the staff can find replacements at defensive tackle and free safety and the players can handle the pressure that will come from lofty preseason expectations, the Badgers should contend for the Big Ten title and perhaps more.