Expect Ball to do some heavy lifting in 2012
In January, Phil Steele got a head-start on everybody and posted his "returning starters" for the 2012 season. I thought it would be interesting to look at the schools that have the least amount of returning starters. On Monday, we took a look at Boise State. Now it's time to set our sites to the automatic qualifier conferences. The two AQ teams with the least amount of returning starters are Arizona State and Wisconsin. Arizona State was pretty bad last year. So bad that they finished with a losing record and have a new head football coach. I think it's clear they are in "rebuilding" mode. Let's turn our attention to America's Dairyland and talk about the Badgers of Wisconsin:
Total Returning Starters: 10
Special Teams: 0
Is it panic time in Madison? Last year, Wisconsin brought in QB Russell Wilson for one year and he paid dividends for the Badgers as he put up some impressive stats (225/309 for 3175 yards and had an TD to INT ratio of 33:4) and led them to a Rose Bowl berth. Wilson is gone and so is his top receiving target, Nick Toon. The Badgers will also have to replace three offensive linemen as center Peter Konz has elected to go pro early. That's your Wisconsin doomsday scenario on offense.
The good news? Stud RB Montee Ball made the decision to stay in school. Did I mention that he ran for 1923 yards last season? He also had 33 rushing touchdowns. His running buddy James White (713 yards and 6 TDs) will also be back. From a receiving standpoint, the Badgers return five of their top seven pass catchers including Jared Abbrederis (55 catches, 8 TDs) and tight end Jacob Pederson (30 catches, 8 TDs). Last year, Wisconsin's offensive line was also in flux as they were replacing three key cogs including Gabe Carimi.
The biggest issue on offense for Wisconsin is that for the second straight season they are replacing their quarter back. Wilson was an upgrade from Scott Tolzien but it would take a miracle for this years starters not to be a down grade from Wilson. The only QB on Wisconsin's roster that threw a pass in 2011 is Joe Brennan. Will he be the odds on favorite? He will be challenged by a couple of guys coming off of injury, Jon Budmayr and Curt Phillips, and possibly true freshman Bart Houston.
In terms of returning starters, Wisconsin has more stability on the defensive side of the football. Unfortunately, they were a lot better on offense last year than they were on defense. Overall, Wisconsin finished third in the B1G in total defense and weren't bad but they struggled when they played Top 25 teams (621 yds vs Oregon, 471 and 399 vs Michigan State). I really don't see the defense taking a step back but I'm not going to go out on a limb and say they will improve either. I think you will see a defense that looks pretty much like the one they had last year.
Another wild-card is the massive coaching changes that Bret Bielema and his staff faced this off-season. In his biggest area of need, Bielema turns to Matt Canada (from NIU) to replace Paul Chryst as offensive coordinator. Canada has had success at NIU but his success at Wisconsin will be intimately tied to finding a quarterback.
The instinct is for doom and gloom for Wisconsin this season. They are losing their quarterback, star receiver, a bunch of offensive linemen and return only ten starters. If you turn the page back one year, Wisconsin found themselves in a very similar situation as they returned just 12 starters. The only real difference was that team returned both specialists and then they got Russell Wilson to transfer during the summer. Don't count Wisconsin out just yet but don't expect them to just cruise back to the Rose Bowl. Ohio State and Urban Meyer are ineligible for the Conference Crown so Wisky should still have a shot at the B1G Crown among the likes of Michigan, Michigan State and Nebraska. The interesting thing about the Big Ten? All three of those teams just mentioned are in the Legends division. Wisconsin is in the Leaders division with their primary competition being Penn State. It would be an upset if Wisconsin is not playing in the Big Ten Championship Game in 2012.