Great Expectations: Badgers picked to finish 2nd in conference by media

first_imgGREGORY DIXON; BEN CLASSON; BRYAN FAUST; BEN CLASSON/Herald photosCHICAGO — For the first time in years, the Wisconsin Badger football team won’t be a dark horse coming into the season. Unlike past years when the Wisconsin football team was overlooked by media and college football fans alike, this year’s team, coming off a 12-1 season, is facing some awfully steep expectations. “We did too good our first year, so you set yourself up for high expectations,” UW football head coach Bret Bielema said.Ranked No. 7 in the USA Today Top 25 Coaches Poll and predicted to finish second behind Michigan by the majority of Big Ten media members who attended the conference’s football media day held July 30 through Aug. 1, the Badgers now find themselves playing with a target on their backs.”I think obviously with the preseason publications, expectations, the experts that picked us to do certain things nationally, you’re going to have that little bit of a bull’s-eye mark,” Bielema said at the Big Ten Football Media Day July 31. “At Wisconsin we’ve got to play with a little chip on our shoulder, just because people don’t know the level of success we’ve had.” The success Bielema speaks of is revealed in the number of wins the program has recorded over the past three seasons. No team in the Big Ten has more wins than the Badgers’ 31 over that stretch. In fact, just a handful of schools have more nationwide.The biggest difference between this year’s team and last year’s team, ranked No. 42 by one magazine, is experience, Bielema said.Of the top four finishers in the Big Ten last season — Ohio State, Michigan, Wisconsin and Penn State — the Badgers return the most starters (18).”The numbers would tell you that we have a chance to be a good football team,” Bielema said. While he said he agrees that on paper his team looks loaded, Bielema is quick to add that “good reading material” doesn’t necessarily translate into how well they’ll play.”To return that many players would indicate that, but the real key to success is how you handle every week, … how you handle yourself throughout the season is what matters,” Bielema said. “I think [about] our players a year ago, and I have six examples in our senior leaders that portrayed what you wanted in a football player.”The biggest loss from last season to this is left tackle Joe Thomas and the two starting safeties, Roderick Rogers and Joe Stellmacher. Replacing Thomas will be next to impossible, but one of the trio of Jake Bscherer, Gabe Carimi or Danny Kaye should be able to clear some running room for National Freshman of the Year P.J. Hill, who is ready to go after an offseason shoulder surgery. At safety, Aubrey Pleasant and Shane Carter missed much of last season with torn labrums. With health on their side, they showed a fair amount of consistency in spring ball that should translate into a strong secondary once again. Last season, Wisconsin’s defense led the Big Ten in passing yards-allowed and was ranked fifth nationally.Determining who the starting quarterback will be is not a pressing concern, Bielema said. Both should fit in just fine with what offensive coordinator Paul Chryst wants to do. In reality, the only potential problem is at running back. Lance Smith’s suspension and John Clay’s up-in-the-air eligibility status could damper what was going to be one of the deepest positions on the team by putting more pressure, carries and hits on Hill, who has made a conscious effort to minimize those areas of concern. Only time will tell what will happen at the position.Beyond the roster itself, the biggest challenge for the 2007 Badgers is their schedule. After not drawing Ohio State in either of the last two seasons, Wisconsin must face it in Columbus, Ohio, a week before they square off against Michigan at Camp Randall.”I would love to see the computer that spit out that we play Ohio State and Michigan back-to-back. That’s a nice random, blind draw,” Bielema joked. Should Bielema’s 1-0 philosophy hold up, those two games could be crucial in determining this year’s Big Ten champion. But the players and coaches aren’t looking beyond their season opener against Washington State. If we concentrate on each game one at a time, wide receiver Luke Swan said, our record will take care of itself.last_img

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