Big Ten Championship Game: A Deserving Sequel

December 2, 2011 - Leave a Response

All sequels are not created equal.

For every The Godfather Part II or The Empire Strikes Back or Aliens, there are a hundred forgotten follow-ups. Anyone care to remember dreck like Mannequin 2: On the Move, Hardbodies 2, or Crocodile Dundee in Los Angeles?

Many times failed sequels are spawned from original films that weren’t that memorable the first time around, causing some to wonder, “Who asked for more of this?”

Not so with Saturday’s Wisconsin/Michigan State second go-round.

Ever since Michigan State pulled off the win over the Badgers on October 22 with a last-second Hail Mary pass, Wisconsin and their fans have been eager for another crack at Sparty.

After all, not only did the Kirk Cousins-to Keith Nichol heave cost Wisconsin the game, it cost the Badgers a chance at an undefeated season and a possible shot at the BCS National Championship Game, two goals that, especially after back-to-back whippings of Nebraska and Indiana, seemed at the time to be very much in reach.

So on Saturday, thanks to the conference’s realignment, Wisconsin gets the rare chance to avenge a same-season loss by beating the Spartans in the inaugural Big Ten Championship game.

The team and their fans are thrilled to have the opportunity.

But should they be?

After all, it’s not as if Wisconsin has had tremendous success against Michigan State in recent seasons. Since taking over as head coach, Bret Bielema is just 2-3 against Mark Dantonio’s Spartans. Only Bielema’s record against Ohio State (1-4) is worse (note that the Buckeyes and Spartans account for no fewer than seven of Bielema’s 18 career losses).

More to the point, October’s loss was hardly all about that final play. Michigan State’s defense owned Wisconsin for much of the first half, and it was a near-miraculous comeback engineered by Russell Wilson that brought the Badgers back from a 14-point, fourth-quarter deficit to tie that game at 31-31 with about a minute and a half to play.

In short, exacting revenge on the Spartans will not be easy for Bucky.

But can they do it? Here are some things to consider before answering that question.

1. Head Games: Regardless of which team has the better athletes or which team is better coached, there can be no doubt that Michigan State has the mental edge in this game. Mark Dantonio will undoubtedly stress to his players that for much of their first meeting, his team was solidly in control and there’s no reason they can’t do it again.

2. Man At The Top: Russell Wilson, who leads the entire country with a quarterback rating of 192.9, has been outplayed at the position in a game exactly once this year. Guess which game. In October, Cousins rocked the Badger secondary for 290 yards and three touchdowns, while Wilson threw for two touchdowns and rushed for one but also threw two costly picks. If Cousins, who’s had a very nice year (21 touchdowns while completing 64 percent of his passes) can outplay Wilson again, the Spartans can win again.

3.Punch-Drunk Love: You can’t credit Spartans defensive end William Gholston with keeping the Badgers’ offense in relative check during their first meeting in October: He was suspended during that game for throwing a punch in the previous week’s game against Michigan. Gholston, who has 59 tackles on the year, including 11 tackles for loss, could be a difference-maker Saturday, especially if he can slow down Montee Ball.

4. Ballroom Dancing: But even a slowed-down Montee Ball is still crazy good. Case in point: Ball (18 rushes) and James White (11 rushes) split carries an inordinate amount last time these teams met due to Ball taking himself out of the game for a time with a mild injury. But even with those limited carries, Ball still had 139 total yards and two trips to the end zone. Assuming Ball plays the entire game Saturday, he will give the Spartans loads of trouble.

5. Not-So-Special Teams: In October, the Spartans blocked a short field goal attempt and later scored a touchdown when they fell on a blocked punt in the end zone. The Badgers’ special teams and kick coverage units have been underwhelming all season, but never were their mistakes as costly as during the Spartans loss. They’ll be better than that Saturday night.

6. Eastbound And Third Down: The Spartans were 8-for-16 on third-down conversions last time. The Badgers defense will have to force a worse percentage than that to win Saturday.

7. Happy Days For Cunningham: Spartans wide receiver B.J. Cunningham has had his way with most secondaries this year, and his treatment of Wisconsin’s was no different – he torched the Badgers for 102 yards on just 6 catches. At nearly 17 yards a catch, Cunningham is the Spartans’ big-play receiver. The Badgers backfield will have to keep Cunningham in front of them.

8. Under Pressure: ESPN Stats points out that Kirk Cousins was a perfect 9-for-9 when facing three or fewer pass rushes in the teams’ earlier meeting. Look for Wisconsin to send more pressure Cousins’s way.

9. Please, No Wagering: Despite the recent history of these two teams, despite the rankings, and despite the most recent outcome the last time these two teams played –all of which favor Michigan State – the Badgers are favored by 9.5 points. As if the Spartans needed more motivation.

10. And In The End . . . Looking back to their last meeting, it’s hard to imagine Russell Wilson makes as many mistakes as he did then. It’s hard to imagine Kirk Cousins plays as well as he did then. It’s hard to imagine that the Spartans can block two of the Badgers’ kicks again. Meanwhile, it’s easy to imagine Montee Ball having a better game. It’s easy to imagine the Badgers’ defense playing more aggressively and not allowing Cousins to get into a rhythm. But it’s also not hard to argue that Dantonio just has Bielema’s number. I expect another close game, but this time one that favors Wisconsin.

Final prediction: Wisconsin 24, Michigan State 21.

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Nittany Lions/Badgers Preview: Division On The Line

November 22, 2011 - Leave a Response

Even Sean Penn Is More Popular Than Penn State These Days.

You have to hand it to the Big Ten and its commissioner Jim Delaney. I think they know what they’re doing. Sort of.

OK, anyone over the age of five could question the logic of a conference with 12 teams continuing to call itself the “Big Ten.”

Likewise, anyone over the age of five could probably have come up with a better name for the conference’s two divisions, or at least names that didn’t immediately sound like titles of Pokémon series.

And, as Yahoo! Sports’s Dan Wetzel points out, for purposes of keeping a Big Ten team consistently in the hunt for a shot at a BCS title game, you could certainly question the recent moves of adding a strong program (Nebraska) and adding a title game that makes it far less likely for any Big Ten team to survive an entire season without a loss.

But for provincial Big Ten college football fans who choose to spend their Sundays following the NFL rather than breaking down tape from all 120 NCAA Division I FBS teams, the changes have worked out. And rather splendidly.

As suspected, the Cornhuskers have increased the competitiveness, visibility, and profitability of the conference’s football season. Even better, they’ve been an interesting wild card team all year, capable of beating conference powerhouses Michigan State and Penn State while losing to a mediocre (though improving) team like Northwestern.

But for the Big Ten fan, the best part of Nebraska joining the conference was the subsequent splitting of the now-12 teams into equal six-team divisions and the addition of the Big Ten Championship Game, which will have its inaugural contest on December 3 in Indianapolis.

While admittedly the title game may have negative national BCS implications for the conference, for the fan focused on the Big Ten, its existence makes the regular season much more interesting.

Now instead of leaving the conference champion to be determined by an arbitrary ranking that can make the voting process for American Idol seem extraordinarily scientific, the true champion of the conference will be determined – as it should be – on the field.

But even at 9-2, Wisconsin can’t start thinking about the Big Ten Championship Game just yet. They’ve got to first get past the 9-2 Penn State Nittany Lions at Camp Randall this Saturday. The winner of the regular-season finale will win the Big Ten’s Leaders Division and, in what would be a revenge game for the Badgers, face Legends Division winner Michigan State (they wrapped up the division just last week) on December 3.

It’s a game that has a ton of plotlines. Here are just five of them:

1. Dashed Expectations. It seems almost unfathomable that a team as dominant as the Badgers have been this season might not play in the conference championship. After all, of the Badgers’ nine victories, eight have been complete blowouts, with only last week’s 28-17 victory over a gutsy and determined Illinois team ever in doubt. In comparison, Michigan State dropped two stinkers, a 31-13 loss at Notre Dame and a 24-3 beatdown at the hands of Nebraska, while Penn State’s less prolific offense has squeaked out victories but very tight victories. No matter what happens Saturday, the Badgers are a lock for a high-profile bowl game, but after meeting and even surpassing the high expectations most people had of them going into this season, not playing in the Big Ten Championship Game would sting.

2. Ultimate Underdog. It’s hard to feel sorry for the Penn State football program. I know I don’t. But the fact is that the current players and the staff that remains behind – I think, I hope – have nothing to do with the sordid events that resulted in the ouster of head coach Joe Paterno, university president Graham Spanier, and athletic director Tim Curley. Nevertheless, those in the football program are in the ultimate “us against the world” scenario. They know that everyone – including the NCAA, who don’t want the disgraced program soiling their inaugural Big Ten Championship Game – is rooting against them. But as they proved last week against Ohio State, they are not going to fulfill everyone’s wishes by quietly going away. Their determination, combined with the fact that they are a very good football team with the third-best defense in the country, cannot be taken lightly.

3. In The Trenches. Penn State has had trouble at quarterback all year. Using a two-quarterback scheme for much of the season, the team refused to commit to either Matt McGloin or Rob Bolden until mid-November. There’s a good reason for that waffling: Neither are very good. If Penn State is going to pose a serious challenge to the Badgers, they’re going to have to rely on backs Silas Redd and Stephfon Green, who combined for 163 yards and almost 7 yards per carry last week against Ohio State. Meanwhile, how much Wisconsin relies on Montee Ball for its offense is already well known. Who wins or loses this game is going to be determined largely on who has better success running the football.

4. He’s Got Legs. Penn State has struggled with mobile quarterbacks: Last week Ohio State’s Braxton Miller had 105 yards rushing, while three weeks ago Illinois QB Nathan Scheelhaase got loose for 89 yards on the ground at Happy Valley. Russell Wilson, who averages more yards per carry than either Miller or Scheelhause, could have a big rushing day.

5. Offense Less Offensive? Held to under 300 yards, the Badgers’ offense struggled mightily Saturday against Illinois, and may have lost the game had their defense not forced four turnovers, which consistently gave the Badgers’ offense a short field. (They scored on drives of 44, 39, 30, and 2 yards.) Illinois’ defense is solid, but Penn State’s is much better. Since they won’t be able to rely on their defense to get them four turnovers again, Wisconsin’s offense will have to do a better job sustaining drives and wearing out the Nittany Lion defense if they want to clinch their spot in the Big Ten Championship Game.

Final prediction: Wisconsin 20, Penn State 13.

Wisconsin/Illini Preview: Illinois To Continue Free Fallin’

November 18, 2011 - Leave a Response

I’m begrudgingly accepting that, even though the calendar says we’re still a week away from Thanksgiving, the holiday season is indeed here.

And yes, I realize that in coming to this conclusion that I’ve basically been brainwashed by the National Retail Federation, the Retail Industry Leaders Association, Sirius/XM (for already programming several channels of holiday music), Amazon.com (for getting a head start on their “Black Friday” deals), Punky Brewster, who is for whatever reason Target’s “Mommy Ambassador,” and even myself.

You see, when you start telling your children in August that you can’t buy them something because “Christmas is coming soon and you might get that from Santa,” by mid-November it does start to seem that the holidays are long overdue.

With only two weeks left in the regular season, the Wisconsin football Badgers should be in a festive holiday mood. After the heart-breaking losses in October to the Spartans and Buckeyes, the Badgers are now in control of the Big Ten’s “Leaders” division, thanks to back-to-back blowout wins over Purdue and Minnesota, Ohio State’s OT loss last week, and of course, the sad events at Penn State that have made any short-term on-field success with their football program, in light of everything that has happened, seem both highly unimportant and highly unlikely.

But before Wisconsin can travel to Indianapolis for the inaugural Big Ten Championship (where it looks like they will have a chance to exact revenge on Michigan State), they’ve got two more games, starting with Saturday’s date in Champaign, where they will take on a reeling Illinois team that has lost four games in a row following a 6-0 start that had landed them in the Top 25.

Things keep getting worse for the Illini: Head coach Ron Zook made headlines this week for walking out of a press conference after a reporter asked Zook about rumors that he was about to be fired, one of their starting linebackers was shot in the hand at a campus party, and now the team has to face the Badgers, who won’t be too interested in helping Illinois feel better about themselves.

Let’s look at the Channel 3000 3 storylines for the game:

1. Will Illinois score? Against weaker opponents, Illinois looked like one of the better offenses in the Big Ten, scoring nearly 35 points a game in their opening six-game win streak. Since then, their offense has been about as intimidating as Duffy the Disney Bear, scoring a total of 42 points over the last four games and being shut out entirely in the first half for four weeks straight. The problems for Illinois during the losing streak seem to be all over the board (11 turnovers, an inconsistent rushing attack), but their main setback seems to be that teams have figured out how to contain wideout A.J. Jenkins. Jenkins, still the leading receiver in the Big Ten, has been held to no touchdowns and 80 yards per game over the last four weeks, well shy of his 113 yards-per-game average. It will be tough for Jenkins to get right against Wisconsin’s conference-leading pass defense.

2. Injury update. Quite a few of the Badgers starters are, as they say in sports, nicked up. If Wisconsin puts Illinois in a hole they can’t climb out of – which for the Illini could be as little as a 14-point deficit – look for head coach Bret Bielema to call for some subs. After suffering a shoulder injury against the Gophers, receiver Jared Abbrederis’s official status is questionable, but Bielema was a little more optimistic in his Thursday press conference. “I think he’ll be back there on punt return and offense. I don’t know if we’ll use him as a kick returner,” Bielema said. Other starters likely to play through injury include linebacker Mike Taylor, receiver Nick Toon, and safety Aaron Henry. Of course the biggest injury concern is with center Peter Konz, who is out for at least the next two games with a left ankle injury. Redshirt sophomore Ryan Groy will start in place of Konz. The Badgers hope to have Konz back by the Big Ten Championship game on December 3, if, of course, the Badgers qualify for that inaugural game.

3. Heisman watch back on? After Stanford’s loss last week in which presumed Heisman frontrunner Andrew Luck threw two interceptions and lost a fumble, could Badgers QB Russell Wilson be back in the Heisman conversation? Wilson’s pass efficiency rating leads the country (a sick 201.6), he’s also second to none in yards per completion, and fifth in the nation in completion percentage. A big game against a pretty-good Illinois pass defense that’s allowing just 173 yards per game through the air wouldn’t hurt his chances.

Final Prediction: Wisconsin 27, Illinois 10.

Badgers/Gophers Preview: The Axe Factor

November 11, 2011 - Leave a Response

The Paul Bunyan Axe has spent more time in Wisconsin over the last eight years than Bernie Brewer.

It’s been a bad week.

The compact disc is apparently on its way out. Regis Philbin (whose core audience is still lamenting the demise of 78 RPM records) is almost done with his talk show. Bil Keane, creator of The Family Circus newspaper comic strip, died. Adam Sandler has a new movie out.

But overshadowing everything else happening over the past few days has been the unbelievably sad and disturbing reports that have been emanating from the place ironically known as Happy Valley.

Though the shine is clearly off this weekend’s marquee Big Ten matchup of Nebraska (7-2) at Penn State (8-1), Wisconsin sports fans can at least look forward to a glorious weekend of football.

That is, if you include Monday in your definition of “weekend,” as the 8-0 Packers take on the 2-6 Vikings on Monday Night Football. Now, there’s no doubt that the Vikings have been marginally better since dumping the awful Donovan McNabb, and there’s no doubt that the Packers pass defense has played less than stellar football recently.

But the Vikings are still at best – at best – a work in progress, and the Packers – well, maybe just Aaron Rodgers, Greg Jennings, and Jordy Nelson, but that’s been good enough – have been awesome. It also stands to reason that the Packers’ defense, tired of hearing how their offense needs to score 40 points a game to cover their deficiencies, will step up and produce a shutdown game. Unlike the contest just three weeks ago, this one could get ugly.

But it might be closer than this weekend’s other football game between teams from Wisconsin and Minnesota.

Those people who had leaped off the Wisconsin bandwagon following those two heartbreaking road losses were proven a bit hasty in their judgment following last week’s 62-17 blowout of Purdue, a team that was itself just one week removed from upsetting then-No. 23 Illinois.

But has the stench around this Saturday’s opponent, the Golden Gophers, become less odious? After all, they surprised Iowa two weeks ago to win their first Big Ten game of the season and then played Michigan State surprisingly close last week before falling 31-24 at East Lansing.

Could the Gophers be on their way to brandishing Paul Bunyan’s Axe for the first time since 2003?

In a word, unlikely.

Let’s look at the Channel 3000 3 storylines to the game:

1. The Axe. It may seem to some as a silly tradition, but players and coaches on both sides take what symbolizes the most-played rivalry in Division I-A college football pretty seriously. Listen to center Peter Konz: “This is a big emotional game for all of us. I know they want the Axe bad because they haven’t had it for a few years. We’re not taking Minnesota lightly.” Likewise, here’s what Gophers coach Jerry Kill had to say about Saturday’s game: “I know it means a ton to our players and the state of Minnesota. It’s dang important to us.” Especially at TCF Bank Stadium (although certainly there will be the usual strong showing of Badger Nation present), the Badgers should expect to get the Gophers’ strongest effort of the season. But as Konz notes, Wisconsin won’t take anything for granted.

2. Russell Wilson Lite? Though he understandably hasn’t been as highly touted as Wisconsin’s senior QB, the Gophers’ junior quarterback Marqueis Gray has definitely been making strides as of late: Over the last two weeks, Gray has completed 62 percent of his passes and against Michigan State – one of the nation’s best defenses – he threw for three touchdowns. And like Wilson, Gray does it with his legs as well, only more so: Over the last three weeks, he’s rushed for 200 yards and two touchdowns, including the game-winner over Iowa. Wisconsin’s defense has struggled against mobile quarterbacks this season – Ohio State’s Braxton Miller rushed for 99 yards two weeks ago and Nebraska’s Taylor Martinez piled up 61 yards on the ground (though it took him 20 carries to do so), so Wisconsin could have its hands full with Gray.

3. Ball Busting Records. Saturday could be a big game for junior running back Montee Ball, who is having the biggest breakthrough year this side of anyone not named Russell Wilson. With just one rushing touchdown, Ball will break the season school record of 24 touchdowns, a title he currently shares with Brian Calhoun. With three touchdowns (and he has three or more in four games this year), he will break the Big Ten record. Ball should excel against a porous Minnesota defense giving up nearly 200 yards a game on the ground this year.

Final prediction: Wisconsin 40, Minnesota 27.

Badgers/Boilermakers Preview: The Bucky Bounce Back

November 4, 2011 - Leave a Response

For Wisconsin sports fans, the month of October was filled with decisively more tricks than treats.

Sure, the Green Bay Packers continued to distance themselves from the rest of the NFL field with four straight victories against patsies both inside (St. Louis, Minnesota) and outside their conference (Denver).

The 7-0 Packers are playing so well that it is legitimately tough to figure out how they will lose to any of the teams left on their schedule. Chances are slim to none that they will go undefeated, but they’ll be favored in every one of their games going forward, with away games at the they-can’t-be-this-bad San Diego (this Sunday) and the inconsistent New York Giants (12/4) the most obvious traps.

But the Packers’ success in October was outweighed for many by the Brewers’ disappointing showing in the National League Championship Series (Shaun Marcum should probably not expect too many holiday cards from fans this year) and by the heartbreaking losses of the past two weeks by the Wisconsin Badgers’ previously-unstoppable football team.

It’s easy now to say that the hype on the Badgers was overdone, but it’s not as if they went out to Columbus or East Lansing and played like the 2011 Indianapolis Colts. The fact is that the Badgers are still a very good football team, and any worry about them slipping into some sort of freefall like they did in 2008 is ridiculous.

Having said that, though, the two crushing losses are a lot to bounce back from. But the smart money is on the Badgers doing just that.
In honor of the Badgers’ 15-spot drop in the AP rankings over the past two weeks, here are the 15 things to watch for on Saturday as Wisconsin (6-2, 2-2 Big Ten) hosts Purdue (4-4, 2-2 Big Ten):

1. The Bounce Back. Simply put, now that any dreams of a national championship have been laid to rest with even a shot at the inaugural Big Ten Championship Game now unlikely, can the Badgers play with passion and focus?

2. Wakey-Wakey. The Badgers have gotten off to leads each of the past two weeks, only to go to sleep in the second and third quarters, getting outscored a total of 40-10 in that 30-minute span. That compares to a 72-14 advantage they enjoyed in those two quarters in their first two conference games. They need to have Purdue put away by halftime to ease the fears of the home fans.

3. Special Teams. A year after Brad Nortman’s stunning fake punt secured an upset win at Iowa, the Badgers’ special teams are suddenly anything but. After two game-changing blocked punts and a blocked field goal in the last two weeks, the Badgers need to limit their mistakes in the kicking game.

4. Protect The Quarterback. The Badgers gave up five sacks in the first six games. They then gave up five sacks in just the last two weeks. Not terrible, but pass protection needs to be improved.

5. Where’s The Two-Headed Monster? There’s no doubt that Montee Ball has been the Badgers’ most impressive runner this season, but when Wisconsin was playing its best football earlier in the season, the carries between Ball and James White were typically more evenly split. Last week against Ohio State, Ball had 17 rushes while White had only 5. White needs to be utilized more.

6. Secondary Woes? Obviously the Badgers’ secondary is under scrutiny after the late-game developments of the past two weeks. But outside of a big game by Michigan State’s Kirk Cousins (22-31, 290 yards), the Badgers’ pass defense has been solid, giving up the second-fewest yards per game in the Big Ten through the air, a remarkable feat considering how far behind most teams have been against Wisconsin. In short, too soon to panic over Bucky’s pass defense.

7. A Chance For Redemption. Look for the Badgers’ pass defense to be tested on Saturday, as Purdue’s rushing attack has gone cold as of late, bottoming out with a poor 89 yards total last week against Michigan.

8. Then Again . . . Wisconsin’s rush defense didn’t look so stellar last week, allowing 268 yards on the ground and a healthy 4.6 per carry. The Badgers are now ranked 53rd in the country in rush defense.

9. Go Big Or Go Home. It’s an understatement to say that Wisconsin has been burned by the big play over the last two weeks. They’d like to flip the switch on that, but until last week’s loss to Michigan, Purdue had been the best in the Big Ten at not allowing plays of 20 or more yards. Michigan alone totaled seven such big plays.

10. I Wish I Was Homeward Bound. The Badgers are certainly glad to be back in Madison, where they’ve won 14 straight and scored on average more than 50 points a game this season. Of course most of those games were against the likes of South Dakota and UNLV, but they also looked just as dominant against Nebraska, who have won three straight since getting embarrassed at Camp Randall.

11. The Long And Longer Road. Purdue on the other hand hasn’t won a game on the road this year, losing to Rice in Houston in September. That victory for the Owls was their first against a BCS opponent in ten years. Suffice it to say the Boilermakers struggle outside of West Lafayette.

12. Russell’s Ready To Bust Out. Purdue faced the closest QB the Big Ten has to Russell Wilson last week in Michigan’s Denard Robinson. That matchup didn’t work out so well for Purdue, as Robinson completed 64 percent of his passes and ran for 63 yards and a score. Problem for Purdue is that Wilson’s better. And after the last two weeks, he’s probably angry.

13. Mistakes A-Plenty. Purdue’s been one of the least-disciplined teams in the Big Ten, being on the receiving end of the second-most penalties in the league at 63. Think they’ll have a few false starts against a rowdy Camp Randall crowd?

14. Things Are Never As Bad As They Seem And Never As Good As They Seem. Any suggestion that Wisconsin is now on par with a team like Purdue because of their suddenly similar records is bollocks. Wisconsin is the better team here and they will prove it on Saturday.

15. Final Prediction: Wisconsin 48, Purdue 24.

Badgers/Spartans Preview: Beating The East Lansing Blues

October 21, 2011 - Leave a Response

Let the games begin.

And no, that’s not a reference to Sunday’s Packers/Vikings tilt, another likely blowout Packers victory that on the surface has about as much potential drama and intrigue as a typical episode of Calliou.

[Speaking of the Vikings, there’s an interesting factoid that Sunday’s game, featuring rookie QB Christian Ponder making his starting debut, is the fourth Packers/Vikings matchup in just the last eleven seasons in which the Vikings have trotted out a quarterback making his first start for the team.

The roster moves make sense: If the Vikings were to win (as they almost did with Spergon Wynn in 2001), they could crow all the more that they beat the vaunted Packers with a rookie QB. If they were to lose – as they have with the three previous rookies – they can say, “Big deal. We had a quarterback playing his first game! Of course we were going to lose!” Anyway, Packers by three touchdowns at least.]

And sadly, it’s also not a reference to the Brewers, who nevertheless had a tremendous season before being knocked out of the postseason last Sunday by the hated St. Louis Cardinals. But we’re going to be positive here and not point any fingers for the Brew Crew getting so viciously tapped. (Shaun Marcum and Rickie Weeks, you can thank us later.)

Nope, this is about the No. 4-ranked Wisconsin football Badgers, who are about to play their first real road game of the season Saturday night against the No. 15-ranked Spartans of Michigan State.

It’s should be noted that, while the Badgers have had an easy schedule up to now, they have passed one challenge with flying colors, smothering the Nebraska Cornhuskers 48-17 three weeks ago.

But that was at home. Not in East Lansing.

Ah, East Lansing. What is it about a trip to the home of the Spartans that tends to foul a Badgers season the way that Shaun Marcum’s trips to the mound tend to foul a Brewers postseason? (Oops, did we say no pointing fingers?)

Just last season, the Spartans handed the visiting Badgers their only regular season loss. Three years ago, the Badgers completely unraveled at Spartan Stadium as MSU handed them their fifth loss in six games. And in 2004, the No. 4-ranked Badgers (sound familiar?) came home humbled after getting pounded by Michigan State to the tune of 49-14.

In fact, you’d have to go back all the way to 2002 – you know, back when a guy named Brian Dunkleman co-hosted American Idol – to find the last time the Badgers defeated the Spartans in East Lansing.

But this year is different, right? The Badgers are playing even better now than they were last year during their run to the Rose Bowl, right?

Well, you ain’t wrong. Let’s look at the Channel 3000 3 storylines of the game:

1. Unstoppable force versus immovable object. It’s the age-old question: Nu Shooz or T’Pau? Oops, rather: What wins games: offense or defense? The Spartans are second in the county in total defense, having shut down Ohio State and, more impressively, the previously high-flying Michigan Wolverines. Meanwhile, the Badgers are first in scoring offense.

Thing is, the Badgers defense is pretty good, too, actually allowing fewer points per game than the Spartans (9.7 to 10.8), and playing about three shutdown quarters against a very good Nebraska offense. And the Spartans, despite their impressive work against Michigan QB Denard Robinson, have not faced a multifaceted offense as complete as the Badgers possess. In this case at least, the force seems more unstoppable than the object seems immovable.

2. Sparring Spartans Shorthanded. One of the reasons the Spartans may be less immovable Saturday night is because the Big Ten has suspended Michigan State defensive end William Gholston for a week due to rampant stupidity. Well, the conference doesn’t phrase it that way, instead citing Gholston’s decision to punch a Wolverine player during last week’s game.

Gholston, although apparently not very bright, is a bright spot on the Spartans’ defense, notching 20 tackles so far this season with seven tackles for a loss. The Badgers didn’t need the help, but they will likely take advantage of it.

3. Can Spartans Keep Up? In their only loss of the season, a 31-13 defeat at the hands of Notre Dame, the Spartans got behind early and were forced to play catch-up all afternoon; as a result, MSU gained only a paltry 29 yards rushing and senior QB Kirk Cousins put up a whopping 53 pass attempts, more than twice the 24 throws he has averaged per game the rest of the season.

In short, the Spartans don’t have a high-flying offense. If the Badgers can get out to an early lead, not only can they take the crowd out of the game, but they will force MSU into a style of football they don’t want to play. Conversely, Wisconsin’s offense seems built for pretty much any style.

Given the recent series between these teams, it seems dangerous to pick against Michigan State at home.

But the Badgers need to give people a reason to pick against them, and so far, they haven’t.

Prediction: Wisconsin 28, Michigan State 13.

Wisconsin/Indiana Preview: Where’s The Mercy Rule?

October 14, 2011 - Leave a Response

David Letterman is one great Hoosier. One more than Wisconsin fans will see at Saturday's Homecoming game vs. Indiana.

This weekend at Camp Randall. Indiana at Wisconsin. It’s a little early for Halloween, but go ahead and insert a blood-curdling scream here. Or, perhaps more fittingly, a yawn.

After participating in one of the most-hyped regular-season college football games in recent memory, the Wisconsin Badgers football team is this weekend set to play in a game that has less excitement swirling around it than a Color Me Badd reunion tour.

Let’s briefly look at the resumes: Wisconsin is ranked No. 4 in the nation and has won its first five games by a combined score of 242-51.

Indiana has dropped five of its first six games, losing to the likes of Ball State, Virginia, and North Texas.

Wisconsin is leading the Big Ten in scoring, averaging more than 48 points a game. Indiana is averaging less than half that, or about 23 points a game.

Wisconsin is leading the Big Ten in scoring defense, allowing just over 10 points a game. Indiana is allowing over 27 points per contest.

Bret Bielema has never lost to the Indiana Hoosiers, beating them by an average of 33 points a game over the last five seasons, including a jaw-dropping 83-20 beatdown in 2010.

While there is no guarantee in sports, there is about as much chance that the Indiana Hoosiers will come into Camp Randall Stadium and beat the Wisconsin Badgers as there is that Kim Kardashian will one day win an Oscar.

So, without any real drama to explore, here are the top 10 questions surrounding Saturday’s Homecoming game:

1. Can the Badgers top 100 points? Hey, that’s only 25 points a quarter.

2. How much can a still-fresh-in-the-minds-of-many 63-point drubbing be used to motivate a bad team? And how overconfident and complacent can the team that dished out that drubbing be? If the Hoosiers lose by fewer than the 40 points the Badgers are favored by, is it a moral victory? (OK, that’s three questions . . .)

3. Who will play quarterback for Indiana? Head coach Kevin Wilson has started three different signal-callers already this season and was seen last week outside of the Covance in Evansville trying to recruit healthy, non-smoking men willing to commit to a six-week “research study.”

4. Considering the Hoosiers have given up 727 rushing yards in the last three weeks alone, should the Badgers bother to throw the ball at all, effectively killing the clock from the opening snap?

5. How quickly will Bret Bielema pull his starters? (I’d put the over/under at midway through the third quarter.)

6. Should the NCAA pass a resolution requiring each Wisconsin player to play the entire game with his legs inside of a gunny sack?

7. Should the NCAA require each Wisconsin player to carry an egg on a spoon in his mouth for the entire game, giving Indiana the benefit of a 10-yard penalty every time an egg hits the turf?

8. Is the week that will likely feature the most tremendously lopsided home game of the season really the best time for the university to urge students to cease the “obsenity-laced cheers” (you know the ones)? Without any probable compelling action on the field, what else are the students going to do?

9. Is Lee Corso picking Indiana?

10. Will Bucky Badger, fearing a repeat of last year’s blowout score that forced him to complete a staggering 573 push-ups, call in sick?

Prediction: Wisconsin 60, Indiana 17.

Quarterbacks Talking Smack

October 6, 2011 - Leave a Response

This just in: NFL quarterbacks are an egotistical lot.

I mean, they almost have to be. Billion-dollar businesses depend on them. They are largely responsible for the livelihood of numerous coaches and players and their families. They are heroes of many when they succeed and targets of unrelenting venom and hatred when they fail.

But no matter how their job performance, they are sickeningly wealthy and have sickeningly easy access to practically any woman they choose.
No wonder they think a lot of themselves.

And no wonder most of them can’t shut up, even after retirement.

Many feed the vanity beast by becoming a TV analyst or color commentator, where even the worst, like NFL Network’s Joe Theismann (he joined the network after getting the ax from ESPN’s Monday Night Football), is paid to talk endlessly about whatever he wants to.

But sometimes, even Theismann is interesting. Or, scary enough, right.

This week he opened up about the Minnesota Vikings and Donovan McNabb, I guess presumably because they both played for the Redskins, albeit only one successfully. (Hint: The successful Washington QB wasn’t McNabb.)

“I think Donovan McNabb is a great person,” Theismann said. “But he can’t throw the football accurately. His mechanics are horrible.”

While rightly pointing out that the offensive line is partly to blame, Theismann’s words ring true to anyone who’s watched any Viking football this year. McNabb, though hampered by a pedestrian group of receivers and a coaching staff that seem intent on not letting Adrian Peterson break a sweat, has stunk.

Theismann assumes that Christian Ponder will get the starting nod soon, not because the rookie can bring victories, but because Vikings management need to know whether they can stick with him in 2012 or try to draft Andrew Luck should the Stanford quarterback enter next year’s NFL draft.

It’s hard times in Minnesota: The Gophers just got beat 58-0 in their Big Ten opener, the Twins fell off the cliff in losing 99 games in 2011, and the Vikings don’t in any way resemble the team that just two years ago went to the NFC Championship Game.

Of course Green Bay fans would like to blame the Vikings’ current struggles on their successful wooing of ex-Packer Brett Favre, who led them to that almost-championship season in 2009-2010.

Had Favre not been available, the argument goes, perhaps the Vikings would have invested in a young quarterback that could have by now been paying large dividends. It’s an argument that is easy to accept, especially this year, as the Panthers and Bengals are reaping the benefits of the immediate success that rookies Cam Newton and Andy Dalton are having.

Of course, knowing the Vikings, they might still be playing Tavaris Jackson.

It could also be argued that the Vikings front office wrongly assumed that since the Favre pickup went so well (at least for one year), that the pickup of McNabb had an equal chance of success. This is boneheaded logic, of course, not only because the talent level around McNabb is not as good as it was around Favre two years ago, but also because a 34-year-old Donovan McNabb is nowhere near as talented as a 39-year-old Brett Favre.

Favre proved in 2009 that he could still play. He proved in 2010 that even he could not play forever.
He’s proving in 2011 that he can still be a pain in the butt.

This week he told an Atlanta radio station that he was not surprised that Aaron Rodgers won a Super Bowl in only his third year as a starter, but rather that “the biggest surprise to me would be that he didn’t do it sooner.”

Huh?

You could argue that in his rambling way, Favre meant to compliment Rodgers, implying that his successor was so good that he was championship-worthy from the moment he was named the starter.

But come on. This is Favre. He wasn’t being complimentary.

Favre went on to say that Rodgers “fell into a good situation” and that the “talent around him is even better than when I was there.”

Meaning, exactly, “What took you so long, boy?”

The story reminded me of a brief conversation I had with my father-in-law last Sunday as we watched Aaron Rodgers completely destroy the Denver Broncos defense, just as Rodgers destroys almost all defenses he faces.

“He’s better than Favre ever was,” my father-in-law said.

Although I reluctantly agree with Favre that Rodgers has a better all-around team than Favre probably ever did, I couldn’t immediately disagree with my father-in-law.

But oddly enough I still can’t say I like Rodgers as much as I liked Favre. What made Favre so fascinating, and of course, so fascinatingly frustrating for Packers fans, was his fallibility. You never knew when Favre was going to make that errant pass or that costly mistake.

For better or worse (and yes, many times it was worse), Favre was high drama. On the field and off.

For better or worse (and yes, it’s hard to argue for the worse side of that equation), there’s no drama with Rodgers: He’s a machine. He even says all the right things.

Rodgers could have made fun of Favre’s inability to win a championship with the 2009-2010 Minnesota Vikings team, of which Favre said, “Physically, and from a talent level, this is the best team I’ve ever been on.”

But no. He simply said, “It takes 53 guys to win a championship and we had the right recipe last year and we’re trying to do the same thing this season.”

Besides carrying himself impressively and handling the media expertly, Rodgers is, most importantly, the best quarterback playing in the NFL right now. He’s so good he seems to be redefining what a quarterback can do.

Favre, like Theismann, comes from more of the old school of NFL quarterbacks.

Which means, in part, that he doesn’t know when to shut up.

On the field, Favre usually acted first and thought about it second.

Off the field and in retirement, Favre usually speaks first and thinks about it second.

To the delight of his players, coaches, and surely his fans, Rodgers isn’t like that at all.

But sometimes – sometimes – I miss that.

Badgers/Huskers Preview: Good Times For Wisconsin Sports Fans

September 29, 2011 - Leave a Response

I wonder if Lee Corso has plans for after the game?

No doubt about it, there have been better times to be living in Wisconsin.

Political turmoil. Budget woes. Wages falling. Poverty increasing. Unprecedented cuts in education.

Oh, and it’s about to get real damn cold.

No, these are surely not the best of times in Wisconsin.

Unless you’re a sports fan.

Right now Wisconsin boasts an embarrassment of sports riches nearly unprecedented in the state’s history. It’s a cornucopia of sports goodness that brings to mind the same-city, dual-league dominance of the Pittsburgh Steelers and Pittsburgh Pirates of the late seventies and the more recent Boston-based supremacy of the Patriots, Red Sox, and Celtics.

The good news for Wisconsin sports fans is, with the NBA in a seemingly endless lockout, the forever-inept Milwaukee Bucks can’t come along and screw it up.

You’d have to go back to the early fall of 1982 for a similar run of good fortune for the Badgers, Brewers, and Packers, but even that pales in comparison to 2011, since in 1982 the Badgers were off to a blah 1-2 start (on their way to an Independence Bowl victory), and the Packers (who would eventually make the playoffs) had their 2-0 start sidetracked by a 57-day NFL strike that lasted from late September to mid-November.

Not to mention that in 1982 we were all too wrapped up in Thriller to care that much.

In 2011, it’s hard not to care. But while the Brewers are wrapping up their most successful regular season in 29 years and the Packers are off to a (albeit somewhat expected) 3-0 start, perhaps it’s the 2011 football Badgers that have been most impressive, winning their first four games by a combined score of 194-34, while having the No. 6-ranked offense and No. 3-ranked defense among all Football Bowl Subdivision teams.

However, it’s also easy to argue that, given the talent level of the Badgers’ first four opponents, we don’t really know how good this year’s Wisconsin football program really is.

Well, we are about to find out.

In what has to be considered the most anticipated regular season Big Ten game in many years, No. 7 Wisconsin is about to take on No. 8 Nebraska in the Cornhuskers’ first-ever conference game as a member of the Big Ten. National primetime broadcast television. Under the lights.

To paraphrase David Letterman, on Saturday night Wisconsin Badger football will be the only thing on ABC.

Will Badger fans like what they see?

Let’s take a look at the Channel 3000 3 storylines of the game, and since this is such a big game, we’ll even give you a bonus storyline:

1. Battle of the Quarterbacks. With quarterbacks like Tavaris Jackson, Luke McCown, and Kerry Collins stinking it up in the NFL, it’s safe to say that Saturday night’s game will feature better quarterbacking than some Sunday match-ups. Wisconsin’s Russell Wilson has been not only the most impressive quarterback in the Big Ten, but perhaps the most impressive quarterback in the country, improbably living up to if not surpassing what could have been suffocating preseason hype. With 11 touchdowns in his first four games, Wilson is on pace to shatter the Badgers’ record of 21 touchdowns set by John Stocco in 2005.

The good news for Wilson Saturday is that while he’s excelled against poor defenses to this point, he shouldn’t be too nervous about Nebraska’s secondary either: The Huskers are coming to Madison ranked near the bottom in the Big Ten in pass defense and defensive coordinator Carl Pelini has already made sea changes in his secondary, knowing that the towering trio of Nick Toon, Jared Abbrederis, and Jacob Pedersen are going to give his unit fits. Look for Wilson’s success to continue.

While Wilson has excelled, Nebraska quarterback Taylor Martinez still has to shake off some doubters; he’s only completing about 50 percent of his passes despite the fact that Nebraska plays a relatively conservative offense with a short passing game – through four games, Martinez is averaging 8.1 yards per pass, while Wilson is averaging 12.5 yards per throw. However, like Wilson, Martinez’s ability to run the ball – he had 344 yards on the ground through the first three games this season – make him very much a dangerous player.

Of the two quarterbacks, Martinez definitely has the most to gain by a solid performance Saturday night. But even if he plays well, it’s likely he’ll be outshone by Wilson.

2. Fumbling Into Madison. Despite having the No. 2-ranked offense in the Big Ten, Nebraska’s attack has been anything but a well-oiled machine so far in 2011. The Huskers have fumbled the ball a whopping 13 times in their first four games, and while they’ve only lost four of them, Wisconsin’s defense should be quicker to the ball than Nebraska’s previous opponents. Meanwhile, Wisconsin has yet to fumble the ball this year. The Huskers could be doomed if they can’t find a way to flip that script.

3. Keep It Close. Nebraska has been at their best in the second half of their games in 2011, outscoring their opponents 100-47 over the last two quarters, including a 51-10 advantage in the third quarter alone. Conversely, the Badgers have been putting their opponents away early, outscoring the opposition 117-13 in the first half alone. If the Huskers can keep it close in the first half and limit the Camp Randall crowd factor, they might give themselves a chance to pull the upset. Might.

4. Corn To Run? While the Badgers have the dynamic duo of James White and Montee Ball, who have thus far combined for 657 yards and 12 touchdowns through four games, Nebraska actually leads the Big Ten in rushing, thanks to junior running back Rex Burkhead and Martinez, who together have racked up 788 yards and 14 touchdowns. Can the Huskers beat the Badgers at what has traditionally been Wisconsin’s game? Possibly, but if the Badgers can take to the air like they have been, it probably won’t matter.

It’s tough, because neither Nebraska nor Wisconsin have really been tested so far this season. But although their schedule has probably been even easier, Wisconsin has just been much more impressive in 2011. And they’re at home.

Prediction: Wisconsin 35, Nebraska 24.

Oh, and go Brewers.

Badgers Season Preview 2011: Believe The Hype

August 31, 2011 - Leave a Response

Will These NC State Fans Watch Russell Wilson Bring The Heisman Back To Madison? Or Will Russell Wilson Make Badger Fans Long For Nipsey Russell? Or Wilson Phillips? (You See Where I'm Going With This . . . )

Despite their loss Tuesday night, right now it would be tough to find any team in sports hotter than the Milwaukee Brewers.

Cover of Sports Illustrated. Biggest division lead in Major League Baseball. Huge attendance. Huge merchandising sales. Two players who could legitimately finish 1-2 in MVP voting.

You’d have to go back to 2008 — when Milwaukee earned its first postseason berth in 26 years — for the last time there was nearly so much hype around the Brewers.

Fast-forward just one year to 2009: Despite understandable offseason expectations, the Brewers failed to sustain the good vibes of the previous season and finished with a losing record and out of the playoffs.

I bring this up because parallels can definitely be found between the 2008-2009 Milwaukee Brewers and the current state of the Wisconsin Badgers football team.

Like the Brewers of 2008, the 2010 football Badgers attained what was for them a rare level of success on the field, beating #1 Ohio State, then beating #12 Iowa in Iowa City, then running off an impressive streak of scary-dominant games against Indiana, Michigan, and Northwestern.

But like the Brewers of 2008, the 2010 Badgers disappointed in the postseason, coming up short in the Rose Bowl against a #3-ranked TCU team that was, if anything, even better than advertised.

And like the Brewers of 2008, who lost rented starting pitcher C.C. Sabathia after the season, some key Badgers played their final season for the team in 2010. Gone are quarterback Scott Tolzien, running back John Clay, defensive end J.J. Watt, defensive back Jay Valai, wide receiver David Gilreath, and offensive linemen Gabe Carimi and John Moffitt.

That’s a distressing list of huge playmakers lost, each one having played a huge role in the Badgers’ 2010 11-2 season.

So can the 2011 Wisconsin Badgers football team avoid the letdown that befell the 2009 Milwaukee Brewers?

In a word, yes. In two words, most definitely. In three words, believe the hype.

Let’s look more closely at why, come December, the Badgers should be playing in the first-ever Big Ten Championship Game, to be followed by a very high-profile bowl game in January.

Offense:

Although Scott Tolzien was at times awe-inspiringly good last year and he put up some downright gaudy statistics (he completed 72.9 percent of his passes, for instance) as the Badgers finished the year as the most efficient offense in the Big Ten (43.3 points per game), it wasn’t as if Wisconsin completely abanondoned their run game. On the contrary, freshman James White and sophomore Montee Ball joined John Clay to engineer one of the most impressive three-headed-monster running attacks in recent college football history: The three combined last year on 46 TDs and gained an average of nearly 6 yards a carry.

And while it could be argued that the Badgers don’t exactly need any highly-regarded running back prospects, Jeff Lewis and Melvin Gordon — both freshmen — have impressed coaches thus far. Despite the loss of Clay, who, partly due to injury, was clearly outshone in the second half of the 2010 season by both White and Ball, the Badgers should have the best running attack in the Big Ten in 2011.

But few people are worried about Wisconsin’s running game. When the Badgers take the field Thursday, September 1, against the UNLV Rebels, all eyes will be on Russell Wilson, the former NC State quarterback who transferred to the Badgers in June.

Rarely if ever has a collegiate athlete transferring from one program to another created such buzz. But it makes sense: Neither of Tolzien’s heir apparents, Jon Budmayr nor Curt Phillips, had been able to impress anyone, a fact that the Badger coaches had run out of ways to try and disguise. (With Budmayr’s elbow injury, freshman Joe Brennan is set to backup Wilson.) As spring turned into summer, lingering doubts about the Badgers’ quarterback position hung like a dark cloud of despair over any talk of the team making another run at a BCS game.

Then Wilson fell into their lap. Far from a fill-in, Wilson will enter Thursday’s game ranking third among active college players both in total yards and touchdowns responsible for. In an analogy that should hit close to home for Badgers fans, it’s like the Minnesota Vikings trading up from Tavaris Jackson to Brett Favre two years back. And, for one season at least — and Wilson only has one season of eligibility left — that worked out pretty well.

If you went looking for an area of concern on the offensive side, it would be the Badgers’ receiving corps, which not only lost Gilreath, but seniors Kyle Jefferson, Isaac Anderson, and tight end Lance Kendricks. Only Nick Toon, Jared Abbrederis, and sophomore Jeff Duckworth have any college-level pass receptions to their credit, and Duckworth has just three of them. For Wilson to play to his potential, Toon will need to improve upon an injury-plagued 2010 campaign, Abbrederis will need to graduate from role player to starter, and someone, anyone will have to emerge.

As far as the offensive line is concerned, the losses of Moffitt, Carimi, and Bill Nagy will hurt. But one look at Wisconsin’s massive opening-day offensive line, with returning players including Josh Oglesby (6’7″, 330 lbs.), Ricky Wagner — transitioning from right to left tackle — (6’6″, 320 lbs.), Kevin Zeitler (6’4″, 315 lbs.), and Peter Konz (6’5″, 315 lbs.), suggests that a long-standing strength of the Badgers will continue.

Defense:

A cursory glance at the defensive starters returning to the Badgers is bound to make fans feel at ease: safeties Shelton Johnson and Aaron Henry, corners Devin Smith and 2010 All-Big Ten honoree Antonio Fenelus, and linebackers Mike Taylor and especially Chris Borland, who missed most of the 2010 season with a shoulder injury, are a solid core.

But on the defensive side of the ball, the Badgers lost not only two of their team leaders and best big-play guys in J.J. Watt and Jay Valai, but they also lost defensive coordinator Dave Doeren, who left to take over the head coaching job at Northern Illinois University. Doeren was so good Bielema decided he needed two guys to replace him: Chris Ash and Charlie Partridge, who cut their teeth as Bielema’s defensive backs and defensive line coaches respectively.

Statisically speaking, Wisconsin’s defense was good if not spectacular last season, finishing fifth in the Big Ten in points per game allowed and fourth in yardage allowed. But of course those stats don’t tell the whole story: The Badgers’s offense spotted their defense to such huge leads so often last year that a little statistical letdown was inevitable. But in close games, Wisconsin’s defense could be brilliant, their performances against Ohio State and TCU in the Rose Bowl the most notable examples.

Word from camp is that Ash and Partridge will play a more aggressive defense than Doeren; it remains to be seen how that strategy, if implemented, will play out, but the Badgers certainly have the playmakers to give any new defensive schemes a high rate of success.

Specialists:

Philip Welch has been a productive — and busy — placekicker over the last three years, making 77 percent of his field goal tries and 153 out of a possible 156 extra points. While he might miss the UNLV game due to a groin injury, there don’t seem to be any fears about him missing any more time.

Punter Brad Nortman had a terrific 2010 and, although he didn’t always see a lot of action due to the Badgers’ prolific offense, became something of a folk hero after his successful and game-changing fake punt against Iowa last October.

Certainly the biggest question concerning the Badgers’ special teams is the return game: With David Gilreath gone, Jared Abbrederis and James White will share the return duty. Both have seen kick return coverage in the past, and both have the requierd explosiveness to back up Bielema’s faith: Abbrederis twice returned kickoffs for 52 yards last season, and few can question White’s ability to break tackles and get into the open field.

Intangibles:

The 2011 Badgers will have to do a better job than the 2009 Milwaukee Brewers of dealing with tons of preseason hype. The Badgers open the season ranked 11th in the AP Poll, and beyond simple rankings, they know that expectations are high. As head coach Bret Bielema recently said, “It’s fun and I think it’s a sign of respect. There’s not a lot of negativity around our program. A lot of things going around college football have stayed out of Madison. I like the character and the kids we have. Hopefully, it doesn’t go to their heads.”

What looks to be a relatively easy schedule, with only the October 1 home game against Nebraska — the Cornhuskers’ inaugural conference game in the Big Ten — and the October 22 game at Michigan State, looking worrisome, probably won’t help the Badgers players from getting overconfident. (We should know by that October 29 game if a rebuilding Ohio State program is legit or not. I’m guessing not.)

Regular Season Prediction: 10-2, first in “Leaders” division.

First up:

Thursday, Sept. 1. UNLV. Camp Randall Stadium. 7 p.m. ESPN.

The line is 45-1/2 points. The Badgers haven’t lost a season opener since 1997. Even if Russell Wilson understandably starts out rusty, the outcome shouldn’t dampen the spirits of a wired Madison crowd hungry for football and another shot at the Rose Bowl.

Prediction: Wisconsin 35, UNLV 14.