Lucky #13?

Badger Nation Editor Ronny Whitworth reacts to the release of Wisconsin's No. 13 ranking, announced today by Athlon Sports and The Insiders.

It might have taken some people by surprise when logging on this morning, reading that your beloved Badgers are ranked the thirteenth-best team in the nation by Athlon Sports.

Granted, Wisconsin has been ranked higher in the past and hasn't delivered. They've also been unranked and won championships. Ask any Division I coach, and they will tell you preseason polls aren't worth the paper they're printed on (of course, this poll won't be printed on paper until Athlon's magazine comes out June 6...sorry, I couldn't resist).

The question is, how realistic is Wisconsin's No. 13 ranking? Are the Badgers deserving of such a prominent ranking heading into the 2003 season?

Absolutely. After watching the Badgers practice throughout the spring, I came out convinced that Wisconsin is a legitimate Top 25 contender, and very deserving of a top 15 ranking heading into next year.

The critics will point to Jim Sorgi's record as a starter, the number of sacks the Badgers surrendered last season, the key losses on the offensive line and Wisconsin's dismal performance in the Big Ten last season.

But while this year's team is, once again, a young squad, it's a young squad mixed with a lot of experience, and a whole lot of talent. I firmly believe this offense has the potential to be one of, if not the most potent offenses in UW history.

Badger Nation readers are well aware why I believe that. Anthony Davis, Dwayne Smith, Lee Evans, Darrin Charles, Jonathan Orr, Matt Bernstein, Jim Sorgi...need I say more? The versatility and the depth of this offense is phenomenal. While Offensive Coordinator Brian White is always filled with enthusiasm, I've never seen him quite so ecstatic about his personnel. He is nearly bursting at the seams, ready to get this season started.

Yet while the strength of this team is certainly its offense, the defense could be one of the sleeper units on a national scale. After all of the major breakdowns over the last few years, very few people expect big things out of the UW defense.

But this unit could be a sleeping giant. If healthy, Jeff Mack ranks among one of the best linebackers in the country. Jim Leonhard is a returning All-American in the secondary, and Brett Bell and Robert Brooks might be the most improved players on either side of the ball.

The real strength, however, is the Badger defensive line. This is best defensive line at Wisconsin since the Tom Burke era. While the Badgers don't have any players in Burke's league, they have several that are close.

Anttaj Hawthorne is becoming the monster that people projected him as in high school. He is approaching a Wendell Bryant level of performance. Darius Jones, Erasmus James and Jonathan Welsh are all experienced, athletic weapons, and Jason Jefferson continues to be a force in the middle.

Defensive Line Coach John Palermo's philosophy of using 8-9 players in a rotation will pay its dividends this year, as it has in other championship seasons. Palermo's unit goes at least two-deep, if not three-deep in talent and experience, something very few teams can boast.

Don't get me wrong, not everything is rosey in Madison. There are some legitimate concerns that could throw a major wrench into the Badgers' plans this fall. Most prominent amongst the problem areas are left offensive tackle, tight end and punter. If the Badgers don't luck into finding another great punter, they could be in trouble. Things are so tight in the Big Ten that field position can often win or lose games. This could be a major issue.

And the one thing that stuck out in my mind when reading Athlon's analysis of Wisconsin's chances was its discussion of the Badgers' schedule. The experts at Athlon's believe Wisconsin's favorable Big Ten schedule gives it the edge over other teams in contention for the league championship.

The Badgers have Ohio State, Purdue, Michigan State and Iowa at home, while visiting Illinois, Penn State, Northwestern and Minnesota. But the one thing Athlon's might have overlooked is Wisconsin's recent performance at Camp Randall Stadium.

From those on the outside looking in, Camp Randall Stadium is a nearly impossible place to win, as it should be. But the reality is, it certainly hasn't been.

The Badgers' record in home Big Ten games since the last Rose Bowl is 3-9. That is absolutely unacceptable. When the captains address the team for the first time the first week of June, as players return for summer workouts, this should be one of the first things mentioned. For Wisconsin to be a true contender, not just on a national scale, but in the league, this has to be corrected immediately.

Wisconsin needs to look no further than Bo Ryan's club down the street to realize how important defending home turf is. The basketball program's dominance at the Kohl Center was the No. 1 factor in winning back-to-back Big Ten championships. And if the football Badgers can regain that Camp Randall pride, not letting anybody come in and win in one of the greatest environments in college sports, Wisconsin should finish this season where it is projected now...if not higher.

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