For the first time in school history, Wisconsin claimed a third-consecutive Big Ten title after it defeated Nebraska, 70-31, in the 2012 Big Ten Football Championship; arguably the shining moment in a season that was ultimately disappointing.
Yes Wisconsin made it three straight trips to Pasadena as conference champions, but the Badgers still lost four of its final six games (including three regular season games in overtime and a third-straight Rose Bowl by a touchdown or less) and the offense – outside of another solid season by Doak Walker Award winner Montee Ball – was atrocious.
UW used three different quarterbacks throughout the season, fired its offensive line coach after a nonconference loss at Oregon State in week two and never developed much of a passing threat, making UW a one-dimensional attack. As a result, the Badgers defense - ranked 15th nationally in total defense (322.6 yards per game) and 17th nationally in scoring defense (19.1 points per game) – could ill afford to make any mistakes in all games against above-average teams.
That's one of the reasons change was embraced in Madison after the season. Bielema surprised most, including athletic director and close friend Barry Alvarez, by bolting for Arkansas days after beating Nebraska, allowing former Utah State coach Gary Andersen to take his first BCS coaching job. He's embraced the move by creating a family-first atmosphere in the program, tweaking Wisconsin's offense and defense and brought in a staff that matches his energy and personality.
After last season's frustrating performances week after week, optimism has returned to Madison as Wisconsin looks to compete for a fourth straight conference title.
A look at the offense
Even with Ball heading to the NFL after a historic career (5,738 all-purpose and an NCAA-record 83 career touchdowns in his four-year career), Wisconsin's running game isn't expected to miss a beat with senior James White and sophomore Melvin Gordon ready to receive the bulk of the carries.
Wisconsin has two of the best players at its position in the conference in senior receiver Jared Abbrederis (tops among active FBS players with an average of 16.7 yards per catch) and senior tight end Jacob Pedersen (the conference' tight end of the year last year), but the Badgers spent most of fall unsuccessfully trying to develop depth at the wide receiver position. As a result, UW has experimented with multiple tight end sets to utilize the experience at the position.
Wisconsin loses two starters off its 2012 offensive line, but the Badgers always find a way to replace All-Big Ten players with equally talented players. The position to watch, again, for Wisconsin is quarterback. Sixth-year senior quarterback Curt Phillips and sophomore Joel Stave, who each started games in 2012, took the majority of the reps with the first team in the fall as Andersen looks to develop a quarterback who can be a true dual threat.
A look at the defense
First-year defensive coordinator Dave Aranda brings an aggressive, in-your-face style to Wisconsin that his defenders have embraced fully. Switching UW from a traditional 4-3 defense to a 3-4 attack, Aranda showed the willingness throughout spring practices to blitz on any down and send pressure from all areas of the field.
That suits Wisconsin's experienced personnel, as the Badgers return three starters on the defensive line and two starters among the linebackers, including senior middle linebacker Chris Borland, who is one of the best linebackers in the country.
Wisconsin's secondary had the most question marks entering the fall after losing three seniors off last year's starting lineup, but cornerbacks Peniel Jean and Darius Hillary has a nice camp and UW was even able to develop some depth at safety with Michael Caputo and Leo Musso making solid progress as camp wore on.
Best offensive player
Despite starting just two games in his career, White – the Big Ten Freshman of the Year in 2010 - enters 2013 as the NCAA's rushing leader among active running backs who have stayed with one team with 2,571 career yards. White is 12th in school history in career rushing yards and his 6.1 yards per carry over his career is also tops among active tailbacks.
Next to White is Gordon, who averaged 10.0 yards per carry and torched Nebraska for 216 yards on just nine carries in Wisconsin's win over Nebraska in the conference championship game. Gordon's presence will push White constantly throughout the season.
Best defensive player
Named a captain his junior season, Chris Borland enters his senior season with 308 career tackles. That ranks 19th in school history and the Ohio-native needs 144 to become the all-time UW leader.
With 41.5 tackles for loss in his career, Borland ranks fourth among active players returning in 2013 and also has forced 14 fumbles in his career. That is the most in school history and the most among active NCAA players. Entering 2013, he trails Ryan Kerrigan of Purdue by just one for the Big Ten career record.
In Wisconsin's new 3-4 defense, Andersen says Wisconsin is going to make Borland more involved in the pass rush game to utilize his natural abilities. If that holds true, UW's defense has the potential to be even better.
The team will be far better if…
The quarterback play improves, which was the team's death sentence last year when the quarterback couldn't open up the defense with a down-field passing game and make the critical play when needed. Wisconsin found itself juggling quarterbacks often through 2012 because of injuries and inconsistencies.
The Badgers used two quarterbacks in seven of their 14 games last season, going 4-3 in those games. Whoever Andersen picks needs to assert himself as "the guy" and be able to move the ball consistently.
Key player to a successful season:
After an entire spring and fall camp, it's evident that Wisconsin doesn't have a go-to wide receiver who can compliment Abbrederis, meaning the Badgers' passing attack would be a wreck if Abbrederis wasn't around or couldn't play. Having another solid camp, Abbrederis is confident that the issues that plagued him at the end of last season have dissipated, and that he is ready to take on a bigger role within the offense.
Wisconsin will play a nonconference road game against a Pac 12 opponent for the second straight year (Arizona State on Sept.14) and a nonconference game against BYU during Big Ten play that could pose an interesting challenge, especially considering Andersen's background playing BYU at Utah State.
Wisconsin's conference schedule is far from murderer's row. Because of the conference's unbalanced scheduling, Wisconsin loses Michigan State (which has had UW's number in the regular season over the last several years) and Nebraska and replaced them with a road game at Iowa and a home game against Northwestern, which hasn't won in Madison since 2000. UW certainly will take that switch.
At Ohio State. This game could decide who represents the Leaders Division in the Big Ten Championship game in Indianapolis. The Buckeyes gave Wisconsin on its of three overtime losses last season on its way to their perfect season, but had to watch the Badgers represent the division in the championship game because of the sanctions levied upon them as a result of the Jim Tressel-Terrelle Pryor cover up.
In the second year under Urban Meyer, the Buckeyes are one of the early favorites to not only win the conference but compete for the national championship. Wisconsin hasn't won in Columbus in 2003, including all three trips with Bielema as the head coach, who had more than a couple public spats with Meyer.
That bad blood is gone now considering Andersen worked for Meyer at Utah and considers him a close friend. It's a great early-season test for Wisconsin in its conference road opener.
Mark down the wins: Massachusetts, Tennessee Tech, Purdue, at Illinois, at Iowa, Indiana, Penn State.
Toss ups: at Arizona State, Northwestern, BYU at Minnesota
Need some breaks: at Ohio State
Best-case scenario: Andersen uses his insider knowledge to help an undefeated Wisconsin upset Ohio State in Columbus. The win gives Wisconsin enough momentum to run through its remaining easy schedule. The Badgers make their annual pilgrimage to Big Ten championship game and their fourth straight trip to Pasadena, but will be playing for the national championship and not in the 100th Rose Bowl.
Meanwhile in Fayetteville, Bielema struggles to call the ‘Hogs and Arkansas goes 4-8, including a 1-7 mark in the SEC. Arkansas AD Jeff Long realizes he's made a mistake, fires Bielema after the season and hires defensive line coach Charlie Partridge as his replacement.
Worst-case scenario: Wisconsin weak start to the season doesn't accurately prepare them for the tough conditions in Phoenix, as the Badgers succumb in the desert to the Sun Devils. UW drops games at Ohio State, against a feisty Northwestern team, a defensive slugfest against BYU and both trophy games on the road. Luckily, Wisconsin retains Paul Bunyan's Axe since the Gophers players don't know what it looks like and can't locate it until its successfully smuggled out of the city.
Injuries ravage the offensive line, causing UW's lack of depth to be exposed and the offense to again stall. UW's young secondary falters and the placekicking can't find its footing for a second straight season. Wisconsin goes 8-4, watches Ohio State win the Big Ten championship and Bielema raise a SEC title banner and UW gets a preview of its 2014 season opener by playing its bowl game in Houston.