With its most complete team in nearly five seasons, how will Wisconsin cut its teeth to prepare for the rigorous Big Ten and a national championship push? With a non-conference schedule Bleacher Report calls the most 'cupcakified' non-conference schedule in America for 2010. Well, at least the Badgers should move up the polls week in and week out.
The reason for the top spot on the countdown was the combined records of the Badgers' four non-conference opponents in '09 (15-32) and with one of those teams (Austin Peay) being an FCS program. Even so, each game provides one challenge that could give a ranked-Wisconsin team fits. The season opener provides a couple.
The Badgers will start their season on the road for the first time since 2005, making their traditional one non-conference road trip to Las Vegas for a matchup with UNLV on September 4.
The Running Rebels (5-7 overall, 3-5 Mountain West) are starting a new regime, as Bobby Hauck takes over the program. Hauck went 80-17 in seven years at FCS Montana and Rebels fans are hoping he can start pushing forward a program that has gone 16-43 the last five seasons and finished near the bottom in every defensive category in the nation last year.
So there was little surprise when the media picked the Rebels to finish eighth in the nine-team Mountain West, especially when their 13-game involves nine opponents that appeared in bowl games last year.
But the inconsistencies didn't stay on the defensive side of the ball, especially when UNLV didn't have a 1,000-yard rusher and the quarterbacks threw 14 interceptions to just 17 touchdowns. In order for Hauck to have a more consistent offense, he'll need more production from his two quarterbacks.
Senior Omar Clayton was the primary passing threat and generally effective, completed 60 percent of his passes for 2,230 yards and 13 touchdowns. While Clayton could get some yards on the ground, junior Mike Clausen was the main signal-caller running, scoring for seven touchdowns on the ground, second best on the team.
Leading receiver Ryan Wolfe is gone, but leading running back senior Channing Trotter (541 yards, 9 touchdowns) and junior receiver Phillip Payne return to the offense. Payne was second in yards (661) and grabbed a team-best nine touchdowns, a key that should help UNLV transition from a spread offense to a pro-style offense that Hauck has success with in Montana.
With the exception of last year's manhandling of Hawaii, Wisconsin has had its share of tough non-conference road games. A year before eking out a 13-10 victory over another Mountain West opponent (13-10 at Fresno State), the Badgers needed a 29-yard run from Tyler Donovan in the final two minutes to earn a 20-13 in Vegas during the 07 season.
In that 07 game, the key for the Badgers was the running game. Capped by Donovan's run, Wisconsin out rushed UNLV 210 to 48, 147 yards of those coming from sophomore P.J. Hill. With John Clay being an early Heisman candidate and the Badgers returning all five offensive lineman, expect Clay to be running far into the desert.
Wisconsin traditionally doesn't overly impress in season-opening games, failing to cover the spread in the last three openers. A moot point, seeing as UW hasn't lost an opener since 1997 and with Clay carrying the Badgers, it shouldn't happen here.
If you go
Date/Time - Saturday, September 4 at 10 p.m. CT
Arena – Sam Boyd Stadium, Las Vegas
Series – Wisconsin leads 6-2
Last Meeting - Wisconsin won, 20-13, on Sept. 8, 2007 in Las Vegas
Early Prediction - Wisconsin 35, UNLV 13
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