CHICAGO - Stepping down from the podium at this time last year, Wisconsin Head Coach Bret Bielema was a bit surprised. He was the only head coach that didn't use his allotted 15-minute time slot not by choice, but by the lack of interest his team had generated coming off a 7-6 season.
Safe to say things are much different heading into this year.
Bielema was the first speaker to kick off the 39th Big Ten Media Days at Chicago's Hyatt Regency, which wasn't as big of burden as everyone expecting big things from Wisconsin.
Welcoming back 18 starters including Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year John Clay and senior quarterback Scott Tolzien, from last season 10-3 squad, the Badgers were tabbed by the Big Ten media to finish third in conference.
Ohio State, last year's Rose Bowl winner, was picked as the preseason favorite while Iowa was picked second. Michigan State's Greg Jones and Ohio State's Terrelle Pryor were selected as the Big Ten's Preseason Defensive and Offensive Players of the Year, respectively.
"The only way to guarantee tomorrow's success is by the work you put in today," Bielema said, "and I think our guys have really bought into that."
Part of that forward movement has been initiated by the Badgers' 13-member senior class, a group that saw that double-edge sword dealt with high expectations.
Wisconsin finished 12-1 in Bielema's first season in 2006, using a team that had a small core of dedicated senior leaders like Joe Monty and Joe Stellmacher. The next season, with Wisconsin returning the majority of its starters, the Badgers opened at No. 7 in the polls and climbed as high as No. 5 on two occasions. But after a 5-0 start, a rash of injuries contributed to a 9-4 finish and a No. 24 final ranking.
The 2006 season mirrors the 2009 season, and Bielema likes that his players still have a vague memory of the roller coaster that followed in 2007.
"The majority of our players that are going to be significant players in this year's senior class, all went through the scars of that season themselves, in addition to myself and several of my coaching staff," Bielema said. "We'll make note of any mistakes that were made that year, but, the 2010 season is based on the individuals that are in that room."
The room Bielema referred to was the meeting room he congregated his team in after the bowl game, a room that gave him his first enlightened moment.
In that first meeting in January, Bielema dismissed the rest of the team to speak to the 13 seniors. What he saw in the first two rows of the meeting hall was a group that involves all players having started one game.
"In my entire coaching career, that's never happened," Bielema said. "It's very unusual having that many guys play a significant role already before their senior year. It's exciting because all those seniors are in that room because I offered them a scholarship or an opportunity to be there. That's the first time I can say that … having a senior class come full circle."
One of those seniors is Tolzien, who spent the last three seasons as a reserve until winning the quarterback job in fall camp. Tolzien will enter the 2010 season as the unquestioned starting quarterback, having led the Big Ten in pass efficiency at 143.0, completed a school-record 211 passes and have his 2,705 passing yards be the second-most in school history.
"As a head coach it's an unbelievable feeling to know that answer's already there, and to have that answer be Scott Tolzien," Bielema said. "He's a perfectionist, he's a detail guy. I think as a person he's really grown even from a year ago to where we are today so much. He's got unbelievable confidence."
Look for from Coach Bielema later this afternoon after he meets with the local media