Why? Because making lists and ranking sports items on arbitrary criteria sparks debate, which you can bring to the premium board.
1, Lance Kendricks, TE — Although quarterback is a more important position and the running back remains the reigning Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year, Kendricks takes the initial top spot based on several factors.
First, his talent is undeniable, as Miami can reluctantly attest to. With a returning quarterback and offensive line, there is little reason to think that Kendricks can't put up numbers similar to Travis Beckum from several years ago. Most importantly, however, Kendricks gives UW an edge other Big Ten opponents cannot contend with.
Everyone knows Wisconsin is going to run the ball, and Kendricks ranks as an asset on moving linebackers off the ball in the running game. But try covering him with the same linebackers he blocks on a play-action pass and watch Kendricks spring free in the middle of the field over and over again. Matchup nightmare doesn't do justice to the headache Kendricks can create Big Ten defensive coordinators. Kendricks flashed last year. If he can put together consistent playmaking this season, his value to the Badgers will smell like roses.
2, Scott Tolzien, QB — Tolzien played above expectations in 2009 … except for two games. Against Iowa and Ohio State, Tolzien was taken for five interceptions, didn't complete a touchdown toss and finished for the only two times last season with a college passer rating below 100. Not surprisingly, both games were losses. Tolzien led the Big Ten in passer rating last year and showed up well against Miami to end the year. With Nick Toon and Kendricks to throw to, and typical Wisconsin running game to open up play-action, another strong year should be in the making. Tolzien's next challenge is obvious. How Tolzien performs against the Buck and Hawk eyes could make the difference between an average year and a special one.
3, J.J. Watt, DE — Replace O'Brien Schofield. While the coaches will never tell Watt this and the junior defensive end likely wouldn't admit it on record, the goal couldn't be more clear for Wisconsin's only proven playmaker on the defensive line. Schofield's constant harassment in the backfield helped cover up a weak secondary in 2009 and helped lead to the top run defense in the Big Ten. If Wisconsin wishes to hold that prestigious title again, Watt will have to command regular double teams and beat them in a way Schofield would be proud of. He has the size, athleticism and non-stop motor required. Now he just has to deal with the attention that comes from being the top player on UW's front four.
4, Gabe Carimi, LT — A potential first round pick in the 2011 NFL draft, Carimi has expressed one wish to the football gods this season: please let it be a healthy one. The Badgers have gotten three years of starts from Carimi, but he rarely has he been in once piece. Last season, Carimi had shoulder issues that limited him at times to pass protection with one hand in the crucial loss to Iowa. Unable to lift his shoulder up to even pad level, Carimi was beaten occasionally in pass pro — especially against Iowa defensive end Adrian Clayborn — as he was reduced to a one armed punch. With no reliable backup, Carimi must stay upright (and strong) to keep the Badgers championship hopes alive as the senior captain protects Tolzien's blind side.
5, Chris Borland, LB — The short, but hardly diminutive, pass rushing dervish made an instant impact last season, registering sacks, tackles for a loss, blocked punts, kickoff returns and even three made extra points. Oh yeah, and he was named Big Ten Freshman of the Year. With Mike Taylor still recovering from a knee injury, Borland will need to keep up his playmaking while playing every down. His progress is vital for a defense that needs pass rush to protect a suspect secondary.
6, John Clay, RB — And finally the workhorse appears on the list. Clay's spot at No. 6 is not a reflection of Clay's skills or abilities. Rather it's a compliment to the backs behind the junior. Sophomore Montee Ball and freshman James White are more then capable of spelling Clay, and with the big back's injury history, extra rest might not be a bad idea. When healthy and fit, Clay can matchup with any runner in the country. He will start at UNLV, but Bret Bielema has implied he will come out often as Clay is still working himself back into shape after off-season ankle surgery.
7, Aaron Henry, FS — Although solid last year, Jay Valai was far from a playmaker in centerfield. With a revolving door of starting corner backs, it will be imperative that Henry takes to his new position quickly and makes quarterbacks think twice before throwing to his zone. Henry flashed playmaking at corner as a freshman. He will need to do the same as the last line of defense this season.