Before last season, only eight Wisconsin players were recognized as preseason All-Big Ten players or named to award watch lists. After returning 43 letterwinners and 18 starters from its 10-win team, No.12 Wisconsin has 19 players recognized by those same outlets, creating the realistic buzz that the Badgers could make their first Rose Bowl since 2000.
The outside expectations are there, but the goals inside the locker room at the University of Wisconsin are unwavering, no matter what is said in the court of public opinion.
"Going into fall camp a year ago, there were the same expectations within the program that there are this year," Head Coach Bret Bielema said. "Maybe the outside expectations weren't as high but I know this, a team that is accountable to one another without even the coaches getting involved will probably give you your best chances to win. This group has really has shown me some signs of doing that."
Accountability was the major theme that Bielema instituted heading into his last season. After a disappointing 7-6 season with tension in the locker room and egos became enlarged, Bielema's message was clear: re-establish Wisconsin football. To do that: players had to be accountable for themselves and their teammates.
When the Badgers take on Nevada-Las Vegas at San Boyd Stadium Saturday night, the message hasn't been altered.
"We've got to try to be accountable (every year)," senior quarterback Scott Tolzien said. "Our goals are back to the 1-0 philosophy, which has always been the best success of our program when we take it one game at a time. It's all about preparation and maximizing each day … I think overall, we had a pretty good camp."
The fall camp has set the tone for what could be a very positive month of September for Wisconsin. Over the next four weeks, UW, which has won 24 consecutive regular-season games against non-conference foes, will play four unranked non-conference foes, teams that went a combined 15-32 last year. UNLV is in a stage-one rebuilding phase under first-year Head Coach Bobby Hauck, who just completed a successful seven-year stint at FCS Montana.
Hauck has his work cut out for him, seeing as he's facing the top rushing offense in the Big Ten last season and the Rebels finished 112th in rushing defense (220.58 ypg) and 103rd in scoring defense (32.42 points per game). Since coming to Vegas, however, Hauck has been retooling different areas of the squad, making the schemes UNLV will run challenging to prepare for.
"It makes it a little more complicated, but I think that's the exciting about being a player," Tolzien said. "We aren't 100 percent sure of the looks we are going to get. We're going to be as thorough as possible and prepare for as many things as possible. Once the game starts, we'll find out what kind of find out what their flavor is going to be."
Any way one slices it, the offense is expected to be good. The Badgers front five average over 6-foot-5 and 323 pounds and have started 90 career games, junior running back John Clay is the reigning Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year after scoring 18 touchdown last season and the offense was one of six schools in the country last season to average over 200 yards both passing and rushing.
While the defense expects to find its niche with newcomers at the defensive line and budding potential at cornerback, the upperclassmen on offense are ready to be accountable for UW's success.
"I think this game will set the tone for the season," senior wide receiver Isaac Anderson said. "Last year (against Northern Illinois), we came out pretty strong our first game. We want to come out on the road and show the country what we got heading into the season. We definitely want to leave no doubt on the field."