Can Wisconsin Defend Its Big Ten Title?
Wisconsin looks like the favorite in the Leaders Division to appear in the Big Ten Championship game. The fact that Ohio State will be ineligible for the game is certainly a major reason for that. Still, Phil Steele rates the Badgers ninth in the country and best in the Big Ten. The toughest game on their schedule might be the conference opener in Lincoln. A year ago, they blew the Huskers off the field in Madison. How will they perform in the rematch?
The departure of Russell Wilson should change things pretty dramatically. Wilson completed 14 of 20 passes for a gaudy 255 yards and two touchdowns against the Huskers a year ago. He added 32 yards rushing on six carries including a 10-yard touchdown scramble. They also lose receiver Nick Toon, who caught four balls for 94 yards and a touchdown against NU. Russell's replacement is former ACC rookie of the year Danny O'Brien. O'Brien is no Wilson clone. He's more of a poor man's Kirk Cousins. Cousins gave Nebraska exactly zero trouble last year in Lincoln. Expect similar results from O'Brien.
That's not to say that Wisconsin will be a pushover. Montee Ball carried the ball 30 times for 151 yards and four touchdowns against Nebraska in the last meeting. He's got three-fifths of his offensive line returning as well, though fullback Bradie Ewing and tight end Jake Byrne graduated. It's fair to say that NU's game plan will be to not allow Ball to score four touchdowns this year, even if he might top the century mark in yards again.
The Badger defense was good but not great a year ago. Martinez made them look pretty good by throwing three interceptions. Their return game has been impressive and could be critical in the rematch. Wisconsin has to break in a new kicker and punter this year though, so special teams could be uneven.
The overall schedule is pretty friendly to the Badgers. U-Dub should cruise to 4-0 in the nonconference before they head to Lincoln. Then they get Michigan State and Ohio State at home. Their season finale is at Penn State. No one else should give them a challenge in the regular season. Even without Wilson, they look like at least a ten win team.
The Badgers are likely to see either Michigan or Nebraska in the Big Ten championship game. On paper, they can compete with either team but wouldn't hold a decided advantage. So certainly Wisconsin can defend their title, even if they aren't an overwhelming favorite to do so. Things might be different if Ohio State could stand in their way. But all the Buckeyes can do is smudge U-Dub's win-loss record a bit. All that really seems to stand between Wisconsin and the Rose Bowl is winning in Indianapolis in December. There may be doubt about their odds there, but little doubt that they'll be there.