2012 Program Preview - Wisconsin

Wisconsin OT Ricky Wagner continues the long-running legacy of Badger offensive linemen who like cheese curds. I have no idea if that's true. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

Every time a team, college or pro, replaces a tenured, legacy-building coach, things fail. The team tanks. The grass that was supposed to be greener turns out to be spray painted.

Somehow, Bret Bielema has disproven that.

After Barry Alvarez brought the Badgers out of the basement of the conference throughout the 90s and into the 21st century, Bielema has led the program to six consecutive winning seasons. Weathering the turnover of Alvarez's team before his own recruiting victories could take over the names in bold atop the depth chart, Wisconsin has been to two straight Rose Bowls...despite losing them both to Oregon earlier this year and TCU on New Years' Day, 2011.

Exit Russell Wilson (who transferred from North Carolina State), enter Danny O'Brien (who escaped unscathed from Randy Edsall's talons at Maryland) to quarterback the Badgers. Montee Ball is back to try and replicate his 33-touchdown 2011 season. The defense, largely relying on a very strong linebacking unit, shouldn't be far behind their 2011 grouping that posted a 13th-best 19 points per game mark.

With Ohio State and Penn State ineligible for postseason play, this is easily my Leaders division favorite. It should be yours too.

After the jump, the prospects worth noting as well as some games and matchups to pencil into your calendar.

References

Bucky's 5th Quarter (SB Nation Wisconsin community), Off Tackle Empire (SB Nation conference community), SB Nation team page, official team site, Bill Connelly's preview for SBN, CBS Sports preview

Notable offensive prospects

Name POS Yr. Early projected Rd (notes)
Ricky Wagner OT RS Sr. 1-2
Montee Ball RB Sr. 3
Travis Frederick G/C RS Jr. 1
Jacob Pedersen TE RS Jr. 5
James White RB Jr. 6
Jared Abbrederis WR RS Jr. 6
Jeff Duckworth WR RS Jr. UD
Danny O'Brien QB RS Jr. UD


Notable defensive prospects

Name POS Yr. Early projected Rd (notes)
Mike Taylor OLB RS Sr. 4
Shelton Johnson SS RS Sr. 7
Devin Smith CB Sr. UD (injury - leg)
Marcus Cromartie CB RS Sr. UD
Brendan Kelly DE RS Sr. UD
Chris Borland ILB RS Jr. 4
David Gilbert DE RS Jr. UD (injury - foot)
Dezmen Southward SS RS Jr. UD


Summary

It's strange going through this roster and looking back at the 2010 and 2011 recruiting classes and then gauging where this program is from an NFL perspective. Whatever the factors are, and I leave that to smarter guys than myself, Wisconsin is putting up the talent worth paying attention to.

In the 2012 NFL Draft, Kevin Zeitler and Peter Konz ensured Wisconsin provided a pick apiece in the first two rounds in April. "Lil'" Russell Wilson headed to Seattle in round three, and Nick Toon went to the Saints in round four. That's a program pushing NFL talent across the three-day slate.

Expect the same in eight months.

Key games

Nebraska (away) - Week 5 (Sat., Sep. 29 - 8:00 p.m. ET, ABC)

Bret Bielema and Bo Pelini. In the same 1-mile radius. Make sure you have your bomb shelter stocked with canned vegetables and canned fruits and canned meats and canned cans and canned football videos.

Wisconsin's early Big Ten schedule is as soft as you'll find, and with this as the opener to conference play, it's a crucial match for both.

Oh, and Bielema and Pelini. Your mute button will need to be used should you have minors in the vicinity of your television.

Michigan State (home) - Week 9 (Sat., Oct. 27 - 3:30 p.m. ET, ABC)

Going off of the "easy schedule" theme, Wisconsin gets a bit of a counterweight here with a cross-division game against a very strong Michigan State team. With the bye looming after this one, Wisconsin should come focused. For the Spartans though, this comes after a prior away game against Michigan and ahead of a home game against Nebraska. I'm not saying Michigan State won't come into this entirely on point. I'm also not saying they will. Yay predictions.

Key matchups

RB Montee Ball v. Illinois LB Jonathan Brown, Week 6 - Sat., Oct. 6

Wisconsin follows the aforementioned road contest versus Nebraska by returning home to face a stout Illinois team that should compete in 2012. The Illini are a quality team this year, but they've got to improve on their 2-6 conference mark from last season. This mid-season matchup between Ball and Illinois' standout linebacker should tell us quite a bit about both.

C Travis Frederick v. Ohio St. DT Johnathan Hankins, Week 12 - Sat., Nov. 17

Frederick moves over to the center position full-time this season after starting 11 games at left guard last year. He's got experience at the position dating back to his true freshman season in 2009. With he and Hankins both potential day one targets coming into the season at a combined 650 lbs., roughly, this is a matchup well worth watching.

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