NCAA Football Preview - Wisconsin Badgers

2013 SEASON IN REVIEW: The number of Wisconsin fans still fuming over the sudden departure of former head coach Bret Bielema to Arkansas in December 2012 has dwindled considerably. That's because Bielema's replacement, former Utah State coach Gary Andersen, led the team to a 9-4 finish, a national ranking (21/22) and a New Year's Day bowl in his first year on the job.

For the most part, the Badgers beat the teams they were supposed to, although the season could have shaped up differently had they not lost at Arizona State in a controversial ending. Two weeks later, Wisconsin hung tough with the Ohio State Buckeyes, who were in the midst of a 24-game win streak, only to come up short in a 31-24 final. The Badgers responded by winning their next six games before getting tripped up at home by Penn State in the regular-season finale, 31-24.

Still, Wisconsin's nine wins were enough to earn the team an invite to the Capital One Bowl on New Year's Day, although No. 4 South Carolina prevailed in that one, 34-24.


OFFENSE: The starting quarterback job is up for grabs between a pair of redshirt juniors in Joel Stave, the incumbent, and Tanner McEvoy, the challenger, who played quarterback, wide receiver and safety in 2013. Stave appeared to have the upper hand throughout fall camp, and he did throw for 22 touchdowns (and 13 interceptions) while completing 62 percent of his passes a year ago.

Whoever wins the quarterback job, the offense will no doubt feature uber- talented running back Melvin Gordon, a 2013 Doak Walker Award semifinalist who averaged a ridiculous 124 rushing yards per game to go along with 12 touchdowns. Gordon put up those numbers while splitting time, but this year he'll have the backfield all to himself as there is no more James White and no more Montee Ball to cede carries.

Four starters return along the offensive line, which is headlined by right tackle Rob Havenstein.

However, questions abound on the outside, where Jordan Fredrick stands as the top returning wideout with 10 receptions in 2013. As even coach Andersen noted during his Big Ten media day remarks, the wide receiver position is a big question mark.

"We need a couple young men to step up," he said.

DEFENSE: Only three starters return on the defensive side of the ball.

"Defensively, a lot of new faces, the front seven especially," Andersen said. "I go back to the youth. They're athletic. They're excited about the opportunity to compete in the Big Ten. We're going to see where they sit in camp, see if they can hang in there with our offensive line from a physical standpoint.

"In fall camp, if they can do that, then we should be able to put together a pretty good defense. If they can't do that, then if you can't stop the run, you're going to have some struggles as you move through. But I expect they'll be able to get that done. Excited to watch them develop."

Among the returnees is strong safety Michael Caputo, who was second on the team with 63 tackles a year ago. Starting cornerbacks Darius Hillary and Sojourn Shelton (4 interceptions) also return.

However, the biggest void is at linebacker, particularly on the inside, where First-Team All-American and Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year Chris Borland roamed before graduating.

SPECIAL TEAMS: Punter Drew Meyer is back, although he averaged only 38.6 yards on 53 punts in 2013. Kicker Jack Russell also returns after going 9-of-13 on field goal attempts last season with a long of 48, but he did not handle kickoffs.

OUTLOOK: Wisconsin seems to be in the thick of the race for the Big Ten crown every year, and 2014 should be no different despite quite a bit of roster turnover. The team begins the season at No. 14 in the national polls.

The rushing attack figures to be a huge strength, but who will win the quarterback job, and who will emerge at receiver?

Without balance, opponents can stack the box to try and stop Gordon from going off. The defensive personnel is largely unproven, but that does not necessarily mean incapable.

The season-opener at LSU provides a good litmus test right off the bat. Looking ahead, the conference slate is certainly manageable as the Badgers will get league newcomers Maryland and Rutgers in crossover games against the East Division, while avoiding the likes of Michigan State, Ohio State, Penn State, Michigan and Indiana.

Barring a rash of injuries, another nine-win season should be within reach.