The 12th-ranked Wisconsin Badgers begin their 2012 at home, as they welcome the Northern Iowa Panthers to Madison for a showdown at Camp Randall Stadium.
Bret Bielema's squad made its second straight Rose Bowl appearance, capturing the Big Ten title with a victory over the Michigan State Spartans in the inaugural Big Ten Championship Game. Despite winning the conference, the season ended on a sour note, as Wisconsin lost a shootout with the Oregon Ducks, as the two schools combined for a Rose Bowl record 83 points (45-38).
UNI is an FCS powerhouse, entering the season as the ninth-ranked team in the land. Head coach Mark Farley enters his 12th season at the helm and is looking for his 100th victory (99-40). He has led the Panthers to seven conference titles, seven playoff appearances, three national semifinal appearances and one national title game. Last season, NIU finished 10-3 overall, including a 7-1 finish in the MVFC, good for a first-place tie.
This marks the first-ever meeting between these two teams on the gridiron.
Not an explosive offensive team by any stretch, Northern Iowa averaged 26.1 ppg in 2011, gaining 334.5 yards of total offense per contest. The ground game was productive though at 167.8 yards per game.
Unfortunately, a great deal of the offense came from quarterback Tirrell Rennie, who not only threw for 1,802 yards and 14 TDs, but also led the team in rushing (885 yards, 9 TDs). Tailback David Johnson returns though after a stellar redshirt freshman year where he rushed for 822 yards and 9 scores. Johnson also finished second on the team in receptions (33), for 422 yards and 3 more TDs.
The quarterback position will be manned by a youngster, as redshirt freshman Sawyer Kollmorgen begins atop the depth chart. Kollmorgen is the fifth freshman in school history to start at the QB position. The receiving corps has a little more experience, led by senior Terrell Sinkfield (28 receptions, 464 yards, 5 TDs).
A strong defensive unit was a key to NIU's success last season, as the team allowed just 19.0 ppg and was particularly strong against the pass (194.8 ypg).
There is a nice core of returning starters that could continue that trend in 2012, highlighted by senior CBs Varmah Sonie (70 tackles, 2 INTs) and J.J. Swain (69 tackles, 3 INTs). Strong safety Garrett Scott (105 tackles, 4 INTs) adds to the strength of the NIU defense with his play in the secondary.
Quarterback Russell Wilson, the most efficient passer in the nation a year ago, has moved on to the NFL. The Wisconsin offense must also replace three all- conference linemen, including first-round pick Kevin Zeitler. On top of those departures, offensive coordinator Paul Chryst also left to become the head coach at Pittsburgh. Then, in the early-morning hours of Aug. 1, senior Montee Ball, the third-leading rusher in the nation and a Heisman runner-up last season, was attacked by five men in what police called an "unprovoked assault." Ball did not participate in the start of summer camp, but should be good to go to start the year.
The reigning Big Ten Offensive Player of the year is coming off a 1,923-yard rushing season in which he tied Barry Sanders' NCAA record with 39 touchdowns and was named a Heisman finalist. Fortunately for Wisconsin, Ball decided to return for his senior season and will be joined in the backfield once again by James White, a junior, who has amassed 1,765 yards and 20 TDs over the last two seasons.
New coordinator Matt Canada will look to Maryland transfer Danny O'Brien to run the offense. Bielema is hopeful he can tap into the skills that earned O'Brien ACC Rookie of the Year honors as a redshirt freshman a couple of seasons ago. O'Brien takes over the reins of a Wisconsin offense that ranked sixth in the nation last year in scoring (44.1 ppg).
Bielema squelched any comparison between Wilson and O'Brien.
"As far as the comparison, I get it. Understand it. They both came from the ACC. Both transfers. But that's the end of the similarities. Danny, I think, what fans might be a little bit -- he does move very, very well. I've been very pleased with what he's been able to do on the move. Create some plays. I always say: A sign of a great quarterback is someone who can make something out of nothing. I think he has that ability."
Junior wideout and return specialist Jared Abbrederis leads the way in the receiving corps after hauling in 55 passes for 933 yards and eight scores a year ago. Junior tight end Jacob Pederson earned Second-Team All-Big Ten honors after catching 8 touchdown passes in 2011.
Senior left tackle Ricky Wagner now anchors the revamped offensive line.
On the other side of the ball, Wisconsin ranked 13th nationally in scoring defense (19.0 ppg) and 15th in total defense (316.4 ypg) a year ago.
A big reason for that was a linebacking corps that was arguably the best in the nation. Two key members of that unit return in junior middle linebacker Chris Borland (5-11, 250) and senior weakside LB Mike Taylor (6-2, 222). Taylor led the Big Ten with 150 tackles in 2011, including nine for loss. He also forced three fumbles and came up with two sacks and two interceptions. In the middle, Borland earned consensus First-Team All-Big Ten honors after posting 143 tackles, including 19 TFLs. Borland also had five forced fumbles, 2.5 sacks and two INTs.
In the secondary, Wisconsin must somehow replace safety Aaron Henry and cornerback Antonio Fenelus, two members of the All-Big Ten First-Team a year ago. The likely candidates to excel in the secondary this year are the safety tandem of senior Shelton Johnson (6-0, 200) and junior Dezmen Southward (6-2, 210).
Despite going up against an FCS program, Bielema knows that Northern Iowa presents a challenge.
"We didn't have to tell our guys twice that this is a very good football team. Obviously coach (Mark) Farley had a long-standing tradition and history of playing well against FCS schools."