MADISON, Wis. – The last time Wisconsin had hopes of elbowing its way into college football's elite, the Badgers flinched.
Now facing a similar situation two years later, they think they're better equipped for the challenge.
"We're going to face adversity," Tolzien told reporters at the recent Big Ten media day in Chicago. "When we do, are we going to break apart like we did two years ago, or are we going to stick together?"
Coming off last season's 10-3 campaign and Champs Sports Bowl victory over Miami, the Badgers have the ingredients to make a breakthrough, even if they're often found behind Ohio State and Iowa in preseason conference predictions.
"Because of those players that we returned, and because of the way that we finished the season a year ago, there's a lot of high expectations and a lot of people saying nice things about us," coach Bret Bielema said. "But the thing we really tried to instill since January to where we are today (is) the only way you can guarantee tomorrow's success is to put your work in today. And I think our guys have really bought into that."
Going into his fifth year as the Badgers' coach, Bielema now has a program filled with his own recruits. Wisconsin has experience, especially on offense, and goes into camp relatively healthy.
"It's very unusual to have that many guys that have played such a significant role during their time already before their senior year," Bielema said. "So it's exciting for me because all of those seniors are in that room because I have offered them a scholarship or allowed them an opportunity to be there. And that's the first time I can say that since being the head coach at Wisconsin. This will be my first senior class that's come full circle."
That includes Tolzien, who provides the stability at quarterback that has been elusive for Bielema.
"As a head coach, it's an unbelievable feeling to know that answer's already there," Bielema said.
Taking over as the starter last season, Tolzien threw for 2,705 yards with a 64.3 completion percentage.
But he wasn't at his best in a couple of the Badgers' biggest games, throwing a combined five interceptions and no touchdowns while taking 10 sacks in back-to-back losses to Ohio State and Iowa.
"One of the things that he really struggled with a year ago he was so successful in high school, academically and athletically he never had experienced failure," Bielema said. "He never experienced anything that kind of was a bump in the road. When we had a couple of those it really took him back. And he's really done a good job of observing."
Bielema calls Tolzien a perfectionist and says he has put in the work it takes to improve.
Tolzien's passing provided balance to what traditionally has been a run-first offense.
The Badgers return 10 starters to an offense that led the Big Ten in scoring at 31.8 points per game and total offense with 416.9 yards per game. Wisconsin led major college football in time of possession, holding the ball for an average of 33:55.
Running back John Clay, the Big Ten's offensive player of the year, had 1,517 yards rushing and 18 touchdowns last season. But Clay is coming off surgery on both ankles and faced questions about his weight in the offseason.
Clay said he wants to regain his burst this season, hoping to juke people instead of trying to run over them.
"I had a burst here and there in some games, and sometimes I would get caught from behind," Clay said.
The Badgers must replace five starters on defense, including defensive end O'Brien Schofield, both defensive tackles and safety Chris Maragos. They'll lean heavily on defensive end J.J. Watt and a strong linebacker group that includes Chris Borland, the Big Ten's freshman of the year.
Wisconsin was 17th in the country in total defense last year, allowing 305.7 yards of offense per game. They were especially good against the run, allowing 88.2 yards rushing per game.
Keep it up on both sides of the ball, and the Badgers won't have to look back at their disappointing 2008 season.
"The majority of our players that are going to be significant players in this year's senior class all went through the scars of that season themselves, in addition to myself and several (members) of my coaching staff," Bielema said. "So, yeah, we'll make note of any mistakes that were made that year. But, again, the 2010 season is based on the individuals that are in that room and we'll just kind of move ourselves forward."