As another off season of College Football material kicks off, this year marks the third year I’ll throw my hat in the ring and look at a number of topics and categories. In the process I’ll look to do everything from predicting next year’s 25 best teams, identify the games of the year, narrow down the Heisman field, identify those replacing 2012′s stars and ultimately make predictions for each league, culminating in a national championship pick. They’ll be many things I’ll be ridiculed for. There will be a number of things that will surprise some people. Ultimately you’ll come away from the next 6 months of material as ready for the college football season as I can possibly make you. While I’ll be sure to miss on things I would like to remind the skeptics I did correctly predict the same number of bowl teams preseason as Phil Steele a year ago as well as top him in BCS Bowl participants predicted before the year. Nonetheless I’m not putting out any magazines soon so keep buying his for the top preseason coverage available.
The key in any top 25 poll is understanding the premise on which the poll is based because not all top 25 polls are built the same way. Some people choose to rank teams 1-25 based on where they think teams will be ranked at year’s end. If they think a team will lose 5 games they won’t rank them. While that may seem logical I’ve never been a proponent of that style of poll and it has never been, nor will ever be, how I choose to do my top 25 polls. My polls reflect the 25 teams entering 2013 who I think are the top 25 teams on a neutral field if the country played a round-robin. If a team is likely to max out at 7 wins that doesn’t give me the urge to rank a nine-win team over them if the nine-win team is from a much weaker league. With that covered, let us continue the top 25 for 2013 as the official kickoff of the off season coverage here at The Sports Headquarters.
*Returning Starters Figures from Phil Steele’s Blog
Teams already ranked:
#25. Fresno State Bulldogs
#24 Vanderbilt Commodores
#23 USC Trojans
#22 Miami Hurricanes
#21 Ole Miss Rebels
#20 Boise State Broncos
Coming in at #19…
2012 Record: 8-6
Conference Finish: 3rd in Big Ten Leaders Division (Won Big Ten title game in light of OSU/PSU sanctions)
Bowl: Lost Rose Bowl 20-14 to Stanford
2013 Returning Starters: 8 offense, 7 defense
Things weren’t always sunny and pleasant for the Badgers offense in 2012 as the traditionally elite rushing attack had its struggles out of the gate and saw the team shut down by an at the time surprising Oregon State team and then limp to a win over Utah State. If there’s one thing from 2012 to 2013 that the Badgers have to get fixated and corrected it is the quarterback position and play. Transfer U as Wisconsin was beginning to become learned that there’s not a Russell Wilson in every transfer class after Danny O’Brien came to Madison and essentially laid an egg, getting benched before Joel Stave took over the starting job. Stave is back for his sophomore season and will likely have to hold off O’Brien again this spring. While Stave fared well and the team turned things around under him, I’d be surprised if the Badgers didn’t give O’Brien another shot to redeem himself this spring and take the starting position back. If the O’Brien of a few years back at Maryland ever surfaced he’d be the best QB on the roster.
Regardless of who takes over at QB to start the year the Badgers will have a solid collection of receivers/tight ends to make the signal caller’s job easier. Only one receiver, Jared Abbrederis caught 30 or more passes a year ago, in large part to the Badgers run first offense but Addrederis, tight end Jacob Pedersen and wide receiver Jordan Fredrick all come back as the team’s top three pass catchers a year ago. Nonetheless the passing game again should only amount to a fraction of the Badgers offense in 2013 with the biggest impact again coming from the run game. Just about any talk of Wisconsin’s offense in 2013 will focus heavily on the departure of Montee Ball who finished with the most touchdowns in FBS history for a career. Quite frankly Ball was one of the sport’s all-time most accomplished backs and replacing him would prove difficult for most. For Wisconsin it still may, but the drop off won’t be substantial.
James White returns for his senior season and will finally have the backfield to himself after taking a back seat to Montee Ball and John Clay in recent years. White is essentially a guy who has 1500 yard capabilities in the Badgers backfield who simply didn’t get the touches. Keep in mind Ball carried the ball 356 times a season ago, nearly three times as many carries as White’s 125 and yet White still rushed for over 800 yards. White will get the carries this year and should be in store for a big senior season. The Badgers run game is in perfectly good hands and a big reason for that is the stability along the offensive line. Like running backs, Wisconsin’s O-Line will again be a strength of the team with three starters from a year ago back, all juniors or seniors. Who is plugged in next to the three usually is just a preview to future all-Big Ten talent as is. Wisconsin should once again be running the ball down team’s throats in 2013.
Perhaps the most surprising stat of all for Wisconsin in 2012 was that its defense finished the year 15th nationally in yards allowed per game. The defense only allowed 30+ points twice showing the Badgers were rarely ever blown out last year and frankly better than its final record indicated. The strength of the defense was a front seven that ranked 23rd in the country against the run, an impressive statistic when you consider Wisconsin didn’t stand out nationally in either the sack department or tackles for loss. This was a solid group that was fundamentally sound and made its tackles when it approached the ball carrier. Part of the carryover from its strong run defense as well as pass defense that ranked 17th in the country (in part to its league) was a third down defense that was elite at getting off the field. When you look at the list of teams who led the country in third down defense, more often than not you’re looking at a top 25 caliber teams.
While leading tackler Mike Taylor leaves, Chris Borland and Ethan Armstrong both return for their senior seasons to anchor the linebacker core which served as the three leading tacklers on the Badgers last season. The entire defensive line is back as well though none put up stellar numbers in 2012 and may need to make that next step forward to ensure the Badgers maintain their status as a top front seven. In all six of the front seven return, all seniors, giving Wisconsin one of the more experienced front sevens in the country. On the back side is where the Badgers will be hit with only one returning starter from a strong secondary. With that said, given the brand of football played in the Big Ten, that may not be a fatal issue. Dezmen Southward returns, the top tackler from outside the linebacker position a year ago to cement the free safety position and will have to carry a burden as the senior leader to tie up any loose ends early in the season.
Biggest area of concern for Wisconsin coming off 2012? Beyond the need for more pressure generated from the front four, the red zone defense ranked last in the FBS in 2012. As in nobody was worst. Bottom of the pile. You get it. 94% of opponents red zone drives resulted in points. 66% of those drives turned into touchdowns for the opponent. If Wisconsin wants any minuscule shot at winning the Leaders Division, they have to clean that mess up.
Wisconsin probably isn’t ready to compete for a BCS at-large bid as they may have been able to in recent years if it wasn’t winning the conference, but the schedule sets up fairly favorably. The Badgers out of conference schedule starts with perhaps the worst FBS team in America Umass and FCS Tennessee Tech before the Badgers travel to Tempe to play a pesky Sun Devils. Mid season the Badgers welcome BYU to town in a game that should be a race to 10 points. In Big Ten play the Badgers miss Michigan, Michigan State and Nebraska in 2013 giving Wisconsin a nice cross-division slate that could play a factor in the division race. How the Badgers fare early in their conference schedule should tell us all we need to know about their chances of getting past Ohio State and back to the Big Ten Championship game. The Badgers get Ohio State on the road and then after a bye Northwestern at home, perhaps the two toughest games they’ll play. A trip to Iowa and the year end matchup against Penn State also will present challenges to first year coach Gary Andersen. Badgers should be good for 8-9 wins if the quarterback position doesn’t derail.
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