Originally posted on Fox Sports Wisconsin  |  Last updated 1/6/12
MADISON, Wis. - In the world of big-time college football, change is wrapped into the very fiber of the sporting culture. Coaches change teams, seeking more lucrative contracts and opportunities. Players shuffle through the turnstiles, transferring or graduating or bolting for the NFL after each season. Turnover is the nature of the system, and it makes producing consistent winning programs even more challenging. Wisconsin is no different from most major programs in this regard. In six seasons, Badgers coach Bret Bielema has dealt with his share of assistant coaches leaving and all-conference starters graduating. And he deserves kudos for maintaining stability anyway, churning out three straight 10-win seasons for the first time in program history. That's all great. Except that the key to success moving forward doesn't lie in the past. And in order to succeed next season, he'll have to be particularly adept at handling change. Because it will be the most challenging, uprooting season Bielema will have faced in some time. Half of Wisconsin's starters from this season's Rose Bowl team will be gone -- including star quarterback Russell Wilson. Nearly half of the Badgers' assistant coaches will be, too -- including offensive coordinator Paul Chryst. In a world with this much rocky ground, where can Bielema look for some solid footing? On Thursday, he found at least part of -- though certainly not the only -- answer, when running back Montee Ball announced his decision to stay at Wisconsin for his senior season. Ball bypassed dollar signs and demonstrated a loyalty rarely seen from those in a similar position. What it means for Wisconsin's football team is that its supposed drop-off might not be as steep as originally anticipated. It could even put the Badgers into the conversation among the early favorites to win the Leaders Division for a second straight year despite wholesale changes. After all, no one else in the conference has a returning Heisman finalist on its roster. Ohio State may be on the rise under first-year coach Urban Meyer, but the Buckeyes can't play in the conference championship thanks to a one-year postseason ban. Penn State's program is in shambles. Purdue hasn't been to a bowl game in five years and finished just .500 this season. Illinois, meanwhile, lost its last six conference games and hired a new coach, and Indiana didn't win a single Big Ten game. Though Ball's decision seems to belie conventional wisdom -- will he ever have a better season than he did in 2011? -- it gives Wisconsin's offense a fighting chance. Wisconsin will have two 1,000-yard rushers rotating in the backfield. James White gained 1,052 as a freshman in 2010. Ball gained 1,923 this season. Perhaps you've heard by now that he also tied Barry Sanders' 23-year-old NCAA FBS record for single-season touchdowns with 39. Indeed, the backfield is a good place to start as a foundation for the Badgers in 2012. And running behind a group of talented, dairy-fed Wisconsin boys on the offensive line doesn't hurt, either. But here comes the sobering part: Practically everything else about Wisconsin's offense is unknown at this point, which could mean trouble for Badgers fans expecting another Rose Bowl campaign. Quarterback Russell Wilson, fullback Bradie Ewing, wide receiver Nick Toon, right guard Kevin Zeitler and right tackle Josh Oglesby will be gone. The Badgers also could still lose starting center Peter Konz, a junior who is contemplating leaving early for the NFL. The most glaring area of concern, of course, is quarterback. Good ones rally teams together. Bad ones fold up like a faulty camping tent. And no one is certain exactly what the Badgers possess in that area. Wisconsin's entire returning quarterbacking crew has amassed 182 yards passing. Sophomore-to-be Joe Brennan completed 6 of 15 passes for 48 yards with no touchdowns and one interception in 2011. Redshirt junior-to-be Jon Budmayr is 8 of 10 in his career for 134 yards with one TD and no picks. But those numbers came in 2010, before he suffered nerve damage in his throwing elbow. Beyond that, sophomore-to-be Joel Stave hasn't thrown a collegiate pass. Incoming freshman Bart Houston, a four-star prospect from De La Salle High School in California, obviously hasn't thrown a pass in college, either. If that isn't enough cause for concern, consider that Wisconsin will lose five starters on defense -- defensive end Louis Nzegwu, defensive tackle Patrick Butrym, linebacker Kevin Claxton, free safety Aaron Henry and cornerback Antonio Fenelus. And the Badgers' special teams unit of punter Brad Nortman, kicker Phillip Welch and long snapper Kyle Wojta will be gone, too. Wait, there's more. Four of Wisconsin's nine assistant coaches are leaving as well, including Chryst -- the man who is taking Badgers offensive line coach Bob Bostad and linebackers coach Dave Huxtable with him to Pitt. It is also rumored that tight ends coach Joe Rudolph could bolt for Pitt if he isn't picked to run Wisconsin's offense. In addition, wide receivers coach DelVaughn Alexander already has left for Arizona State. Yes, change is inevitable. But with this much change, Badgers fans may have to readjust their goals to something other than a Rose Bowl berth. Is it realistic to believe the Badgers can produce a fourth consecutive 10-win season? Not even a Hesiman Trophy finalist in the lineup can work miracles like that. Follow Jesse Temple on Twitter.
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