Filling In The Blanks
Top Ten Countdown
If you've followed my columns over the past several years it is probably apparent that my two greatest sporting passions are golf and college football. We just had an exciting finish to the United States Open at Oakmont Country Club and the British Open is just around the corner, but it is college football that is the subject of this week's Filling in the Blanks, as the top ten preseason countdown begins.
Wisconsin is my preseason pick for number ten. The Badgers, fresh off the heels of a 12-1 season, including a bowl victory over the SEC Conference West Division champion Arkansas, return nine starters on offense and seven on the defensive side of the ball.
Wisconsin lost massive offensive tackle Joe Thomas, the number three overall pick in the 2007 NFL Draft, along with quarterback John Stocco the second leading passer in Wisconsin history. Though both losses are significant, the Badgers have four returning offensive linemen and fifth-year senior Tyler Donovan to replace Stocco. Donovan had two starts in 2006 and played in parts of five other games. He is a veteran that knows the offense and has the experience to lead the Badgers to a possible Big Ten title.
Donovan will have sophomore running back P.J. Hill in the backfield to lead a running game that will have to be proficient if Wisconsin has any hopes of playing in a BCS Bowl game. Hill is a large and powerful back, much in the mold of former Badger Heisman Trophy winner Ron Dayne. The big man is surprisingly nimble and had a tremendous freshman year, rushing for more than 1500 yards and scoring 15 touchdowns.
Hill isn't the only offensive weapon. Paul Hubbard, a 6-5, 218 pound speedster, is a real threat on the outside. The talented senior wide receiver was second on the team in receptions a year ago and is ready to shine. He, along with second team All-American tight end Travis Beckum, who led the team in receptions last fall, will provide Stocco with two skilled and competent receivers.
As already mentioned, the Badgers return four starters on the offensive line. Always a strength of Wisconsin teams, this year should be no different. This should be a strength of the team, allowing Stocco time to find his talented receivers and Hill running lanes on the ground.
Wisconsin returns seven starters to a defense that was fifth best in the nation in 2006, allowing just 253 yards per game. Talented defensive tackle Nick Hayden returns to the front four along with second team All Big Ten defensive end Matt Shaughnessy. Two of the three starting linebackers return along with both starting corners, Jack Ikegwuonu and Allen Langford, who were part of the second best pass defense in the nation last season. They will have to replace both starting safeties, but the early schedule is favorable and should give newcomers time to adjust.
Both kickers return in punter Ken DeBauche and place kicker Taylor Mehlhaff who made 15 of 20 field goal attempts and was a perfect 47 of 47 in extra points a year ago.
Second year coach Bret Bielema will be hard pressed to repeat or better last year's mark of 12-1. But, the Badgers are loaded on offense and have a very favorable schedule until the middle of October, when they go on the road to Penn State and then three weeks later travel to Columbus before returning home the following week to try and avenge their only loss in 2006 to Michigan.
It is always tough to repeat a year like the Badgers experienced in 2006, but the pieces are in place for a run at a Big Ten title and more. Will Donovan be a suitable replacement for Stocco? Will Hill have a sophomore slump? Can the defense play as well as they did a year ago? These are just some of the questions that will have to be answered if 2007 is to be a successful campaign for Wisconsin.