At this time last summer, all the Big Ten talk centered on two teams: Penn State and Ohio State.
The Nittany Lions and Buckeyes shared the league title in 2008, and both advanced to BCS bowls. Iowa also entered the 2009 season ranked in the top 20, but most folks agreed that the Big Ten championship would be decided when Ohio State visited Happy Valley.
Things were going according to plan until Iowa won its first nine games. Despite numerous injuries and close calls, the Hawkeyes became the Big Ten's hot team. They never earned many style points, but they kept winning.
As the 2010 season dawns, Iowa has replaced Penn State in the preseason chatter. Right now, all signs point to Iowa and Ohio State meeting on Nov. 20 at Kinnick Stadium to decide the Big Ten championship and a trip to the Rose Bowl (or maybe the national title game).
Bret Bielema and his Badgers should be happy about this.
Wisconsin is hardly an afterthought in the Big Ten title talk, but the Badgers find themselves well positioned to be this year's Iowa. And if things fall right, Wisconsin could surpass the Hawkeyes' success of 2009 and return to Pasadena for the first time since Jan. 1, 2000.
Why is Wisconsin this year's hot team in the Big Ten?
The Badgers return 16 starters -- more than both Ohio State and Iowa -- from a team that went 10-3 and outclassed Miami in the Champs Sports Bowl. Wisconsin brings back more individual standouts than any other Big Ten team, including the league's reigning Offensive Player of the Year (running back John Clay) and Freshman of the Year (Chris Borland). For the first time since 2007, Wisconsin enters camp knowing its starting quarterback, and heady senior Scott Tolzien is exactly the type of signal caller Paul Chryst wants for his offense.
The Badgers boast one of the nation's best offensive lines, led by left tackle Gabe Carimi, who likely will be the Big Ten's first offensive lineman drafted in April. Borland leads a playmaking defense that also features J.J. Watt, Devin Smith and Jay Valai.
After suffering its only three losses to three of the league's better teams in 2009 -- Ohio State, Iowa and Northwestern -- Wisconsin is hungry to make the jump from good to elite.
It's no wonder more people are starting to notice Bielema's squad as the season approaches.
"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," Bielema said at Big Ten media days. "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."
Another potential hot team that seems to be a bit overlooked is Purdue. Robert Marve is more than capable of sparking a dynamic offense, and Purdue returns enough experience in the defensive front seven to improve against the run and assist a new-look secondary.
Who knows? Maybe Wisconsin's visit to Purdue on Nov. 6 will mean a lot more than people think.