We're taking a page from our friends at the ACC blog and examining whether certain Big Ten teams will be contenders or pretenders in the 2013 season. The series does not include Ohio State, Michigan or Nebraska, three teams that, in our view, have earned the "contender" label entering the fall. For each team, we'll make a case for why they're contenders and pretenders and provide our final verdict. We invite you to vote on whether a team is a contender or a pretender or send us your thoughts for mailbags here and here.
Next up are the Wisconsin Badgers.
Why they're contenders: Badgers fans may find it insulting that we're even including their team in the series. After all, Wisconsin has been to three straight Rose Bowls, so shouldn't the Badgers automatically be considered a contender? The talent is definitely there in Madison for another run toward Pasadena. Fifteen starters from last year's team are back, and former head coach Bret Bielema said he thought the 2013 team might be his best -- before he fled to Arkansas, of course. Montee Ball is gone, but the running game remains in very capable hands with James White and Melvin Gordon. For once, Wisconsin doesn't have to worry about quarterback depth. Linebacker Chris Borland is one of the best players in the Big Ten, and the defensive line is very underrated with guys like Beau Allen and Ethan Hemer making it tough for opposing run games. New head coach Gary Andersen is a proven winner, and he might be able to avoid some of the late-game questionable decision-making that fans lamented about when Bielema wore the headset. The Badgers continue to churn out impressive offensive lines, and few teams want to play at Camp Randall Stadium. Meanwhile, Wisconsin's crossover opponents from the Legends Division -- Iowa, Northwestern and Minnesota -- don't exactly inspire fear.
Why they're pretenders: The biggest question for the Badgers really revolves around whether they can topple Ohio State. The Buckeyes won in Madison last year on their way to a 12-0 season, and Wisconsin will have to go to Columbus this year. Lose that game on the road, and it will be an uphill battle to get back to the Big Ten championship game for a third straight year. Don't overlook the transition factor, either. While Andersen looks like a terrific hire, it's usually not easy for first-year coaches, especially those who try to change things at programs that have been successful. Wisconsin will also be moving to some 3-4 looks on defense; we'll see if the personnel is right for that move. There are also major holes to fill in the secondary, and the offense still needs someone besides Jared Abbrederis to develop into a consistent pass-catcher. Competition at quarterback is great, but neither Joel Stave nor Curt Phillips has shown that he can take over a game with his arm. And don't forget that while the Badgers did play in the Rose Bowl last year, they also finished just 8-6 and needed some fortunate circumstances to get there.
Final verdict: The Ohio State matchup will be tough, but you can't base an entire season outlook on one game. The rest of the schedule is actually quite manageable, with the only other Big Ten road games coming against Illinois, Iowa and Minnesota. Not playing Michigan, Michigan State or Nebraska is a huge advantage. This team still has plenty of talent and a winner's mentality. Don't write off the Badgers' chances of finishing ahead of the Buckeyes in the Leaders Division. They're a contender.