Wisconsin season preview

Today we're looking at Wisconsin, the three-time defending Big Ten champion, which enters a new era under coach Gary Andersen.


Coach: Gary Andersen (30-31 overall, five seasons; 0-0 at Wisconsin, first season)

2012 record: 8-6 (4-4 Big Ten)

Key losses: RB Montee Ball, C Travis Frederick, OT Ricky Wagner, LB Mike Taylor, CB Devin Smith, DE David Gilbert

Key returnees: RB James White, RB Melvin Gordon, WR Jared Abbrederis, OL Ryan Groy, TE Jacob Pedersen, LB Chris Borland, S Dezmen Southward, DT Beau Allen

Newcomer to watch: Freshman CB Sojourn Shelton stood out in spring practice for a secondary that needs bodies after losing three starters from the 2012 team. Shelton is a natural playmaker who should see plenty of field time, potentially as a starter opposite Peniel Jean.

Biggest games in 2013: The Badgers face two significant road tests in their first five games as they visit high-powered Arizona State (Sept. 14) and Big Ten favorite Ohio State (Sept. 28). They also have home tests against Northwestern (Oct. 12) and Penn State (Nov. 30), and face rivals Iowa (Nov. 2) and Minnesota (Nov. 23) on the road.

Biggest question mark heading into 2013: The quarterback competition between Joel Stave, Curt Phillips and possibly Tanner McEvoy is worth watching in camp, but it's more important for Wisconsin to figure out its secondary before a Week 3 trip to Arizona State. Safety Dezmen Southward is the only returning starter, and the admissions denial of junior college transfer Donnell Vercher hurts the depth there.

Opposing quarterbacks undoubtedly will challenge Wisconsin's young corners, and players such as Jean, Shelton and Darius Hillary will need to grow up in a hurry. Andersen will address the secondary through recruiting, but he and his staff must simply hold the group together through Year 1.

Forecast: No team in the country faces a situation quite like Wisconsin's entering the 2013 season.

The Badgers are a veteran-laden team, led by a 25-member senior class that knows only how to win Big Ten championships. They're also a team in transition after going through an assistant-coach overhaul following the 2011 season and the surprising departure of head coach Bret Bielema three days after the 2012 Big Ten championship game.

Bielema often cited 2013 as "The Year" even before the start of the 2012 campaign. But he's not around to see it in Madison. Instead, the Badgers turn to Andersen, who brought Utah State back from the depths but now steps onto a much bigger stage.

Andersen will keep Wisconsin's proven power offense in place, and for good reason. The Badgers return two dynamic running backs in senior James White and upstart sophomore Melvin Gordon. They're not deep along the offensive line but boast valuable pieces such as versatile senior Ryan Groy. Wisconsin must find a top quarterback, and Joel Stave and Curt Phillips will compete with junior college arrival Tanner McEvoy in camp. A greater concern is who will complement standout receiver Jared Abbrederis in a passing attack that plummeted to 111th nationally last fall.

The bigger changes will come on defense, Andersen's area of expertise. Wisconsin will be the only Big Ten team operating primarily out of a 3-4 set, which Andersen thinks will be used 60 percent of the time. The Badgers boast an excellent centerpiece in All-Big Ten linebacker Chris Borland, one of the nation's more decorated defenders. They'll need big years from linemen Beau Allen, Brendan Kelly and others, and the secondary is the biggest question mark, as only one starter returns.

"All defenses come with challenges," Andersen said, "but we've done it enough to make it fit."

Wisconsin's path to a fourth consecutive Big Ten title won't be easy, as it visits Ohio State in Week 5 and plays rivals Iowa and Minnesota on the road.