This is the game where Nebraska's historic conference switch becomes reality, and for this first game, it's going to seem like being teleported into a parallel universe and having to square off with the Huskers' alter ego. The colors are the same, the uniforms are strikingly similar, and the fans of both teams chant "Go Big Red!" And if you believe some prognosticators, it'll also be a preview of the very first Big Ten Championship game. Both teams had successful seasons that ended in disappointment. Wisconsin lost to TCU in the Rose Bowl 21-19 after a two point conversion failed with two minutes left in the game.
One of the advantages of doing these previews online is that these previews can be fresher than the printed versions you'll find on the magazine stand, such as our own Cornhusker Kickoff. Hence, if you pick up any of the football magazines, the discussions will begin discussing Wisconsin's quarterback issues. Will it be sophomore Jon Budmayr or one of two redshirt freshmen taking over for Scott Tolzien?
Of course, now you know the answer: None of the Above.Last month, North Carolina State's Russell Wilson announced he was transferring to Wisconsin as a graduate student, meaning he's immediately eligible this fall for his senior season. The 5' 11" senior essentially was the Wolfpack's offense last season, rushing for 435 yards (second on the team) and throwing for 3,563 yards. He totaled 37 touchdowns (28 passing, 9 rushing), though threw 14 interceptions. There are multiple ways to look at this pickup. One is to remember Sam Keller, who arrived in Lincoln touted as a first round NFL draft pick, but never was able to figure out where his receivers would be downfield in Bill Callahan's offense. Keller had a full year to pick up the playbook, while Wilson will only have two months. On the other hand, Wilson isn't being asked to carry the offense, but rather manage the offense, and do it better than an inexperienced sophomore quarterback. Offensive coordinator Paul Chryst knows he has a talented quarterback, and will not overwhelm him.
What will help Wilson is having two productive running backs to hand the ball off to in the backfield. Junior Montee Ball exploded down the stretch last season, rushing for 777 yards and 14 touchdowns in the final five games last season. Sophomore James White was the Badgers leading rusher last season with 1,052 yards and 14 touchdowns. And those two backs had to share carries with John Clay, who decided three was a crowd and attempted to turn pro.
What won't help Wilson is inexperience and a lack of experience at receiver. Senior Nick Toon (you might remember his dad Al from his Pro Bowl career with the Jets) missed four games last year, catching 36 passes for 456 yards and three touchdowns. Sophomore Jared Abbrederis got off to a hot start last season, but only caught five passes in the last half of 2011. He's got the size and athleticism to do much more. Wisconsin loves to throw the ball to their tight ends, but they'll need to find someone to step up this season to replace Lance Kendricks. Senior Jake Byrne started eight games last season, but only caught five passes. Keep an eye on 6'4" 256 lb. sophomore Brian Wozniak, who might become the next big Wisconsin tight end.
The offensive line will need to replace Outland Trophy winner Gabe Carimi at tackle and all-Big Ten guard John Moffitt, but three other starters return. Junior center Peter Konz, junior tackle Ricky Wagner, and senior guard Kevin Zeitler were all honorable mention all-Big Ten last season. So while the Badgers line won't be quite as overwhelming as they were last year, they'll still be one of the Big Ten's best.
On the defensive line, three starters return as only defensive end J.J. Watt, a first round NFL draft pick (#11 to Houston), needs to be replaced. In fact, all of the backups return as well, so this is a solid bunch. Sophomore tackle Jordan Kohout might be the standout performer up front. The other tackle, senior Patrick Butrym needs to be a leader and could also content for honors at the end of this season. Senior Louis Nzegwu is also expected to have a big season at defensive end.
At linebacker, junior Mike Taylor, an honorable mention all-Big Ten performer last season, is the only returning starter. But this group could be special if sophomore Chis Borland is recovered from a severe shoulder injury that forced him to miss almost all of last season. But he was oh-so-special as a true freshman, earning Big Ten Freshman of the Year honors in 2009. If he's healthy, he likely to be an elite playmaker and someone fans really need to keep an eye on early in the season.
Senior free safety Aaron Henry was a second-team all-Big Ten performer last season with 58 tackles, 2 interceptions, and six pass-breakups. Junior Shelton Johnson is a big hitter, though he's a little undersized at only 186 pounds. He'll be the new starter at strong safety. Senior cornerback Antonio Fenelus was a first-team all-Big Ten selection last season with 56 tackles, 7 passes broken up, and 4 interceptions. He's not big (5'9") but plays smart (academic all-Big Ten as well) and consistently.
Even before Russell Wilson arrived in Madison, Nebraska's inaugural Big Ten game has been anticipated by red-clad fans sporting both "N"s and "W"s. Now factor in Wilson, and this game has the potential to be an epic can't-miss matchup. Nebraska fans requested over 21,000 tickets to the game, making this the toughest ticket ever for Husker fans. Don't expect Wisconsin fans to give up their seats like Notre Dame fans did ten years ago. I wouldn't be surprised if 120,000 fans show up in the vicinity of Camp Randall, hoping to be a part of a history-making event. You have to expect that ESPN Gameday has already penciled in a trip to Wisconsin for this game along with Brent Musberger for the ABC Saturday Night broadcast.
And right now, this game looks like an epic battle. How will a Pelini defense handle a mobile quarterback and a powerful two-headed monster at running back? Can Nebraska's offense regroup and regain it's form from last September and October against one of the better defenses they'll see in 2011? This has the potential to be a great matchup, though it's difficult to compare the two teams due to a lack of history and opportunities to directly compare the two teams.