With another new quarterback at the helm and a difficult Big Ten schedule ahead, there are questions about whether Wisconsin will be able to contend for its first league title since 1999.
What seems almost certain, however, is that the 13th-ranked Badgers will be tough to stop on the ground.
Anchored by a powerful running game and veteran offensive line, Wisconsin will look to remain unbeaten at Camp Randall Stadium under coach Bret Bielema when it begins its season against Akron on Saturday.
Oddsmakers from Bodog have made Wisconsin –26.5 point spread favorites (View College Football odds) for Saturday’s game (Game Matchup). Current public betting information shows that 85% of bets for this game have been placed on Wisconsin –26.5 (View College Football bet percentages).
The Badgers have been consistently competitive since they last won the Big Ten behind Heisman Trophy winner Ron Dayne nine years ago, but they've been unable to break through recently, as either Ohio State or Michigan has at least shared the league title in each of the last six seasons.
After coming into last season ranked No. 7, Wisconsin went 9-4 and 5-3 in the Big Ten, suffering a 21-17 loss to Tennessee in the Outback Bowl. It was a step back from a 12-1 record in 2006, but the Badgers have a different mindset entering 2008.
"We had swagger and confidence last year, but we were almost like believing the hype," safety Shane Carter said. "This year, we talk about remembering history, but don't let it repeat itself. We all know what we have to do to be a good team."
With five returning starters on the offensive line - all of them at least 6-foot-4 and 300 pounds - and a two-time 1,200-yard rusher in P.J. Hill, the Badgers hope a dominating ground attack can carry them back to a BCS bowl.
Hill, a junior, has rushed for 2,781 yards over the last two seasons, ranking second in the Big Ten over that span behind only graduated Michigan back Mike Hart.
The Badgers also have an experienced defense behind Carter and senior linebacker Jonathan Casillas, who led the team with 96 tackles last year. Eight defensive starters from the loss to the Volunteers return.
"They aren't trying to hide what they are, which is a strong, physical Big Ten football team that wants to run the ball," Akron coach J.D. Brookhart said. "They are big, strong and physical across the board on both sides of the ball. They don't try to hide it or trick you. They just play Big Ten football."
The question mark for Wisconsin is at quarterback, where Kansas State transfer Allan Evridge will be the team's third starter in as many years. The fifth-year senior played sparingly behind Tyler Donovan last season, but he started six games in 2005 at Kansas State, completing just 47.9 percent of his passes.
"I'm just a guy here trying to win," Evridge said. "I've had a crazy career, but I've learned a lot, now I have an opportunity."
He'll have a top target in senior Travis Beckum, whom Casillas called a "matchup nightmare." Beckum led all tight ends nationally with 982 receiving yards last year ? his second straight 900-yard season ? and he's 67 receptions away from breaking the school record.
Before a difficult trip to Fresno State and a Big Ten schedule that starts with Michigan, Ohio State and Penn State, Evridge will look to get comfortable in two games at Camp Randall Stadium, where Wisconsin is 14-0 in Bielema's two seasons as coach.
The Badgers are 25-1 at home since 2004, the second-best such record over that span behind defending national champion LSU. They've also won 10 straight season openers and 16 in a row in the regular season against non-conference opponents.
Akron (4-8) went 1-6 on the road last year, including a pair of losses to Big Ten opponents. The Zips played at Ohio State on Sept. 8, trailing 3-2 at halftime before fading in a 20-2 defeat.
"They're definitely not afraid to come in and play a team on the road in the Big Ten," Bielema said.
Still, Akron hasn't beaten a Big Ten opponent in nearly 114 years. The Zips earned a 12-6 win over the Buckeyes in their only game of the 1894 season, losing their other 16 games against the Big Ten.
The Zips, who allowed 183.8 rushing yards per game last year, bring back their starting quarterback in Chris Jacquemain. The junior threw 11 touchdowns and 10 interceptions last season, completing 56 percent of his passes.
Akron and Wisconsin have met once before, in 2003. The Zips trailed by three points with less than seven minutes to play at Camp Randall, but Jim Sorgi found Lee Evans for a 99-yard touchdown pass and the Badgers went on to win 48-31.
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