After likely suffering a loss against Nebraska -- whom we previewed yesterday -- the Illini will return to Champaign and take a week off while preparing for a team that's been to three straight Rose Bowls. That's right, our old friends the Wisconsin Badgers will be coming to town, but there are a lot of changes in Madison this year.
Both Bret Bielema and Montee Ball are gone, and there's an entirely new coaching staff in place. Which means that this won't be the same Wisconsin team we've seen for the last 20 years.
So let's take a look at what's new and different, shall we?
Name: Wisconsin Badgers
From: Madison, Wisconsin
2012 Record: 8-6 (4-4) Leaders Division Champs
Returning starters: Eight offense, six defense, both specialists
As I mentioned, Bret Bielema is no more. And while that will severely hurt the sales of Milwaukee's Best in the Madison area, we can't be sure what effect it will have on the Wisconsin program. In his place is Gary Andersen who comes to Wisconsin via Utah State where he led the Aggies to an 11-2 mark last year.
Now, I'm a fan of Gary Andersen, but I'm not convinced he's going to keep the Wisconsin machine rolling at the pace we've grown accustomed to. I think he can, but we'll have to see. Yes, going 11-2 at Utah State was very impressive, but even with that mark his career record as a head coach is only 30-31. Though, admittedly, that record is a bit misleading because Andersen took over a Utah State that hadn't been to a bowl game since 1997 in 2009, and after going 8-16 his first two seasons the Aggies went 18-8 the last two seasons.
So we know he can build a program. But can he maintain one? Building a team in the WAC is a lot different than maintaining a power program in the Big Ten, particularly when Andersen doesn't really have any ties to the Big Ten. Aside from his first season as a coach at Southeastern Louisiana in 1988, the man has never coached a team east of the Mississippi River. Hell, he's never been east of Utah, really. So it'll be interesting to see how he goes about business at Wisconsin. I have all the faith in the world in the man as a football coach, but there are certainly other factors at play here that could affect his tenure in Madison.
History With Illinois
Oh there's plenty of it, obviously. We see these bastards all the damn time. While the two teams didn't meet in 2009 and 2010, they have met 79 times since 1895, and after last year's game the series is even at 36-36-7. Of course, since 1993 the Badgers have dominated the series, going 12-3-1. The Badgers have also won three of the last four meetings in Champaign.
Also, with Wisconsin remaining in the West Division with the Illini once Maryland and Rutgers join, it's pretty much a guarantee that 2010 will be the last season these teams don't play for a very long time.
What Do We Know About The Offense?
For the first time in a long time, we really can't be too sure. Will Gary Andersen and his staff try to make a lot of changes to what Wisconsin does on offense this year, or will they slowly implement it because the personnel on the roster is better suited to it? My feeling is we'll see the latter, but no matter what happens, this will be a running team like it's always been.
While Utah State's offense was balanced last season, it was a running team. We'll also likely see some of the same read option type of stuff we saw when Russell Wilson was in Madison, because while Joel Stave isn't exactly a speed demon, both running backs James White and Melvin Gordon are. Still, like I said, we won't know for sure what Wisconsin will feature on offense until we see it on the field.
How About The Defense?
There will be a differnet look on defense this year as the Badgers transition from a 4-3 to a 3-4 look. This could lead to some more mistakes than we're used to seeing from Wisconsin, but there's still a lot of talent returning.
The Badgers only allowed 30 points twice last season -- both times against Nebraska -- and one of those games was the Big Ten title game in which the Badgers were pretty much up by 300 points from the start. Only six starters return from that unit, but that includes most of the front seven and linebacker Chris Borland.
If there's an area to exploit it'll be the Wisconsin secondary. There will be three new starters in the unit, which could work to Illinois' benefit as we move to a pass-first offense in 2013. However slowing a pass-rush that should be improved with the move to the 3-4 will be a must first.
Who On This Team Should I Be Aware Of?
James White is good, and I feel like Melvin Gordon could be the next great Wisconsin running back, but I'm still going with Chris Borland. He may just be the best linebacker in the BIg Ten, and one of the best in the country. The fact he'll probably be blitzing more in the 3-4 is a bit worrisome as well.
Last year he finished with 104 tackles, 4.5 sacks, 5.5 tackles for loss and six passes defended. So, obviously, he works well in all aspects of the defensive gameplan. He is the guy that Nathan Scheelhaase will have to find before every snap and make sure he's accounted for.
Where Will They Finish In The Big Ten?
Even with the adjustments this year I think Wisconsin is going to be just fine. Plus, it's important to remember that even though the Badgers went to the Rose Bowl last season it's only because Ohio State and Penn State were ineligible. I mean, they finished the year with an 8-6 record and were 4-4 in the Big Ten.
I expect that conference record to improve with a somewhat favorable schedule, but I don't think this team is good enough to finish higher than Ohio State even if Bielema hadn't left. So I'd say they'll be battling with Penn State for second place in the Leaders, and I give Wisconsin the slight edge.
Can The Illini Win This Game?
I'm not exactly optimistic, but I certainly feel this game is a lot more winnable than the Nebraska game will be. Of course, that could change should the Badgers come storming out of the gate. But as I said, with questions in the secondary I feel this is a defense the Illini may be able to exploit, especially as players learn their new roles in the 3-4.
That being said, the Illini defense will still have to stop the Wisconsin ground attack, and I don't see that being likely. So, yeah, with some lucky bounces the Illini could pull off the upset at home, but I wouldn't go putting any money on it or anything.