Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema puts it bluntly: "We're nothing sexy." It's true that the Badgers didn't dazzle last year (their run-first offense, which seemed to lull opposing teams to sleep, ranked ninth in the Big Ten in passing), but they still had the conference's highest-scoring offense (41.46) as they rolled to their first Big Ten title and BCS berth in 11 seasons.
The strategy will remain the same even though the Badgers brought in 5'11" N.C. State senior transfer Russell Wilson at quarterback to replace Scott Tolzien, who graduated. Wilson threw for 3,563 yards and 28 touchdowns and rushed for another 435 yards and nine TDs as the Wolfpack led the ACC in passing offense in 2010. Nevertheless, a two-headed monster at running back—junior Montee Ball and sophomore James White—will power the Wisconsin offense.
"We know that our running game can overwhelm teams," says Bielema. "And we have two outstanding backs that give teams different looks."
Both Ball and White were surprises in 2010 as part of a trio that included NFL-bound John Clay. Ball, a 5'11", 210-pound bruiser in the mold of great Badgers backs Ron Dayne and Anthony Davis, rushed for more than 120 yards and averaged 6.9 yards a carry in the season's final five games. "Montee dropped about 10 pounds [over the off-season], and he's a leaner, meaner fighting machine," says Bielema. "He's showing a new ability to break away from [defenders]." White is smaller (5'10", 195 pounds) but more explosive, rushing for 1,052 yards and 14 TDs in '10. "James is now stronger than ever in the legs," says Bielema, "but he's still a slash runner who can get vertical in a hurry."
After their breakthrough season, the Badgers can become a national power. But with run-heavy Northern Illinois and Nebraska early in the schedule, the Badgers' defensive front must show improvement over 2010—Wisconsin tied for 91st in the nation in tackles for losses—and Wilson (58.4 completion percentage last year) needs to be as efficient as Tolzien, whose 72.9% set a school record. But most of all, Wisconsin needs its running game to lead the way. If all goes according to plan, the Badgers will be nothing sexy again.
10 Oregon State
17 vs. Northern Illinois (in Chicago)
24 South Dakota
22 at Michigan State
29 at Ohio State
12 at Minnesota
19 at Illinois
26 Penn State
A medical redshirt last season (left shoulder), the '09 Big Ten freshman of the year had five sacks as a rookie.
The transfer from N.C. State ranks 12th in ACC career passing yards (8,545) but must learn a new playbook.
His 20 starts are second most on the inexperienced O-line, but he's coming off an ankle injury.
Conference Big Ten
Coach Bret Bielema (6th year)
2010 Record 11--2 (7--1 in Big Ten)
Final AP Rank 7
Returning Starters 11
Offense 5, Defense 6
Photograph by PETER READ MILLER
The smaller of the Badgers' two highly productive backs, the 5'10", 195-pound White was the Big Ten's Freshman of the Year in '10, when he raced for 1,052 yards and 14 TDs.
JOHN BIEVER (BALL)
A leaner, meaner version of Ball will help carry the load for the Badgers, who hope to overpower teams en route to a second straight Big Ten championship.
JONATHAN DANIEL/GETTY IMAGES (KONZ)