- Brian Bennett, ESPN Staff Writer
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The conference media days parade is underway, but as usual, the Big Ten will ride the anchor leg late next week. As we while away the days to the unofficial kickoff to the season, we're taking a look at the reasons why each league team will or won't reach a specific goal in 2015.
Let's turn our attention to the Wisconsin Badgers, who should open the season as at least the co-favorite to repeat as West Division champions. They wrapped up another successful campaign last year by winning 11 games and beating Auburn in the Outback Bowl. Wisconsin has posted double-digit victories in four of the past six seasons and has won 60 games since the start of the 2010 season for an average of 10 per year.
That's incredible consistency. But can the Badgers get back to the level they reached from 2010-to-2012, when they made three straight Rose Bowls? College football's postseason is different now with the playoff, but the top Big Ten team that is not in the field of four is ticketed for the Grandaddy this year.
Is the well-worn road from Madison to Pasadena back open?
Why Wisconsin will play in the 2016 Rose Bowl:
Path of least resistance: The Badgers get a chance to make a huge national statement right out of the gate when they take on Alabama in the opener at Jerry World. Win that game, and they likely rocket into the top 10 and into (ridiculously early) playoff discussions. But a loss is by no means fatal, given both the timing of the game and the immense respect the Crimson Tide have earned. And from there, Wisconsin's schedule is, if not exactly a cakewalk, at least some sort of pastry description of your choice. The crossover opponents from the East are Rutgers and Maryland, which means no Ohio State or Michigan State in the regular season. There are tough road games against Nebraska and Minnesota, but the Badgers have pretty much owned both of those opponents in recent years. Another double-digit win season looks well within reach, and if the contenders from the East Division beat up on each other, Wisconsin will be ready to step in.
Sticking with what works: The most important recruit new coach Paul Chryst landed this offseason was probably defensive coordinator Dave Aranda. That he decided to stay and not head to Oregon State with Gary Andersen counted as a huge victory for Wisconsin. Aranda's defense was one of the stingiest in the country all season long in 2014, and while some key members of the front seven departed, a storong core led by Vince Biegel, Derek Landisch and Michael Caputo return. They should keep the team in every game. Meanwhile, Chryst's familiarity with the program ensures that he will keep the tradition of a strong ground game alive. Wisconsin does what it does. And it works.
Why Wisconsin won't play in the 2016 Rose Bowl:
Offensive question marks: Insufficient quarterback play could largely be blamed for two of the Badgers' losses in 2014 (LSU and Northwestern). Joel Stave should give the offense more stability by beginning the season as the starter, and the senior has been through many battles. Still, questions linger over whether he can make the big plays when the running game has stalled. Receiver also remains a problem area, as Wisconsin still lacks a true No. 1 option or many dependable weapons outside of the steady -- if unspectacular -- Alex Erickson. Corey Clement is more than ready to take over as the lead tailback and should have an excellent season. But can he take a game completely over the way Melvin Gordon did? Gordon was in a class by himself. And for the first time in a while, the Badgers were fretting over their offensive line this spring, as depth looms as a major issue. We'd bet that one irons itself out, but Chryst doesn't exactly inherit a turn-key offensive juggernaut.
The alpha and omega of the schedule: Just about everything could go right for the Badgers this year, and they still could end up with two losses. That's because they likely would be taking on two top-10 teams at the beginning of the season (Alabama) and at the end vs. the East champ in Indianapolis. As we saw last year, things didn't go well against Ohio State at Lucas Oil Stadium, and Wisconsin will only be able to avoid the Buckeyes or Michigan State (the most likely two East victors) until December. Win the Big Ten title game, and all is golden. However, a loss in Indy could cause serious damage as the most recent "data point" for the selection committee. Better, perhaps, to be a one-loss East Division runner up that sits out the championship game and climbs the polls while idle. The best news for the Badgers is they will control their own fate. The bad news is they likely will have to slay some formidable dragons.
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