Please allow me to begin this blogging season with an "I'm feeling old" moment. It hit me last week at the annual Big Ten Media Days and Kickoff Luncheon.
This will be my 23rd season
covering University of Wisconsin athletics (17th as the football
play-by-play announcer). Twenty-three years, which means chances are good that when I started in
Madison, few if any current players were even born.
Thank goodness for Mike Lucas, who has been in this racket for more than 40 years. OK, maybe I don't feel quite so old yet!
The Big Ten Media Days can be a bit like Groundhog Day. Every year you can count on several of the league's coaches saying the conference is as strong as ever. Every year you will hear at least one coach talk about how, on any given Saturday, anything can happen.
What is different is the theme question. In the last few years, Big Ten coaches had to face the unpleasant subject of the conference's poor bowl record. This past season the league did well, with impressive BCS performances from Ohio State and Iowa, plus high-quality victories from Penn State and the Badgers.
So what is this year's theme question? Conference expansion of course. What will the divisions look like? Will the league expand again? Will the Big Ten keep its name? The answers, in order: we should soon find out, maybe, and yes.
More importantly for Badger fans, the storylines heading
into this season would appear to be a bit different from last August. Unlike a year ago, there is no
quarterback question. This time
last year, two projected starters on the offensive line were hurt before camp
Now, many believe this year's
offensive line has a chance to be the school's best in years. Tailback John Clay says this is the
best he has felt since his days in youth football. The wide receivers are
veterans, led by Nick Toon.
While the Badgers will miss Garrett Graham and Mickey Turner, the tight end position seems to be in good shape with Lance Kendricks and some promising young talent.
The defense does have some questions, most notably replacing
players such as O'Brien Schofield and Chris Maragos. Can the secondary improve its performance under the
direction of new assistant Chris Ash? Can the defensive line be productive without Schofield and the less
heralded yet very important contributions of Dan Moore and Jeff Stehle?
With the linebacking corps, what is the next chapter in Chris Borland's career now that he is no longer a secret? Can Mike Taylor finally catch a break and stay healthy? Those in the program believe if he can, Taylor can be one of the league's best.
Then there are the intangibles. Last year's team played with a chip on its shoulder. The players knew people had doubts
about the program's direction. After the bowl victory in Orlando, it is only natural for expectations
to be higher, with most observers believing the Badgers will fight it out with
Iowa and Ohio State for the league title.
Yet, even with the compliments, come questions. How many times have you heard someone say, "Yeah, the Badgers are picked to be a championship contender, and you know what usually happens next. They falter." Or maybe you hear a more colorful version of the same message.
Whatever the case, the players hear it as well. The defensive linemen know people are
wondering how good that group will be. The defensive backs know fans are skeptical. If John Clay had a dollar for every time someone asked him
about his weight, he would have no need for an NFL career.
And they all know that they need to win more games against the big boys to be considered an elite team.
You know what? That's OK. Maybe it is all
those years being around Barry Alvarez, but I tend to like it when there are
questions, and maybe even some doubts.
So, despite all the love coming the Badgers way from various media outlets, it seems there is enough out there for the players to keep that chip on their shoulders. Badger football history suggests having a chip on one's shoulder isn't such a bad thing.