Around the Big Ten: Badgers have new faces, but still contenders

Chad Leistikow

Even though two prominent faces are changing, Wisconsin football is projected to stay relatively the same — Big Ten Conference championship contenders.

As much as the West Division can get dogged by pundits, there's been no more consistently successful team in the entire conference the past five years — three straight Rose Bowls under Bret Bielema, then 20 wins in two years (including last year's Big Ten West title) under Gary Andersen.

But Bielema left to coach Arkansas, and Andersen pulled a stunner in bolting for Oregon State. Enter the school's third coach in four years, Paul Chryst — a Madison native whose plan is to continue the ball-control, punishing brand of Badgers football that was initiated by his mentor, now-athletic director Barry Alvarez, as coach in the early 1990s.

The other new face of Wisconsin football 2015 is Corey Clement. By all reports, the 5-foot-11, 219-pound junior is ready to assume the featured back role previously held by Melvin Gordon. All Gordon did in 2014 was rush for 2,628 yards — the No. 2 all-time single-season total in Division I history, behind only Barry Sanders.

And surrounding Chryst and Clement is an experienced core — and why the Badgers are picked again as the consensus favorites in the Big Ten West.

Spring buzz

Excitement is centered around seven starters who return on what was already a stout defense that ranked No. 4 in the nation in 2014. And Chryst retained Dave Aranda off Andersen's staff to coordinate his defense, a key measure of stability.

The quarterback, fifth-year senior Joel Stave, but despite his lack of flash has 21 wins as a starter. Chryst has been known to work magic with quarterbacks, and the Badgers' top receiver, senior Alex Erickson, returns.

So, good defense? Check. Confidence at offensive skill positions? Check.

Still to be settled

Much like at Iowa, the biggest question mark at Wisconsin is on the offensive line. But much like at Iowa, that often is the position that Wisconsin is best at developing.

In Wisconsin's spring game, the defense had 15 tackles for loss, 10 of which were quarterback sacks. So, that's either great defense, horrible blocking, or maybe both.

There is some urgency to developing depth and recovering from injuries, considering the daunting Sept. 5 opener against Alabama in Arlington, Texas.

"We aren't where we want to be with (the O-line)," Chryst told the Big Ten Network in May. "I like some of the pieces, but we weren't able to get continuity in the spring. The summer and fall camp will be big for them."

Our take

Wisconsin's divisional crossover opponents are Rutgers and Maryland, but in order to win another title it'll probably need to defeat at least one of top two West contenders on the road — at Nebraska on Oct. 10, at Minnesota on Nov. 28.

Iowa will have first crack at chopping down the Badgers if it can win the Oct. 3 Big Ten opener in Madison.

But until somebody else proves otherwise, Wisconsin deserves to be the Big Ten West favorite.