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The Countdown

A bottom-to-top assessment of the F.B.S. landscape heading into the 2012 season.

Three Things

Who, What, When: Wisconsin

Want a Wisconsin player to watch? A theme key to this team’s success? One game to circle in red ink? Let’s take a look.

Who: quarterback Scott Tolzien

What can the senior do for an encore? After entering last fall ranked third on the depth chart, Scott Tolzien responded with one of the finest passing seasons in school history: 2,705 yards passing and 16 touchdowns while completing a Big Ten-best 64.3 percent of his attempts. It was undoubtedly the finest season from a first-year Wisconsin starter, at least. Tolzien also gives the Badgers a returning starter under center for the first time since 2006, which can’t be overstated. Wisconsin doesn’t exactly ask Tolzien to merely be a game manager, but the running game does dictate the flow of the offense. John Clay leads the way, but Tolzien is an all-Big Ten quarterback.

What: rush offense, rush defense

Great fact about last year’s team: Wisconsin went 10-0 when rushing for at least 150 yards. Thusly, the Badgers went 0-3 when not rushing for at least 150 yards. That tells you all you need to know about this offense. On the other side of the ball, Wisconsin held its final 10 opponents of the 2009 season to less than 100 yards rushing. The running game will again be among the best in the country, with Clay a Heisman hopeful. The defensive front must be rebuilt, however, and the lack of experience at tackle is a concern. Is there any way Wisconsin can again rank among the top 20 nationally in rush defense with three true or redshirt freshmen playing key roles on the interior of the defensive line?

When: Oct. 16 vs. Ohio State, Oct. 23 at Iowa

Wisconsin’s season will be decided over a seven-day span: home for Ohio State, on the road against Iowa. Now, the Badgers can surely have a solid season even if they lose both these games. Ten wins would still be a possibility, though Wisconsin still needs to face Michigan and Michigan State on the road and Northwestern — victors in last year’s game — in Madison. Yet losses to Ohio State and Iowa would end Wisconsin’s conference hopes; losses to either one might extinguish its conference hopes, in fact. The rest of the schedule is not altogether imposing, so the Badgers might enter mid-October undefeated. A win over O.S.U. would push Wisconsin into the top 10. A win on the following Saturday would push Wisconsin into the national title mix.

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