Whereas the previous two seasons Wisconsin made it to the Rose Bowl by virtue of winning the conference, this time an 8-5 record and a third-place finish were enough to secure a spot in Pasadena because Penn State and Ohio State were ineligible. Each of the team's losses came by one touchdown or less, including a 20-14 setback to seventh-ranked Stanford in the Rose Bowl.
On Dec. 4, head coach Brett Bielema shockingly announced that he was leaving Wisconsin for Arkansas. He was replaced by Utah State head coach Gary Andersen, whose Aggies gave the Badgers all they could handle in a September matchup in Madison (16-14).
"There's going to be differences when you take over a program. It's important to put your own stamp on it," Andersen said at Big Ten Media Day.
OFFENSE: The team brought in juco transfer Tanner McEvoy to compete with incumbent Joel Stave at quarterback. If McEvoy picks up the offense quickly enough, he has the talent to unseat Stave, who threw for only six touchdowns in eight games and completed 58.8 percent of his passes. Stave was one of three players to start under center for Wisconsin last season.
Coach Andersen said he does not have a timeline on naming a starter, but conceded it's possible "we may jog out there the first play of the game with two quarterbacks on the field and see what happens from there."
"Anytime we recruit a junior college player he's going to be given the opportunity to walk in fall camp and compete and get reps with the ones and twos at times just as every freshman will if he deems himself mentally and physically prepared to be able to be in those situations that he has a chance to help our team," Andersen said.
Wisconsin must improve upon its 35.6-percent third-down conversion rate, which was 11th in the conference and 94th nationally. However, the team did rank 13th in the nation and third in the conference in rushing offense (236.4 ypg) in 2012, but that was with FBS career touchdown leader and two-time consensus All-American Montee Ball leading the charge in the backfield. Now, the job is all up to senior James White, who has rushed for 2,571 yards (6.1 ypc) and 32 TDs in part-time duty through his first three seasons. Redshirt sophomore Melvin Gordon is also due for an increased workload after averaging 10.0 yards on 62 carries as a freshman.
Wideout Jared Abbrederis (49 rec, 5 TD) and tight end Jacob Pedersen (27 rec, 4 TD) figure to be heavily involved in the passing game as Wisconsin seeks offensive balance.
DEFENSE: Andersen brings with him a defensive pedigree, as he also previously served as defensive coordinator of the 2008 Utah team that beat Alabama in the Sugar Bowl that season. Seven starters return, and they are mostly in the front-seven.
Wisconsin will employ a new scheme under defensive coordinator Dave Aranda, who brings the 3-4 with him from Utah State. After ranking 11th in the Big Ten with just 15 takeaways in 2012, it would appear an opportune time to implement a change in style. All-Big Ten selection Mike Taylor will be missed from the linebacker corps, but Chris Borland (104 tackles, 10.0 TFL) and Ethan Armstrong (93 tackles) are ready to step up.
Three new starters will occupy the secondary, which represents perhaps the biggest question mark on the roster next to quarterback. Free safety Dezmen Southward (69 tackles) is the only holder from the starting defensive backfield.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Kicker Kyle French returns after converting only 10-of-16 field goals. He struggled with long-distance kicks, missing 4-of-6 from 40-49 yards and 2-of-8 between 30-39 yards. Punter Drew Meyer is also back, as he averaged 41.5 yards on 80 punts, including 36 that landed inside the 20.
OUTLOOK: Whereas Bielema suddenly bailed on his team while preparing to play in another Rose Bowl game, Andersen personally called each of his Utah State players to inform them each individually of his decision. That kind of personal touch tends to go a long way in locker rooms, and the Badgers players have already responded well to Andersen during preseason workouts.
Keep in mind, he inherited a 3-9 Utah State team and left with an 11-2 team. The Big Ten schedule features no Michigan, Michigan State or Nebraska, but tough non-conference bouts loom at Arizona State and home against BYU. A fourth consecutive Rose Bowl appearance would be a tall task for Wisconsin in Andersen's first year, but the Badgers certainly have the talent to match last season's win total.