After an eventful off-season, to say the least, the 2011 college football season is less than 24 hours away. And, your No. 11 Wisconsin Badgers have the honor of hosting ESPN’s first college football broadcast of the new season when the UNLV Runnin’ Rebels come to town Thursday evening. Although by most experts’ predictions, the Badgers should have no trouble disposing of one of the cellar-dwellers in the Mountain West, this game will still be very interesting from a Badger fan’s perspective. Here are a couple things to look out for when Wisconsin takes the field tomorrow night.
Russell Wilson: By far the most high-profile acquisition in the country this off-season, ex-N.C. State quarterback Russell Wilson turned Wisconsin into an instant Big Ten favorite, if not national title contender, when he decided to take his talents to Madison in late June. And, while reports coming out of practice have been nothing but positive, Thursday night will be the first chance for many Badgers fans to see Wilson in the Wisconsin offense.
By no means does UNLV represent the kind of defense Wisconsin will face in the Big Ten, but the opening game should still go a long way in determining what kind of season Wilson will have. If he can make accurate throws, anticipate routes and interact well with his receivers, it won’t matter the talent that he’s facing. At this point, we all know Wilson can compete against anyone. Whether he’s adjusted to the Badger system is the only question mark remaining.
The James White/Montee Ball combo: With the loss of John Clay, it’s a two-man show for the Wisconsin running game. Yes, backups Melvin Gordon and Jeffrey Lewis are predicted to get some carries, but the majority will be taken by either White or Ball. Now, we know this tag team was, and is one of the best in the country. But, it will still be interesting to see how the two split carries. Who will start? Will they switch off each series? Will one go until the defense figures out how to stop him and then will the other come in? Now, UNLV won’t provide the kind of defensive resistance to answer these questions permanently, but it will still be very interesting to watch how Bielema handles the situation.
Jared Abbrederis: As the No. 2 wide receiver and No. 1 punt returner this season, sophomore Jared Abbrederis will have his chance to shine this year after seeing limited action last season. And, as many of my fellow UW friends know, I don’t think he’ll disappoint. He’s got good speed, great hands and is an all-around player. If No. 1 wideout Nick Toon gets injured once again (God forbid), Abbrederis could turn into Wilson’s favorite target downfield.
Replacing J.J. Watt: Simply, you can’t. Watt was one of the greatest defensive lineman in Wisconsin history and there’s no way to duplicate what he did up front. But, Louis Nzegwu has shown flashes over the past few years and could develop into a good pass rusher with his quickness off the edge. David Gilbert has also played solidly when he’s gotten the chance. Although he won’t be a starter, Beau Allen will be a sophomore with a year’s experience under his belt this season and we could see the former four-star recruit take off.
The return of Chris Borland: Arguably one of the most dynamic linebackers in the Big Ten, if not the country, 2009 Big Ten Freshman of the Year Chris Borland makes his return after missing most of last season following shoulder surgery. However, instead of playing outside linebacker, where his passing rush skills could be utilized to their full potential, Borland will be moved inside this season. It will be interesting to see if he makes the adjustment well. As a natural athlete, I have no doubt he will, but it will be a shame not to see him come off the edge a la Clay Matthews.
Now, these are all issues that won’t be answered completely against UNLV. Because, after all, it’s UNLV. But it should still give us Badger fans a good look into how this season may play out.