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May 19, 2013

Time to temper '14 expectations





MADISON - I'll be the first to admit it- I smirked a little when the Big Ten released Wisconsin's 2014 conference schedule on Thursday. On the surface the schedule looks almost comically easy. The Badgers' 2014 conference opponents posted a combined record of 51-51 in 2012, including 10-win seasons from both Nebraska and Northwestern. Nebraska looks like 'toughest' game on the schedule, but the Badgers get to host the Cornhuskers on Nov. 15.

It looks like a dream come true for Gary Andersen, who should be in his second season at Wisconsin by then. The Badgers should get used to schedules like that, too. The Big Ten's new "East and West" division alignment could be here to stay for a while, because it seems like the conference will stand pat at 14 teams for the foreseeable future.

And while Badgers fans have a right to be overjoyed about playing in the Big Ten West, the talk I've seen about Wisconsin potentially going undefeated in 2014 is very premature.

Could they? Sure. But there will be plenty of things standing in their way. They'll have to deal with a lot of roster transition, and their schedule might not be as easy as it looks.

Above all else, my skepticism stems from looking at the projected 2014 starters. 2014 looks like a transitional year for the Badgers, but the turnover is mostly on the defensive side of the ball. Defensive linemen Ethan Hemer, Beau Allen, and Pat Muldoon, as well as linebackers Brendan Kelly, Chris Borland, Ethan Armstrong and Tyler Dippel are all entering their final season of eligibility in 2013. If the 2013 starting lineup shakes out the way I've projected, that means the Badgers will be looking for new starters at every position in their front seven in 2014. In all it looks like the Badgers will return just three starters on defense when you throw senior safety Dezmen Southward in too.

That's a lot of young players to break in at one time. The Badgers are planning on rotating players in and out of their 3-4 defense this season, but that much starting experience is hard to replace. The coaching staff is excited about several young players who might start in 2014, but inexperienced defenses can take a while to click. The Badgers might have enough talent to make a smooth transition, but running the table seems like a lot to expect at this point.

The Badgers are also reportedly trying to beef up their non-conference schedule, because they only have 11 games scheduled for the 2014 season at the moment. The Badgers are reportedly trying to finalize a neutral site game with LSU at either Reliant Stadium in Houston, Texas, or Lambeau Field in Green Bay, Wis. A top-tier game like that to start the season would be a significant hurdle for the Badgers to climb.

The Tigers will have a talented roster in 2014, no matter what happens to Les Miles' squad this year. The Tigers pulled in the fifth-ranked recruiting class in 2011, and the players from that class that are still on the roster will be in their fourth year on campus during the 2014 season. They're a top-tier SEC program for a reason, and the Badgers are trying to schedule them in part because they want to boost their schedule strength. The Badgers could beat LSU if the two teams play in 2014, but it will be a tall order that could spoil Wisconsin's hopes of an undefeated season right away.

Finally, the Badgers' meager division mates might not be so lowly in two years. Nebraska recruits near the top of the Big Ten, and Northwestern seems to be on the upswing both on the field and in recruiting. I wouldn't count out Iowa or Minnesota, either. Iowa is only four years removed from winning the 2010 Orange Bowl, and the Jerry Kill regime should be showing real signs of progress by year four, if it's going to work.

I'm not bullish on Illinois, and Purdue will likely be in year two under Darrell Hazell, but Maryland and Rutgers could put up a good fight in their first year in the Big Ten. The Badgers will host the Terrapins, but they'll have to travel out to New Jersey for their game with the Scarlet Knights. Anything can happen during road games, and Rutgers did win nine games in 2012.

It's strange to think this much about the 2014 season when the 2013 season hasn't even started, and a lot will change for the Badgers and the rest of the Big Ten in the meantime. But even though the Badgers' 2014 schedule might compel you to scan Travelocity for flight tickets to Pasadena, New Orleans, or Arlington for the College Football Playoff, you might want to hold off for a little while. It's hard to get a refund on flight tickets.

For more Wisconsin Badgers news, notes and discussion, follow John on Twitter.


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