College football: Under new coach, Wisconsin touts itself as reigning champ

By The Columbus Dispatch  • 
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Wisconsin linebacker Chris Borland

Pardon the Wisconsin Badgers if they feel a little forgotten as this college football season begins with an avalanche of attention pouring down on Ohio State.

While the Buckeyes are No. 2 in the polls coming off a 12-0 season, the Badgers are No. 23 heading into their opener on Saturday against Massachusetts despite having played in the past three Rose Bowls.

Wisconsin’s ho-hum ranking reflects how it is expected to go through an adjustment under first-year coach Gary Andersen. His Badgers team is picked to finish second in the Big Ten Leaders Division behind the Buckeyes.

The teams play on Sept. 28 at Ohio Stadium in a night game that begins league play for both. Until then, Wisconsin has something to remind everyone.

“We want to make it known that we’re three-time Big Ten champions, and things still must go through Madison,” said senior Chris Borland, a first-team all-league linebacker from Kettering, Ohio.

OK, an asterisk clings to that third championship. Ohio State beat Wisconsin 21-14 in overtime in November, but NCAA penalties from a scandal under former coach Jim Tressel barred the Buckeyes from 2012 postseason play despite their top division record. Penn State, which finished next best by beating Wisconsin in the regular-season finale, also was ineligible as punishment for the Jerry Sandusky scandal.

“You can’t commit violations and represent a conference,” Borland said.

With Ohio State and Penn State both in the NCAA pokey, Wisconsin was put in the Big Ten championship game even though the Badgers had lost three of their last four regular-season games to finish 4-4, the league’s sixth-best record.

Despite the chirping of naysayers, Wisconsin responded by routing Nebraska 70-31 in Indianapolis to earn another title and become the first team to go to the Rose Bowl with five losses.

The land of cheese then went bonkers. Three days after winning that Big Ten championship game, Bret Bielema quit in his seventh season as Wisconsin coach to take the Arkansas job.

“It was a shock. Nobody really expected it,” senior receiver Jared Abbrederis said last month at Big Ten media days. “Then we still had to play in the Rose Bowl. That was tough.”

Andersen was hired from Utah State onDec. 19, but Wisconsin athletic director and former coach Barry Alvarez coached the Badgers in the Rose Bowl, where they lost for a third consecutive year, 20-14 to Stanford. They finished 8-6.

Things seem calm in Madison. Wisconsin’s players, led by 23 seniors, quickly accepted Andersen. He has switched the defense from a 4-3 formation to a 3-4 but plans to continue the program’s traditional powerful rushing offense.

Look for senior James White and sophomore Melvin Gordon to get a load of carries at tailback in place of Montee Ball, now in the NFL after setting an NCAA record with 83 career touchdowns.

And while Andersen and his Wisconsin players offer respect for the higher-ranked Buckeyes, there is a quiet confidence up in Madison.

“I don’t really care what other people say,” Abbrederis said. “I know we’ve got a good team and a good chance to do some special things this year. We’re right where we want to be.”

tjones@dispatch.com

@Todd_Jones

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