MADISON - Finally, after months of waiting and after months of anticipation, the Wisconsin football season is set to begin. With kickoff just hours away, here are five things to keep an eye on when UW and UNLV take to the Camp Randall Stadium turf.
For the first time in Badger cardinal and white, transfer quarterback Russell Wilson will play in front of the Camp Randall faithful. All the hype in the world has surrounded his highly publicized transfer into UW, now he'll finally get a chance to showcase what all the hype is about and whether it's been warranted. Everything he's proven to be throughout camp seems to point in that direction.
UNLV has a group of pretty veteran and experienced wide receivers that should present quite a challenge for UW's core of cornerbacks. Without a proven pass rusher up front, particularly on the defensive line, a lot of the pressure and stress could be placed on the Badger secondary. Guys like Devin Smith, Marcus Cromartie, Peniel Jean and Darius Hillary will need to be on top of their game because they're the guys that are going to get thrown at.
Wilson can't do anything that would jeopardize his health. He may way to pull the ball down and fight for extra yards, particularly in scramble situations, but he's got to be cognizant of the fact that the depth behind him at the position is not ready to contribute on any sort of extended level. His health is absolutely vital if Wisconsin is going to contend for a Big Ten title.
On the defensive side of the ball it will be interesting to see how Chris Borland plays tonight. He's making his first appearance in nearly a year. He's undergone shoulder surgeries on both of his shoulders throughout the past year and has been held to a somewhat strict pitch-count throughout fall camp.
Will he go 100 percent against UNLV? Yes. Will he do so in a responsible way? That remains to be seen. His health, like Wilson's is on the other side of the ball, is vital to UW's defense.
Finally, senior wide receiver Nick Toon has returned to practice and seems raring to go now that he's '100 percent' healthy. Considering the UW wide receiver position has a lot of young and unproven talent at its disposal, Toon needs to stay healthy to provide some senior leadership among the position. He's such a valuable weapon when he's on, hopefully his health won't be an issue.
Big play prone?
The biggest, most haunting, trend over the past number of years in regards to the UW defense is the fact that they have proven to have the propensity to give up big plays. That was happening again during scrimmage portions of the fall camp schedule. When you're a team expected to contend for a Big Ten title and if you're a program trying to get to that next level, one big play here and another there will do nothing but make that more difficult.
UNLV doesn't exactly have a high-powered offense, so UW's defense should have the upper hand in this one. If big plays start to rear their ugly head, though, there will definitely be cause for concern.
Embarrassment of riches:
Montee Ball and James White, two guys that would be among the top of any running back duo list, will kick off their respective season against UNLV. They'll both split carries and they'll both have a great amount of success. Could this be the start of a 1,500-yard season for each of them? Could it be the start of a Heisman Campaign for one of them? That remains to be seen. Just know they have the talent to turn some heads.
Because Wisconsin's offensive line is so big and strong, I expect UW to dominate in the trenches. The Badgers will be able to run the ball without any major difficulties and they'll be able to utilize a bit of the passing game in there as well.
UW may start of slow, simply because they're working 12 new starters into the lineup and simply because it's the first game, but once they get it rolling this one won't be close. Wisconsin wins 45-21.