77F Camp Randall Stadium, Madison, WI
MADISON, Wis. (AP) -- - With a pair of division heavyweights facing postseason bans, a lot of things would have to go wrong for Wisconsin to miss out on another trip to the Big Ten title game. And even after recent off-the-field drama involving star running back Montee Ball, Bret Bielema's team has its eyes on even bigger goals.
The NCAA has ruled fellow Big Ten Leaders division powerhouses Ohio State and Penn State ineligible for the postseason, a ban that includes conference title games. That leaves the 12th-ranked Badgers to deal with the likes of Purdue, Illinois and Indiana for division supremacy.
With the Badgers coming off back-to-back Rose Bowl losses and poised to win a potential third straight Big Ten title - they shared the 2010 title with Michigan State - Bielema has warned them from looking too far down the road going into Saturday's opener against Northern Iowa.
"The thing that I said immediately after that is if anybody wants to jump to that date, you're more than welcome to think about it but we'll never get there," Bielema said. "It's taking it one day at a time."
There are questions, however.
The Badgers lost playmaking quarterback Russell Wilson to the NFL. They've brought in another transfer, Danny O'Brien from Maryland, and he won the starting job in the preseason.
O'Brien can play right away because he has graduated, the same rule Wilson used to become eligible immediately last year.
"I think I went into the competition with the mentality that I'm going to start and just kind of focus on myself," said O'Brien, who threw 22 touchdowns for the Terrapins as a freshman in 2010 but had only seven alongside 10 interceptions in a new offense last year. "I didn't know when the (starter) was going to be named, and I just wanted to work every day. But I was happy to hear it, but now the work really starts and we've got to move forward."
Wisconsin also needs to integrate a slew of new assistants, including offensive coordinator Matt Canada after predecessor Paul Chryst got the head coaching job at Pittsburgh.
And the Badgers will have to shake off a recent off-the-field controversy involving Ball, a Heisman Trophy finalist who was assaulted by five men near campus Aug. 1 and sustained a concussion. Police said they were investigating whether a previous fight involving Badgers football players might have led to the attack.
Ball expects to be ready for the season opener. He denies having any involvement in the previous fight, but knew the incident had the potential to cause a distraction and apologized in front of the team.
"I just addressed the team because there was a big elephant in the room," Ball said. "I just wanted to make sure I attacked it. I just wanted to tell the entire room not to feel sorry for me because I'm going to channel all this energy I have from it and work it onto the field."
The Badgers hardly are hurting for depth behind Ball, with James White and Melvin Gordon both likely to get their fair share of carries.
But it's Ball who gets most of the attention after totaling an NCAA record-tying 39 touchdowns last year.
"There's no doubt in my mind that he's got an awareness to him, probably a heightened awareness that he's never had to this point," Bielema said. "And realized anytime you're in a situation where something of that nature comes up and you've got multiple people attacking you at one time, it could have been a lot worse."
And while the attack on Ball - and the lingering questions about the circumstances that may have led to it - didn't exactly make for a smooth transition into camp, nothing has changed for the Badgers in terms of expectations.
Three straight Big Ten titles?
"That is definitely one of our team goals but we have to approach it one day at a time and one game at a time," wide receiver Jared Abbrederis said. "But that is one of the goals set for us and we'll see what happens."
While last year's 11-3 season will be remembered for a pair of heartbreaking last-second losses on big plays by Michigan State and Ohio State, the Badgers expect to be strong on defense.
"I'm really excited," linebacker Chris Borland said. "We have a lot of experienced players who are back despite not having a lot of seniors. We have a lot of guys who have played some meaningful football contending for meaningful roles this year."
Wisconsin is trying to win its 17th consecutive home game - it has the nation's second-longest active streak behind LSU - as it faces Northern Iowa for the first time.
The Badgers are 10-0 all-time against FCS opponents, although the Panthers are no slouch within that division. They went 10-3 last year and reached the quarterfinals of the national playoffs, and they remain ranked in the FCS top 10.
Coach Mark Farley, though, will have to replace departed quarterback Tirrell Rennie and is going with freshman Sawyer Kollmorgen as the starter.
Northern Iowa nearly won at Iowa State last year and it tested then-No. 22 Iowa in a 17-16 road loss in its most recent game against a ranked FBS opponent Sept. 5, 2009.
"We didn't have to tell our guys twice that this is a very good football team," Bielema said.