Scott Starks, entering his fourth season as a starting cornerback for the University of Wisconsin, wants to change his view of the Big Ten Conference. He'd like to see it from the top down, thank you.
"I want to be a great team," said Starks, one of 15 returning starters from a team that finished 4-4 in the league and 7-6 overall last season. "I don't want to be a mediocre, middle-of-the-pack team. I want to be right up there with Michigan and Ohio State. I know it can happen."
UW hasn't won a Big Ten title since '99, two seasons before Starks arrived. Since 2000, the Badgers have gone just 13-19 in conference play and haven't finished higher than fifth. A year ago, UW suffered three of its four Big Ten losses in the final 30 seconds and finished tied for eighth.
"That's one thing we'll have to learn," UW head coach Barry Alvarez said of his team's inability to close out tight games. "When you have momentum and you have a chance to win the ball game, you have to make the play."
OffenseWisconsin has significantly expanded its playbook since the late 1990s, when tailback Ron Dayne smashed school and NCAA rushing records behind a mammoth offensive line.
Last season, the Badgers gained more yards passing than rushing (2,833-2,301). The evolution should continue in 2004. Yet with record-setting wide receiver Lee Evans gone to the NFL and sophomore John Stocco leading a quarterback corps that is as green as it has ever been in Alvarez's 14 seasons at UW, don't be surprised to see the scales tip back in favor of the running game.
"We feel like the offensive line will be the strength of our team and allow us to do an awful lot of things," offensive coordinator Brian White said. "They are a very intelligent group. They are physical."
If a slightly revamped offensive line performs well and senior tailback Anthony Davis remains healthy, UW's offense should flourish this season. Davis rushed for 3,021 yards and 24 touchdowns in his first two seasons but missed five full games and part of four others last season because of persistent ankle injuries. Dwayne Smith and Booker Stanley played well in relief but Davis is a big-play back that a team needs to be great. He's healthy and hungry to go out on top.
DefenseFirst-year defensive coordinator Bret Bielema has concise goals for the defense: to finish in the top three of the Big Ten in scoring defense, rushing defense, third-down percentage and turnovers forced. "If you're in the top three in those four categories," he said, "you have a very good chance to win the title."
The line, anchored by tackles Anttaj Hawthorne and Jason Jefferson, could be strong. It could be special if ends Erasmus James (hip) and Darius Jones (knee) return from injuries. The secondary, led by Starks and free safety Jim Leonhard, should be solid.
The big question mark is at linebacker, where junior LaMarr Watkins is the only player with any significant experience.
SpecialistsInconsistency has plagued Wisconsin's special teams, particularly the kickers, and it remains unclear whether this season will bring any significant change. The good news is that Leonhard is a sure-handed, dangerous punt-returner, and senior Mike Allen made 75 percent of his field goals last season. The bad news is that a hip injury limited Allen to just 12 attempts, and he doesn't possess an overpowering leg. Look for freshman Taylor Mehlhaff to handle kickoffs and long field goals.
Punter R.J. Morse must sharpen his game. He had almost as many touchbacks (11) as punts downed inside the 20-yard line (15).
Final AnalysisIf Davis remains healthy, the Badgers could contend for their first Big Ten title in five years. If the ankle injuries that hampered Davis in 2003 resurface, forget any title talk. Davis rushed for 414 yards in the first two games but suffered the first injury in Week 3 and finished the season with just 682 yards on 116 carries. A healthy Davis will force defenses to commit more defenders near the line of scrimmage, which will open the passing game and take pressure off the inexperienced quarterbacks. Bielema appears to be a more flexible and innovative defensive coordinator than his predecessor, Kevin Cosgrove. However, his projected starters at linebacker combined for only four starts and 42 total tackles last season.