Sure, the players never want to look too far ahead, but that doesn't mean we can't.
The thought originally crossed my mind over a month ago when the Badgers beat Iowa and proved that they were indeed for real: If J.J. Watt, John Clay and Nick Toon all return for their senior year, the Badgers could be a preseason top five team next year and be a serious national title contender.
That's not to say they aren't a serious national title contender right now. Unfortunately, that kind of talk is little a little too late for this bunch. Fair or not, preseason rankings play a huge role in a team's chances to reach the BCS National Championship Game. For instance, had the Badgers been a preseason top five team this year, they wouldn't have fallen as far as they did when they lost to Michigan State and would most likely be ranked ahead of Stanford right now and have a decent chance to leapfrog TCU if they hadn't already.
A high preseason ranking gives highly regarded teams a little more margin for error. Remember when Alabama lost to South Carolina? Most experts claimed the Crimson Tide still controlled their own destiny and had they won the rest of their games -- including what would have been a win last weekend against Auburn -- there's little doubt Alabama would be No. 2 right now ahead of TCU.
The point is, if the Badgers win the Rose Bowl and their talented group of juniors decides to return, we're looking at a top five team in my eyes. Scott Tolzien, Gabe Carimi, John Moffitt and Lance Kendricks will be lost to graduation, but those are all areas where UW has a lot of depth. Let's not forget that versatile offensive lineman Travis Frederick, a starter last season, redshirted this year because there wasn't enough playing time going around. Ricky Wagner is already the next great left tackle at Wisconsin and there is enough depth for the offensive line to avoid skipping a beat. Jacob Pedersen is already a fine replacement at tight end and while Tolzien's intangibles will be missed the most, Jon Budmayr has the skill set to be an even better quarterback.
The question is, will Watt, Clay and Toon return for what could be an even more memorable season than this one?
Of the three, Watt is certainly the most NFL ready. I'm not sure Clay will get any better, but he needs to prove he can stay healthy before an NFL team will be willing to give him big money as a high draft pick. Toon has NFL potential, but he also needs to prove he can stay healthy and he still lacks the big season most NFL-caliber receivers have under their belt when they enter the draft.
Still, all three of them could conceivably declare for the draft by Jan. 14, which is the deadline.
But while they might be ready for the NFL, will the NFL be ready for them?
Every NFL expert that exists claims labor negotiations will go well into the offseason. That means a 2011 NFL season certainly won't be a guarantee by the Jan. 14 deadline. It's possible that deadline will be pushed back, but still, there are no guarantees a player leaving early for the NFL will get to play football next year.
Such a situation would be unfortunate for a guy like Watt, who's certainly NFL ready. You always want to have the best interests of the players at heart.
But that doesn't mean the Badgers won't benefit from an NFL lockout.
Imagine a team that brings Watt, Clay and Toon back. Watt would supplant a defense that would almost certainly be better. Niles Brinkley and Jay Valai are good, but replaceable players and let's not forget Chris Borland should be back -- although I still have doubts about whether or not his shoulder will ever be 100 percent again.
With Toon back, Budmayr would have a go-to guy to help him in his first season, but more importantly he would still have a three-headed running attack backing him up, which would take the pressure off, much like it has for Tolzien the last two seasons.
Even if Watt, Toon and Clay were too leave, the Badgers would still be a top 25 team capable of challenging for a Big Ten title, but with all three back, we're talking about one of the best teams in the country.
You may love the NFL, but a lockout has an major upside for the Badgers.