Burning questions for Wisconsin football in 2013: Can Wisconsin edge out Ohio State in the Leaders Division?

Rob Leifheit-US PRESSWIRE

When the Badgers return to the Horseshoe this fall, a fourth straight trip to the Rose Bowl could be on the line. Can Gary Andersen get the job done?

Great empires have always risen and fallen. It is a fact of the past, a portent of the future and a reoccurring theme in college sports. Remember when Minnesota was a dominant college football powerhouse? Strange as it may sound, the Gophers won six national titles between 1934 and 1960.

Whether it’s over decades or a few short years, spurts of greatness from programs in the Big Ten have ran their cycles. Ohio State won five straight Big Ten championships from 2005-09 (with two coming after Penn State vacated wins from those seasons). Now, in the past three years, it has been Wisconsin who has won three straight conference titles and a trifecta of consecutive Rose Bowl appearances.

With Ohio State coming off a one-year bowl ban and a perfect season under Urban Meyer, the question must be asked: is Wisconsin’s run of Big Ten dominance over?

One might argue that it already is, considering the Badgers reached the Big Ten Championship Game as the Leaders division representative by default. I personally don’t buy that, since there’s a reason why the two programs ahead of the Badgers in the standings were under bans in the first place. But with such a lackluster performance against the Big Ten (including home losses to Michigan State and Ohio State) will this be the year Wisconsin fails to make it to Pasadena?

Ohio State returns Braxton Miller, a Heisman Trophy-caliber player who is eerily reminiscent of the kind of player Tim Tebow was for Meyer at Florida. Miller also has a nice complement in the backfield with a big, bruising running back in senior Carlos Hyde. Miller will also have his two favorite targets at wide receiver back with senior Corey Brown (60 catches and 669 yards in 2012) and junior Devin Smith (30 catches, 618 yards).

Wisconsin, though, did do a better job than anyone at holding Ohio State's offense in check in 2012. The Badgers’ defense absolutely stonewalled Miller’s attempts to run in the Nov. 17 game, as the quarterback gained just 48 yards on his 23 rushing attempts. The yardage total and average of 2.09 yards per carry were the lowest Miller was held to the entire season. The Badgers were also the only team to hold Miller under 100 yards passing, limiting him to just 97 yards through the air.

Perhaps most importantly, the Badgers held the Buckeyes to 236 total yards of offense, OSU's lowest total of the season by more than 100 yards. In perspective, Ohio State's offense went over the 500-yard mark three times in 2012 and the 400-yard barrier six times.

Returning all but one starter from last year’s front seven, the Badgers are now armed with familiarity after facing the Buckeyes' spread offense. Still, another year under Meyer means more improvements and modifications to the system, and who knows how big the strides Miller makes in the offseason will be?

This year's Sept. 28 rendition of Wisconsin-Ohio State is already tabbed as top Big Ten fare. Though the game comes in late September, it will likely determine the team to beat in the Leaders Division. The Badgers haven’t won in Columbus since 2004, back when Barry Alvarez was coaching. It will be a heady task, especially with the game being nationally televised night.

Wisconsin has been in this position before, coming off multiple years of success. After Alvarez led the team to consecutive Rose Bowl victories in the 1998 and 1999 seasons, it took the Badgers until 2005 to reach the 10-win mark again -- Alvarez’s last as the head coach, not counting last season's interim stint.

Will the Badgers be tossed back into rebuilding mode after their latest run of conference glory, or will Andersen and his staff be able to maintain the program at the same level or higher? Tough games at Arizona State, Ohio State and Iowa will challenge Wisconsin’s chance at a third consecutive appearance in the Big Ten Championship Game, while a home contest with an upstart Northwestern program under Pat Fitzgerald will also be challenging.

Ohio State, on the other hand, has just two tough games away from home in conference play, against Northwestern and Michigan. With Penn State still out of the mix and Indiana, Illinois and Purdue all rebuilding, the Leaders Division looks like it'll come down to Wisconsin and Ohio State in 2013.

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