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Wisconsin season preview 2014: Hope and change abound for Badgers, college football

Taking in the big picture ahead of college football's new era.

Jerry Lai-USA TODAY Sports

With fall camp a thing of the past, as with every season, the feeling that real, actual, games will be upon us in short order is in the air on the Internet - and it's palpable. For the Wisconsin Badgers, hope and change are also in the air. As with that slogan's previous usage, there are misgivings by some and bright-eyed optimism from others. Year Two of the Gary Andersen Era fits in quite well in this context, as hope and change literally abounds in the whole of college football.

Completing the last round of conference realignment, the Big Ten reshuffled its two divisions and added eastern outposts, Rutgers and Maryland, both of whom are on Wisconsin's 2014 schedule. Although the majority of fans remain to be sold on this particular expansion, the addition of those relative non-factors on the field is nearly certain to be successful under the pencils of the league's accountants, and almost just as likely, those of the other athletic departments in the conference. Rutgers and Maryland should only be helped by the TV deals, increased exposure and bumps in home attendance when powerhouse travelers like Ohio State, Michigan, Iowa and Wisconsin (all of whom also boast large local alumni bases) come to town, but it is hope and change met with mixed emotions.

More broadly, major college football also dispensed with the much-maligned BCS in favor of the College Football Playoff, complete with a seemingly well-rounded selection committee (including the Godfather, Barry Alvarez) choosing the competitors. This was a long time coming -- and may well be open to the Boise States of years' past -- but there will be those who will fill message boards, Twitter and Facebook with harangues for the fifth or sixth-best team, and there's already those who argue that it should include eight teams and not just four. The impact of this major overhaul, which is for now the crucible from which a True National Champion will emerge, remains to be seen. There may be few mixed emotions at this point, but it's definitely hope and change.

Beyond that, there is the new paradigm of autonomy just granted to the "Power 5" conferences, of which UW is a member, the potentially major changes that will result from both the O'Bannon litigation and the jarring unionization move by Northwestern's players, serious talk of deep changes to player recruiting and the ever-fading credibility of NCAA rules enforcement, the NCAA's rules themselves and the entire notion of amateurism in college sports. All of this is certain to bring massive change, most of which we can't even see yet. The best we can do now is hope that the changes will be for the better -- better for the game, the "product," the fans, the programs and most of all, the players that make the entire thing go.

All of this, of course, has to bring us back to Wisconsin Football in 2014. There's hope, as these Badgers are a solid, if non-consensus, pick to win the new Big Ten West. There's also much change -- the first four days of fall camp were held without a depth chart. On offense, Melvin Gordon is a bona fide star: an emerging team leader, a real Heisman Trophy candidate and one of the game's most exciting players. But other than his seemingly capable backfield partner, Corey Clement, who's going to help him move the ball forward? It's a conventional wisdom that this team will go as far as its passing game will take it, but who's up to that task? For now, Tanner McEvoy gets first dibs. Then there's an almost entirely new group of primary pass-catchers who, although they've flashed in fall camp, their apex last year was either no more than 10 catches on the season or stardom in high school. Again, hope and change with mixed emotions.

On defense, there's plenty of talent, but the majority of it is unproven at the college level. Although the defensive backfield returns three starters, seven lineman and linebackers graduated. In the front seven, just two linemen and two linebackers come back with significant from-scrimmage experience. On top of that personnel turnover, Andersen and coordinator Dave Aranda are changing the entire defensive scheme. Gone are the chunky, run-stopping linemen, large-ish, mostly lumbering linebackers and off-coverage d-backs. In are speed, mobility, aggression against the passer and press-coverage corners. Will the changes work? Hope yet again.

Finally, there is a new approach to recruiting. Andersen and his staff have vastly widened the reach of their nets and have closed them on players outside of "traditional" recruiting areas, some of them more "highly touted" by scouting services than in previous years. Yet, from Andersen's first solo class, there have also been notable casualties from academics, immaturity and one criminal aberration. Still, if you listen to the father of a prominent recruit in Wisconsin's 2015 class (who should know), the hope engendered by Andersen and his staff, and their differing recruiting stance, is entirely well-founded. Based on his track record, Andersen certainly looks to have a knack for identifying the talent and character that matches the way he wants football to be played. Right now though, it's merely hope and ... you get the picture.

Things are changing at both Wisconsin and in the larger world of college football. The hope must be that the changes are for the good, and you can bet that the coaches and players are hoping the same thing. Once the games do finally start, the focus can shift to what happens on the field -- the hope then becomes not only that it stays there, but that the wins for this team so outnumber the losses that the talk of the College Football Playoff becomes much more than just academic.