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Backing the Badgers

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Paul Chryst has returned to Wisconsin to take over the program after Gary Andersen shockingly bolted out of Madison to take the Oregon State job. Chryst, who spent the three previous seasons as the head coach at Pitt, was born in Madison, played quarterback for the Badgers and was the offensive coordinator under Bret Bielema from 2005-2011 when UW had five double-digit win campaigns.

Chryst kept defensive coordinator Dave Aranda around for his third year at UW. Under Aranda, Wisconsin has given up 20.8 and 16.3 points per game in '13 and '14, respectively. The new OC will be Joe Rudolph, who had the same position at Pitt the last three years and was TEs coach at UW from 2008-2011.

Wisconsin has the easiest schedule in the Big Ten this season. From the Big Ten East, the Badgers draw Rutgers and Maryland, who they beat by a combined score of 89-7 last year. They bring back five starters on offense and six on defense from a squad that went 11-3 with an overtime win over Auburn at the Outback Bowl.

I like a pair of preseason wagers on Wisconsin, including its win total to go 'over' 9.5 wins at a -105 price. I'm also bullish on the Badgers to win the Big Ten West for a +155 payout (risk $100 to win $155).

Before we break down UW's schedule, let's touch on the team's personnel. As a freshman and sophomore, QB Joel Stave made 19 starts and posted a 28/16 touchdown-to-interception ratio. Then just days before last year's opener vs. LSU, former DB Tanner McEvoy was named the starting QB over Stave, who was struggling with his accuracy due to a shoulder injury.

A week later, reports out of Madison indicated that Stave was done for the season. Those reports turned out to be inaccurate and Andersen went back to Stave as his starter in the sixth game. Although he threw only nine touchdown passes compared to 10 interceptions, the Badgers went 8-1 in his nine starts. Stave now has a 21-7 record in 28 career starts going into his senior campaign.

Although Heisman finalist Melvin Gordon is gone to the NFL after rushing for 2,670 yards and 29 TDs while averaging 7.5 yards per carry, the UW backfield is in good shape as usual. Junior RB Corey Clement is poised for a breakout year. Clement rushed for 969 yards and nine TDs while averaging 6.5 YPC in 2014.

Phil Steele ranks UW's offensive line as the third-best in the Big Ten. The Badgers bring back their top WR in Alex Erickson, who had 55 receptions for 772 yards and three TDs last year. With a solid o-line, veteran QB, explosive RB and reliable No. 1 WR, there's no reason to think Wisconsin won't be able to average 30-plus points per game.

How consistent has UW's defense been since 2009? The Badgers haven't given up more than 21.8 PPG during this span. This unit gets McEvoy back to start at free safety. Also, leading tackler and first-team All Big-Ten selection Michael Caputo returns at strong safety. Vince Biegel, a junior OLB, is also back after making 7.5 sacks and earning second-team All Big-Ten honors in 2014.

How easy is the schedule?

Sat, Sept 5 vs. Alabama * (from Arlington)
Sat, Sept 12 vs. Miami (Ohio)
Sat, Sept 19 vs. Troy
Sat, Sept 26 vs. Hawaii
Sat, Oct 3 vs. Iowa
Sat, Oct 10 at Nebraska
Sat, Oct 17 vs. Purdue
Sat, Oct 24 at Illinois
Sat, Oct 31 vs. Rutgers
Sat, Nov 7 at Maryland
Sat, Nov 21 vs. Northwestern
Sat, Nov 28 at Minnesota

Well, if Nebraska isn't ranked on Oct. 10, there's a strong possibility that UW's opener against Alabama in Arlington (Jerry World) will serve as the only game the Badgers play against a ranked opponent.

Wisconsin figures to be a double-digit favorite in all seven home games vs. Miami (OH.), Troy, Hawaii, Iowa, Purdue, Rutgers and Northwestern. The Badgers get an open date before hosting the Wildcats on Nov. 21.

According to the Games of the Year lines at [...], UW will be favored in all 11 games after facing Alabama as an underdog. The Badgers are currently two-point 'chalk' for their toughest road game at Nebraska. The other road games are at Illinois, at Maryland and at Minnesota. In the last five seasons, Wisconsin is unbeaten in 10 games against the Illini, Terrapins and Gophers, with all of those victories coming by double-digit margins.

I think Alabama will beat Wisconsin in the opener, but we've seen much stranger things happen. If Gordon doesn't get hurt in the opener against LSU last season, the Badgers probably win what turned into a 28-24 loss thanks to a second-half rally by the Tigers. Like 'Bama, UW beat Auburn last year and both schools got smoked by Ohio State.

I think Wisconsin has a great chance at going 11-1. Even if the Badgers fall to Alabama and lose at Nebraska, we'll still be good with our 'over' win total bet if they win out from there. They'll undoubtedly be favored in all those games, so bettors will have the option of hedging.

In other words, if UW already has two losses and is favored by 14 at Illinois, one could back the Illini on the money line or plus the points. I'm confident UW will win at Illinois and at Minnesota, so I don't recommend the aforementioned hedge scenario. I'm just recognizing that option will be available for gamblers if either of those two road assignments cause any angst.

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