CHAMPAIGN – If Wisconsin isn't Exhibit A in the latest case of underwhelming Big Ten football, then the Badgers are 1A. Let's not forget Michigan.
From Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema's seat, it's too early to cast a final grade on the league.
"I get it. I understand it," Bielema said. "We don't have as many teams ranked now as we did before the season, including us, so I can get that analogy.
"I've been in football long enough to know it's not how you start the race, it's how you end the race."
Wisconsin (3-2, 0-1) is a two-touchdown favorite when it hosts Illinois (2-3, 0-1) this Saturday.
Coming off a second consecutive appearance in the Rose Bowl, Wisconsin lost offensive coordinator Paul Chryst and five other assistant coaches in the offseason, quarterback Russell Wilson to the NFL and three starters on the offensive line.
Running back Montee Ball suffered one concussion in a late-night attack on a campus street in August and another concussion in this season's fourth game. Wisconsin is last in the league in total offense, rushing offense and passing offense – that will get an offensive line coach fired, just ask Mike Markuson – and transfer Danny O'Brien lost the starting job to redshirt freshman quarterback Joel Stave.
A loss to Nebraska didn't hurt the Badgers' chances of winning a division title and returning to the league's championship game.
"Would we rather be 5-0?" Bielema said. "Absolutely. We could also be 1-4."
Ball ranks seventh among Big Ten running backs with 450 rushing yards plus six touchdowns after scoring 39 touchdowns last season. He's "a monster," said Illini defensive coordinator Tim Banks, even though the 5-foot-11, 215-pound senior is no longer mentioned in the Heisman race.
O'Brien threw for 4,086 yards with 29 touchdowns and 18 interceptions in two seasons as a starter at Maryland before transferring to Wisconsin, but Stave started the last two games.
"The young pup [Stave] has managed the game pretty good," Banks said. "He's done a good job of protecting the football, keeping down and distance in a manageable situation on third down."
Wisconsin linebacker Mike Taylor had 15 tackles against the Huskers, and he's averaging 11.7 tackles over the last 15 games.
Illinois at Wisconsin
When: 2:30 p.m. Saturday
Where: Camp Randal Stadium, Madison
Line: Wisconsin by 14