MADISON, Wis. (AP) — With a pair of division heavyweights facing postseason bans, a lot of things would have to go wrong for Wisconsin to miss out on another trip to the Big Ten title game. And even after recent off-the-field drama involving star running back Montee Ball, Bret Bielema's team has its eyes on even bigger goals.
The NCAA has ruled fellow Big Ten Leaders division powerhouses Ohio State and Penn State ineligible for the postseason, a ban that includes conference title games. That leaves the Badgers to deal with the likes of Purdue, Illinois and Indiana for division supremacy.
With the Badgers coming off back-to-back Rose Bowl losses and poised to win a potential third straight Big Ten title — they shared the 2010 title with Michigan State — Bielema has warned them from looking too far down the road going into their Sept. 1 opener against Northern Iowa.
"The thing that I said immediately after that is if anybody wants to jump to that date, you're more than welcome to think about it but we'll never get there," Bielema said. "It's taking it one day at a time."
There are questions, however.
The Badgers lost playmaking quarterback Russell Wilson to the NFL. They've brought in another transfer, Danny O'Brien from Maryland, although he isn't walking in as the presumptive starter like Wilson did a year ago.
They also need to integrate a slew of new assistants, including offensive coordinator Matt Canada.
And they will have to shake off a recent off-the-field controversy involving Ball, a Heisman Trophy finalist who recently was assaulted by five men near campus and sustained a concussion. Police say they are investigating whether a previous fight involving Badgers football players might have led to the attack.
Ball hopes to be ready for the season opener. He denies having any involvement in the previous fight, but knew the incident had the potential to cause a distraction and apologized in front of the team.
"I just addressed the team because there was a big elephant in the room," Ball said. "I just wanted to make sure I attacked it. I just wanted to tell the entire room not to feel sorry for me because I'm going to channel all this energy I have from it and work it onto the field."
The Badgers hardly are hurting for depth behind Ball, with James White and Melvin Gordon both likely to get their fair share of carries.
But it's Ball who gets most of the attention.
"There's no doubt in my mind that he's got an awareness to him, probably a heightened awareness that he's never had to this point," Bielema said. "And realized anytime you're in a situation where something of that nature comes up and you've got multiple people attacking you at one time, it could have been a lot worse."
And while the attack on Ball — and the lingering questions about the circumstances that may have led to it — haven't exactly made for a smooth transition into camp, nothing has changed for the Badgers in terms of expectations.
Three straight Big Ten titles?
"That is definitely one of our team goals but we have to approach it one day at a time and one game at a time," wide receiver Jared Abbrederis said. "But that is one of the goals set for us and we'll see what happens."
First they'll have to find a quarterback.
O'Brien arrives from Maryland and can play right away because he has graduated, the same rule Wilson used to become eligible right away last year. O'Brien was a starter for most of the past two seasons at Maryland, putting together an impressive 2010 season before struggling with the team's new offense in 2011.
"I've gotten better each year," O'Brien said. "I'm sticking to that and not worrying about anything else. I've got to earn it like anybody else. I wouldn't want it any other way. My mindset hasn't changed. I knew what to expect."
But unlike Wilson, who basically arrived in Madison as the starter, O'Brien came in competing with Joel Stave and Curt Phillips for the job.
"We all want to play," said Stave, a redshirt freshman. "We're all competitors. Someone's got to separate themselves at some point."
Phillips, a fifth-year senior, has fought back from a series of knee issues.
"It felt great," Phillips said. "That's one of the biggest things coming into camp. I felt my knee's not an issue at all. We can finally get away from that question and let it rely on how we play."
Bielema said he hopes to name a starter by Wednesday, Aug. 22 — 10 days before the first game.
"If it happens before that, it's just because we feel comfortable," Bielema said. "Not in a big hurry to make that decision."
And while last year's season will be remembered for a pair of heartbreaking last-second losses on big plays by Michigan State and Ohio State, the Badgers expect to be strong on defense.
"I'm really excited," linebacker Chris Borland said. "We have a lot of experienced players who are back despite not having a lot of seniors. We have a lot of guys who have played some meaningful football contending for meaningful roles this year."