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Submitted by Jim Hurley on Thursday, September 1, 2011 at 10:11 AM

Wisconsin kicks off the college football season TONIGHT with a nationally televised home game against UNLV. It's not exactly a dream matchup of college powers. Wisconsin is favored by five touchdowns. But it might be an early look at a team you'll be seeing a lot of later this season.

In fact, it might be an early look at a BCS championship contender.

The Badgers enter the season ranked 11th in the nation. We've seen in recent seasons that is IS possible to climb from outside of the top 10 all the way to the top two by the end of the season. In fact, Oregon was 11th in the polls a year ago at this time, and would go on to play Auburn for the BCS trophy. Auburn was down in the 20's themselves.

We don't currently think Wisconsin is one of the best two teams in the country in terms of talent and depth. They only return four starters on offense. The Big Ten is often overrated in early polls to begin with, though that's become less of an issue in the most recent seasons. What's important to note is that the path to greatness is surprisingly friendly for Wisconsin this season. It's not exactly a perfect slate for running the table. But, it's about as friendly as can be once you work through the schedule game by game.

Look at Wisconsin's September schedule:
Tonight: vs. UNLV (35-point favorite)
September 10th: vs. Oregon State (clear favorite)
September 17th: vs. Northern Illinois in Chicago (clear favorite)
September 24th: vs. South Dakota (virtual scrimmage)

Oregon State can walk and chew gum, so the Badgers better not get overconfident. That almost nailed them last year in a home game against Arizona State. They catch an Oregon State team though, in Madison, who only returns three starters on defense. Most preseason estimates don't have the Beavers in the top 50 nationally heading into 2011. Its also a bad body clock game from Oregon State….kicking off at noon ET, but 9 a.m. body time.

Playing Northern Illinois LAST year was scary. This year's team has a brand new coach, and only returns two starters on defense. What would have been a road game is now technically a neutral site game to be played in Chicago. That makes the possibility of an upset much less likely.

One of Wisconsin's biggest concerns entering 2011 was a lack of experience on offense. Their two toughest draws in September will be against teams who lack experience on defense. Big break. Let's not forget that Russell Wilson will be the quarterback this year. He played fairly well at NC State, and may really shine here with beefier teammates and a more balanced attack. The transition to Wilson will come within a month of two projected slaughters, and two games against inexperienced defenses.

Things get tougher in October obviously. They'd have to!

October 1: vs. Nebraska
October 15: vs. Indiana
October 22: at Michigan State
October 29: at Ohio State

The first big test of the season comes against Nebraska on the first day of October. It's a historic game because it's the first Big 10 game ever for the Cornhuskers. But, it's obviously a huge game in terms of the conference races this year because it matches the two co-favorites for divisional crowns. And, given that these teams are currently ranked #10 and #11 in the AP poll…it could be the day that launches one of them into the BCS race to stay.

Note how beautifully the spot is situated on the Wisconsin schedule. It comes after the scrimmage against South Dakota, and before a week off! Wisconsin will be able to give 100% attention to this huge game. That plus home field combines for a very important edge.

The possible sandwich spot against Indiana is lessened because it follows a bye week. The Badgers might be flat as a pancake vs. the Hoosiers if they had to play that foursome in succession. Let down from Nebraska one week, look ahead to two huge games afterward. Helpful.

Obviously the biggest challenge of the year for Wisconsin comes in those last two games of October. Both are on the ROAD…and both come against teams expected to be competing for their respective divisions at the time. If you've been paying attention, you'll note that those are the first TRUE road games of the season (the Northern Illinois game is in Chicago). Wisconsin will at least be as fresh as possible entering the mini-gauntlet.

Of course, this is also shaping up as a down year for Ohio State. If you have to play in Columbus, THIS is the year you want to do it!

We're eight games into the season. It's impossible to say that we're talking about an 8-0 start given the spots against Nebraska, Michigan State, and Ohio State. It's certainly possible though. The schedule is about as friendly as can be for creating a run at greatness. The new offensive starters get time to transition in tune-ups. Everyone will be fresh for the tougher games. Ohio State may not be all that scary this year (time will tell with the new coach and quarterback). It's far from a crazy scenario that Wisconsin will be 8-0 entering November.

November 5 vs. Purdue
November 12 at Minnesota
November 19: at Illinois
November 26: vs. Penn State

We're pretty far out now from making good guesses about how dangerous Illinois and Penn State will be. Both were bowl teams last year. Both are top 35 teams in preseason expectations but not top 25. Wisconsin is very likely to be a home favorite over Penn State, even if it's small. Illinois is so erratic from year to year that we could be looking at a huge game in the Big 10 'Leaders' division (Wisconsin, Ohio State, Illinois, Penn State, Purdue, Indiana)…or a laugher against another Ron Zook disappointment that's thrown in the towel.

Nobody in the country has 12 surefire gifts this year. It's possible that 11-1 will be enough to get in the big game too. Wisconsin has a shot at 12-0, and what would seem to be a very good shot at 11-1 if Wilson is as good as expected at quarterback…and Ohio State is as vulnerable as expected given their turmoil.

If tonight's Wisconsin/UNLV game turns into a snoozer, you can at least spend the telecast evaluating Wisconsin's chances to be a major force on the college landscape this season.

JIM HURLEY may or may not be playing that TV game for his clients. You should never force TV games, particularly with garbage time pointspreads. But, there's certainly a chance this line is off by more than a TD. If Wisconsin's offense is sluggish in its transition, winning huge will be hard. If the offense is ready to go, the Badgers may be up 42 in the third quarter. NETWORK'S scouts and sources have chimed in with their thoughts…and that's influenced the decision-making tonight.

What you CAN count on Thursday is our annual KICKOFF SPECIAL. Build your bankrolls for the first big weekend of college action with our top play of the evening. We'll continue to pile up the profits Friday with a sleeper play in TCU/Baylor. Saturday's BACK TO SCHOOL PARLAY is set to return 13-5 when both sides come in. We hope you were with us last year for that feature when we won with Washington over Syracuse 41-20 and Air Force over BYU 35-14.

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Back tomorrow to take a closer look at TCU/Baylor, a game matching teams who could be in store for very interesting seasons this year. We'll feature a marquee matchup in the Saturday NOTEBOOK as well. Be sure you're with us EVERY DAY so you know what's really happening in the world of sports!


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