As we open yet another year of college sports at the UW-Madison, it seems like the only thing everybody knows about the Badgers is that, for lots of sports, they don't know anything about the Badgers.
This year will truly be a transition period for a lot of teams, as they try to get used to new coaches, new players and in some cases, even new formats of game play. These teams will have to deal with a lot of new obstacles and learn from their mistakes, and no doubt these struggles will be frustrating to the players and fans alike.
Take the football team, for example. This year, the Badgers will have more new faces than a plastic surgeon convention.
Wisconsin lost 14 starters from last year's squad to graduation or the NFL. Despite maintaining two good quarterbacks in junior Brooks Bollinger and sophomore Jim Sorgi, the Badgers have lost their best running back (Michael Bennett), their best cover man (Jamar Fletcher), their best receiver (Chris Chambers), two award-winning special teams players (Kevin Stemke and Vitaly Pisetsky) and a bunch of talent in the secondary and linebacking corps.
This fall's untested corps of running backs may cause some Badger fans to cringe at the possibilities, but just remember that before last season, Bennett was another untested runner and still managed to do pretty well. Bennett proved a lot of critics wrong last season, and coach Barry Alvarez hopes a trio of freshmen Jerone Pettus, Tyron Griffin and Anthony Davis can do the same this year.
The volleyball team (and most of its male fans) must move on past middle blocker and object of affection Jenny Maastricht, who graduated in the spring. Plus, All-American senior middle blocker Sherisa Livingston had a mild scare and could have missed a significant portion of the season for academic reasons, but received academic clearance from the university and is now allowed to play.
The Badgers also have to try and master a new scoring system the NCAA implemented earlier this year, which may take a while to get used to (as evidenced by the team's season-opening loss to No. 12 Pacific).
While there will undoubtedly be a lot of growing pains in the other fall sports, by far the biggest question in the winter will be the men's basketball team. By the time November rolls around, the Badgers, two years removed from the Final Four, will enter their first year of the Bo Ryan era.
However, Wisconsin will enter that era without the solid foundation of defense that Dick Bennett preached for so many previous seasons. Only time will tell if Ryan's run-and-gun approach will work against the likes of Michigan State and Illinois.
All these changes are enough to confuse (and perhaps frighten) even the most loyal Badger fans, but Wisconsin has played well in the underdog role before. Did anybody expect the men's basketball team to advance to the Final Four in 1999? How about the volleyball team's second-place finish last year? Or the consecutive Big Ten titles for the football team in 1998 and 1999?
Wisconsin has succeeded as the underdog before. Let's hope the Badgers can do so again.