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Wednesday, Aug. 29, 2012

Bucky Better Watch His Step

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Lofty expectations are terrific for a sports team—if they're fulfilled. Just ask the Packers how they feel about the "15-1, then one and done" sequel to a Super Bowl title. Now it's the Wisconsin football team's turn on the tightrope of high hopes.

The Badgers, who open Saturday against Northern Iowa, are coming off two straight Big Ten championships and Rose Bowl appearances. Thanks to sanctions against Ohio State and Penn State, they're practically guaranteed a spot in the conference title game. And the preseason polls suggest they can contend for the national crown.


But there's little margin for error. With the BCS still in place, even one loss might erase the ultimate goal. A cakewalk to the Big Ten final wouldn't mean much without a victory there. And another trip to Pasadena wouldn't be so rosy if the narrow losses to TCU and Oregon weren't avenged.


Still, the Observers figure UW fans would rather have the far side of the tightrope marked "14-0" than "Outback Bowl."


Frank
: Any reason we can't pencil UW into the Big Ten title game right now?
Artie
: Pencil, schmencil. Put it in ink. Injuries are always the wild card, but I can't see how they can do worse than Illinois, Purdue and Indiana in whatever they call that division.
Frank
: That's the Leaders. Of course, all conference games count in the standings, but they play both Ohio State and Michigan State at home this year. They do travel to Nebraska, but once again they don't face Michigan, which some polls rank ahead of them.
Artie
: Unless they meet the Wolverines for the title.
Frank
: A third straight Rose Bowl would be unprecedented for the Badgers. But they'd gladly skip it for a trip to Miami and the national final. Unfortunately, because a four-team playoff doesn't replace the BCS until 2014, there are still only two spots to shoot for.
Artie
: And one of them—at least—is a lock to belong to the SEC, ain'a?
Frank
: There are risks of losing at Nebraska, against the Buckeyes or Spartans, even at Penn State in what will be the end of a very emotional season there.
Artie
: Worst of all would be a loss in the non-conference "cupcake" games.
Frank
: That's unlikely, as usual, but two years ago UW barely edged Arizona State at home, 20-19, thanks in part to a blocked extra point.
Artie
: Besides Northern Iowa, they have Utah State and UTEP at home, plus Oregon State on the road. How'd Utah State do last year?
Frank
: They were a bowl team, which ain't saying much. They went 7-6, including a one-point loss to Ohio in something called the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl. Oregon State was 3-9 last year, but you never know about a September road game.
Artie
: In the conference, there are big dangers. Ohio State can't be written off, with Urban Meyer taking over. Nebraska and Michigan State are both right in there with the Badgers in the AP and USA Today rankings. But the thing is, the Badgers should be a damn good team.
Frank
: What's the buzz on the new transfer quarterback, Danny O'Brien?
Artie
: The former Maryland Terp seems to have the skills, and as a junior he'll be around for two years.
Frank
: He has a tough act to follow in Russell Wilson, whose running ability was as much of an asset as his throwing.
Artie
: O'Brien isn't as mobile as Wilson, but few would be. He's a definite pocket passer, but from what I've read he's not a "statue."
Frank
: And O'Brien can rely on the usual gigantic offensive line and unstoppable rushing attack.
Artie
: Led by Montee Ball, and be sure to pronounce that first name "Mon-TAY" this year.
Frank
: And James White is around for "slash and dash" duty.
Artie
: They're also thinking of using White as some kind of receiver to get him on the field more. They're a little shallow in the receiving department.
Frank
: Jared Abbrederis is uncanny at getting open, but he's not a real "burner." How about UW's defense?
Artie
: Should be fine, barring a string of injuries. The top-notch linebackers, Chris Borland and Mike Taylor, seem to be healthy again. One thing to remember is that they're breaking in new guys in both punting and place-kicking. And the special teams had some problems last year; the Badgers were last in the Big Ten in yardage allowed on kickoffs.
Frank
: Plus they had punts blocked in the agonizing losses in East Lansing and Columbus.
Artie
: After those Hail Mary disasters, I'd say the Badgers are due to have some freaky things go their way. But you can't count on it.

Suspicions, Suspicions

Frank: What do you make of Lance Armstrong's decision to stop fighting the doping accusations and probably having his seven Tour de France titles revoked?
Artie
: I just don't care. Bicycle riding doesn't do a thing for me.
Frank
: Kind of like me with auto racing. Cycling has been under a doping cloud for more than a decade; many of Armstrong's accusers seem to be former teammates who admit they were "dirty."
Artie
: It all makes my eyes glaze over.
Frank
: Armstrong is probably right that most people have made up their minds anyway. He's never failed a drug test, but that was true of Marion Jones before she admitted she lied about doping and lost all her 2000 Olympic glory.
Artie
: Either you believe Armstrong or you don't. Or like me, you don't care.
Frank
: I've never thought Armstrong was an especially attractive personality, but his foundation has raised huge amounts for cancer research. As with all these alleged dopers, I want to believe "it ain't so." But it sure wouldn't surprise me if it was.
Artie
: Well, I can tell you I won't be watching any more cycling. Or any less.
Frank
: Speaking of suspected dopers, how about Roger Clemens taking the mound for an independent-league team in Texas last weekend at the age of 50? And after a short but good outing, he didn't rule out pitching in the big leagues again.
Artie
: Sounds like some kind of weird ploy relating to the Hall of Fame.
Frank
: He's due to be on the Hall ballot in December, but if he pitches in the majors again, it'll knock him back another five years.
Artie
: Maybe he doesn't want to be on the ballot with Barry Bonds and Sammy Sosa. But does he think people will forget their suspicions?
Frank
: As for finding a big-league team, I'm sure Houston would be thrilled.
Artie
: Why else would anyone watch the Astros in September?

Wolf Packs

Frank: Little did we know that when we saw Randy Wolf lose to the Phillies, we were seeing the end of the Wolf Era here.
Artie
: Doug Melvin hit the Wolf Man with the silver bullet, releasing him from the team and us from the misery of watching him.
Frank
: Wolf was probably the main victim of the Brewers' bullpen atrocities this year. But a 5.69 ERA still says a lot.
Artie
: During the Phillies game, Wolf was the focus of the "know your Brewers" feature on the scoreboard.
Frank
: The question being, "What is Randy Wolf's favorite ballpark concession?"
Artie
: The choices didn't include the real answer. His concession should have been, "I can't pitch anymore."
Frank
: He's a lefty and under 50. He'll pitch again.