Asmussen | Sorry, Alabama; it's the Badgers' turn

Asmussen | Sorry, Alabama; it's the Badgers' turn

Shhhhhh, don't tell anybody in Tuscaloosa, but I'm not going to put their favorite team No. 1 on my preseason Associated Press Top 25.

A mistake? Probably. The defending national champions have their usual roster full of stars, including two great quarterbacks.

Nick Saban is the unquestioned best coach in college football. It isn't close. He's got six national titles and counting. A young-looking 66, Saban might get to 10 before he is done.

There is so much to like about the Crimson Tide, including the recent promotion of offensive coordinator Mike Locksley. The Alabama offense will keep humming and the team will again contend for the a spot in the College Football Playoff.

The only real concern with Alabama is the defense, which brings back just three starters. Among the lost players include superstar defensive back Minkah Fitzpatrick. You can't easily replace his talent.

Just to be clear: My putting Alabama No. 2 on my preseason ballot is in no way a slap at the greatness of the program. As long as Saban is in charge, and for many years after, Alabama will be a perennial contender.

Frankly, it's nice to have the Crimson Tide back at the top. In the pre-Saban days, when the team went through a string of coaches, it didn't seem right. Kind of like those rare times when the Yankees are struggling.

So, again, to reiterate, I value the Alabama program and consider it the best in the country.

And my No. 1 is ...

Wisconsin (I just ducked).

Here's the expected reaction from Alabama fans: "Are you kidding? What is wrong with you? Do you not understand college football?"

When the poll is released Aug. 20, I figure I will get a few emails ... and some texts ... maybe some old-fashioned letters.

I will try to answer them all.

If radio stations from the great state of Alabama want to talk, I will happily make the time. It will be a chance for me to share my thoughts.

I've been down this road before. Back in 2012, I picked Michigan as my preseason No. 1. That might have been OK, except the Wolverines were opening against Alabama and got spanked.

If people actually ate crow, I would have deserved pounds of it. I was wrong.

I will remind everyone that the 2012 AP preseason No. 1 was Southern Cal, which was picked ahead of No. 2 Alabama. Michigan, with my one first-place vote, was eighth.

I wasn't the only one that messed it up. Southern Cal finished 7-6 that season and unranked.

Alabama went 13-1 and won the national title. So, to Crimson Tide fans, maybe I'm setting you up for another ring.

The 2012 Wolverines went 8-5 with Brady Hoke as coach, losing to South Carolina in the Outback Bowl. They were ranked No. 24 in the final poll.

Please, explain

Why the Badgers?

Well, the team is coming off a highly successful 2017 team. A close loss to Ohio State in the Big Ten title game kept Wisconsin out of the College Football Playoff.

The team bounced back with an impressive win against Miami in the Orange Bowl and finished No. 7 in the AP poll.

That's all good, but what does it mean for 2018? Well, all but one player from the offense are back. All five linemen return.

Tailback Jonathan Taylor is back for his sophomore season after running for almost 2,000 yards as a rookie. Running behind his line, Taylor should hit 200 in multiple games.

When opposing defenses focus on stopping Taylor, and they will, there is an alternative, as quarterback Alex Hornibrook returns after completing 62 percent of his passes. Yes, he threw too many interceptions (15), but he was at his best in the Orange Bowl with four TD passes and no picks.

Hornibrook has a pack of talented receivers. One Wisconsin insider said it is the best group of receivers at the school in years.

Yes, like at Alabama, the defense got hit hard by graduation. But this is where I will put faith in the ability of the offense to control the ball and in coordinator Jim Leonhard to find answers off his defensive bench.

At the recent Big Ten meetings, I asked three of the Badgers why I should pick them No. 1.

"Because of our offense and our defense and our special teams, coaching, too," offensive lineman Michael Deiter said. "I would just say, 'Because we're Wisconsin.'"

Deiter pays attention to the preseason rankings. So do his teammates.

"We all notice it," Deiter said. "But I don't sit there and dwell on whether it was good or bad. We can be whatever we want if we just win football games. That's the way we've got to approach it."

Linebacker T.J. Edwards appreciates the recognition.

"We know we have a lot to prove," Edwards said. "Every week, we're going to be that same smashmouth football team that's going to come out and compete no matter who is out in front of us."

"I feel like we'll be no different than we were last year, except we'll finish," safety D'Cota Dixon said.

Sounds good. It will be fun to see how it all plays out.

Feel free to disagree and let me know about it.

Bob Asmussen can be reached at 217-351-5233 or by email at asmussen@news-gazette.com.

No. 1: Wisconsin

Coach: Paul Chryst

2017 record: 13-1

Projected 2018 record: 12-0

Circle the date: Nov. 10 at Penn State

Bowl trip: College Football Playoff (Cotton)

Why No. 1: It's all about the offense. More to the point, the potential of the offense. Start with a line that brings back all five road graders. There are at least two All-Big Ten types up front, which means there are two All-American candidates. They will be paving the way for sophomore Jonathan Taylor, who came within 23 yards of 2,000 last season and finished third in the nation behind San Diego State's Rashaad Penny and Stanford's Bryce Love. Just think, Taylor now knows what he is doing and had the summer to study up on Big Ten defenses. He's the next Ron Dayne, though you have to think he will be gone after three years. ... Alex Hornibrook is the best Big Ten quarterback not named Trace McSorley. He threw for 2,644 yards and 25 touchdowns last season. He was at his best in an Orange Bowl win against Miami, throwing four touchdown passes with no interceptions. Chryst will want him to cut his 15 interceptions. ... The defense got hit hard by graduation, losing seven starters. But linebacker T.J. Edwards returns after picking off four passes in 2017. ... Linebacker Ryan Donnelly is the leading returning tackler. ... The secondary is led by senior safety D'Cota Dixon. ... The most difficult games on the schedule are on the road at Iowa, Michigan and Penn State. Survive those three and the Badgers will be playing Ohio State in the Big Ten title game for a trip to the College Football Playoff.

Last year's ranking: No. 10.