Five reasons Wisconsin will win the Big Ten this year

With a veteran offensive line in front of him and a year under his belt, Badgers quarterback Alex Hornibrook could see a big leap in production this season. Caylor Arnold/USA TODAY Sports

Spring practice is still in its early stages at several Big Ten schools, but it’s never too early to preview the 2017 conference race. This week, we’re breaking down the top contenders by looking at the top five factors that could make them champions by the time December rolls around.

Up next are the defending Big Ten West champions, who came oh-so-close to capturing the league title this past season: the Wisconsin Badgers.

1. They can control the clock against anybody: The Badgers demonstrated last season how dominant they can be in the time-of-possession battle. They had the ball for an average of 34 minutes, 58 seconds per game, which led the FBS. Wisconsin returns four starting offensive linemen and has a stable of players ready to contribute on the line, which will help open up holes for running backs and give quarterback Alex Hornibrook plenty of time to throw. Equally impressive is all the talent coming back on defense, which can force three-and-outs and quickly get off the field. Wisconsin will be able to wear down many opponents by controlling time of possession.

2. The defense will be loaded again: There's no question it hurts to lose outside linebackers T.J. Watt and Vince Biegel. Cornerback Sojourn Shelton was a four-year starter, and safety Leo Musso was one of the most pleasant surprises of 2016. Still, that leaves seven returning starters for a defense that ranked No. 7 nationally in total defense and No. 4 in scoring defense. Wisconsin returns its entire starting defensive line, with ends Chikwe Obasih and Conor Sheehy, as well as nose tackle Olive Sagapolu. There are four inside linebackers who could start for just about any team in the Big Ten: Jack Cichy, T.J. Edwards, Chris Orr and Ryan Connelly. In the secondary, D'Cota Dixon and Derrick Tindal bring a veteran presence, and Hawaii transfer Nick Nelson is slated to fill Shelton's role. Plus, new defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard is one of the brightest young minds in the college game. If nothing else, the defense will provide Wisconsin with a chance in every game.

3. Quarterback Alex Hornibrook will be even better: Not many redshirt freshmen earn an opportunity to play at Wisconsin, let alone start. But Hornibrook was mature beyond his years when he arrived on campus and wound up starting nine games last year. Of course, he spent much of the season splitting reps with Bart Houston, which made it more difficult to simply cut loose during games. Hornibrook completed 58.6 percent of his passes with nine touchdowns and seven interceptions. With Houston gone, coaches named Hornibrook the unquestioned starter before spring practice even began this year. He'll have a proven receiving target with Jazz Peavy and a solid tight end in Troy Fumagalli, which is a good place to start. Those two combined for 90 catches and seven touchdowns last season. It's not a stretch to suggest Hornibrook could make one of the biggest leaps in production among Big Ten quarterbacks this season. Don't forget the jump former Badgers quarterback Joel Stave made from his freshman to sophomore year. Stave threw six touchdown passes as a redshirt freshman and 22 the following season, which is the most by a sophomore quarterback in Wisconsin history.

4. A more favorable path to the Big Ten championship game: Before Wisconsin can have a chance to win the conference, the Badgers first must win the West. Much was made last season of the supremely difficult early Big Ten schedule for Wisconsin, which played at Michigan State, at Michigan and home against Ohio State to open the conference slate. The Badgers began 1-2 before rallying to win their final six regular-season games to reach the Big Ten championship game. This season, Wisconsin faces a tough road game at Nebraska on Oct. 7 and plays host to Michigan on Nov. 18. Playing Iowa in Camp Randall Stadium and at Minnesota in the regular-season finale could be potential roadblocks as well. But the rest of the schedule seems manageable, with the other crossover games coming against East Division foes Maryland and Indiana, and another 7-2 conference record could be enough to capture the West. Wisconsin demonstrated last season that it could play with any of the major powers in the East, losing by one touchdown apiece to Michigan, Ohio State and, finally, Penn State in the Big Ten championship. The Badgers would love nothing more than another crack at the title this time around.

5. Paul Chryst: When athletic director Barry Alvarez hired Chryst in December 2014 as Wisconsin's coach, it wasn't the splashiest move in college football. But Alvarez knew he was getting someone whose consistent approach and understanding of the program made him the perfect fit. In his first two years in charge, Chryst has validated why he was the right man for the job. He is 21-6 overall, 13-4 in the Big Ten and has wins in the National Funding Holiday Bowl and Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic. But what makes Chryst so good is that he won't spend one second thinking about his accomplishments as he prepares for the 2017 season. His football acumen is impressive, and he has surrounded himself with smart assistant coaches whom he trusts. He has quietly become one of the top coaches in the Big Ten, if not the country. And his meticulous work each week means no team will be more prepared for the grind of a potential championship season than Wisconsin.