Bret Bielema, whose college football resume includes more than two decades as either a player or a coach, can't remember this much hype heading into a season.
The University of Wisconsin football coach isn't hiding from it, either. In fact, he's embracing it with open arms.
"It's fun," he said this week. "I think it's a sign of respect."
As the Badgers open the 2011 season Thursday night against UNLV at Camp Randall Stadium, it's fair to wonder if this is the start of something big. UW is the preseason favorite to win the new Leaders Division in the Big Ten Conference and is ranked No. 11 in the nation in the Associated Press preseason poll, the fourth time in Bielema's six seasons the Badgers will begin the season in the Top 15.
Fresh off an 11-2 season that included a share of a Big Ten title and a trip to the Rose Bowl, UW is a hot commodity both locally and nationally. Two voters in the AP poll — Bob Asmussen of the Champaign (Ill.) News-Gazette and Greg Auman of the St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times — had the Badgers at No. 3. Three others had UW in their Top 5. Bodog.com lists the Badgers' odds of winning the BCS national title at 18-to-1; only six teams have better odds.
There hasn't been this much buzz surrounding the UW program since 2000, when it was coming off back-to-back Rose Bowl titles under Barry Alvarez, who's now the school's athletic director.
There was bound to be plenty of buildup anyway, but the arrival of quarterback Russell Wilson raised eyebrows across the nation. A three-year starter at North Carolina State who decided to transfer to UW for his senior season, Wilson gave the Badgers a big boost in reputation by choosing them over defending national champion Auburn.
The program's increased profile was evident by the number of media interview requests that crossed Bielema's desk during the first two weeks of preseason camp. The New York Times sent its national college football writer to Madison for a 2,000-word story on Wilson that included a photo of Wilson with the state Capitol in the background.
The headline: "Russell Wilson puts Wisconsin on target for title run."
"I think it's huge," said UW senior fullback Bradie Ewing, a team captain. "Wisconsin's typically a program that Coach B always says isn't too sexy. But to get that kind of exposure is great for recruiting and our school in general.
"I think it's a great opportunity, but you can't buy into that hype. You've just got to keep doing what's given you success and keep staying true to the process."
For proof of how Bielema has embraced the hype, look no further than the ESPN cameras following the Badgers' every move during camp for a program called "Depth Chart." UW is one of the four college teams that will be featured on the show; Auburn, Miami (Fla.) and Oklahoma State are the others.
As Ewing mentioned, Bielema likes to tout UW as a blue-collar developmental program that lacks a certain sex appeal. But the Badgers are becoming more sexy by the minute, creating a major adjustment for players who are used to flying below the radar.
"At times, it's fun, but sometimes you just get tired of being around cameras all the time," UW junior center Peter Konz said. "But it's fun when you get all the attention. Who doesn't like the attention? The thing is, you've got to perform up to that attention, and that's where you see if a program is really starting to build that reputation.
"Do you buckle under the pressure or do you succeed?"
Even though the opening game is hardly a marquee matchup — the Rebels, who were 2-11 last season and are in year two of a major rebuilding project under coach Bobby Hauck, are 35½-point underdogs — the Badgers still find themselves in the national spotlight.
It will be the first game of the season on ESPN and the first of four night games this season for UW, including two at home.
Thursday night starts a 12-game journey through the regular season that features a highly anticipated home game against Nebraska on Oct. 1 — it will be the Cornhuskers' Big Ten debut — and back-to-back road-games against title contenders Michigan State and Ohio State later that month. If UW wins the Leaders Division, it will be one of the participants in the inaugural Big Ten title game in Indianapolis on Dec. 3.
The idea of winning a national championship isn't something that gets talked about a lot in the UW locker room, but Konz admitted Wilson has mentioned that as a team goal on more than one occasion since joining the team. And while Konz is quick to point out that wins and titles aren't the only way to measure how successful a season is, he acknowledged that UW is deserving of being in the national title conversation.
"Oh, yeah, definitely," he said. "If we didn't prove it last year, we're never going to prove it. Just a play here or a play there, we're right there with anybody. We're up there with anybody in the nation when we're at our best."