Wisconsin has returned to the forefront of the Big Ten, but is this year’s team good enough to win the Big Ten title this season?
The college football season is rapidly approaching and as the hunger for the upcoming season gets stronger, we’ve got something here at SQ that will hold your appetite for the time being. Over the next few weeks, we’ll be rolling out previews of the teams in our top-25. We last checked in with #14 Florida. Today we continue our countdown with #13 Wisconsin.
Team Name: Wisconsin Badgers
2016 Record: 11-3
Finish in AP Poll: 9
Coach: Paul Chryst (21-6, third year)
Key Arrivals: RB Rachid Ibrahim (Graduate Transfer - Pitt), CB Nick Nelson (Transfer - Hawaii), OLB Christian Bell (Transfer - Alabama), OG Kayden Lyles, WR Danny Davis, TE Jake Ferguson, RB Chris James (Transfer - Pitt)
Previewing Wisconsin’s Offense
Wisconsin is as Wisconsin does. What that means is that the Badgers don’t shy away from their plan of attack, even if it’s not effective. Wisconsin’s offense is predicated on getting behind massive offensive linemen and letting them plow the way for the running backs. It’s been a good formula for the team in the past, making Melvin Gordon a household name a few years ago. However, the running game has slacked off since Gordon’s departure, with the Badgers falling from fourth in the nation in rushing in 2014 to 95th in 2015.
After falling that far, there’s only one place to go, and that’s up. Although Wisconsin didn’t have a spectacular season running the ball in 2016, the Badgers improved by 56 spots to finish 39th in the nation. That’s an improvement of over fifty yards per game from an average of 150.31 yards in 2015 to 203.07 yards last season. Not exactly gaudy numbers by any stretch, but it’s a move in the right direction, and a trend that should continue this season.
Wisconsin, once again, has a enormous offensive line going into 2017. The seven members of the line that return from last season have an average size of 6‘6” and weigh an average 321 pounds. Now that’s big boy football. And although Wisconsin doesn’t have a running back as talented as Gordon, there are guys that are capable of breaking out this season.
Bradrick Shaw showed great potential as a freshman last season, rushing for 457 yards on 88 carries. Believe it or not, Shaw was actually the most productive rusher for the Badgers last season, rushing for at least five yards on 43% of his carries. That number was superior to starter Corey Clement’s minuscule 31 percent. In addition to Shaw, Wisconsin has a pair of Pitt transfers that are sure to get some carries this season.
Redshirt junior Chris James was forced to sit out last season after transferring, but rushed for 690 yards during his first two seasons at Pitt. Meanwhile, graduate transfer Rachid Ibrahim hasn’t played in a game since 2014 after he sustained a torn Achilles during training camp in early 2015. However, while he was healthy he was able to average 6.7 yards per carry during his two years at Pitt. Adding these two former Panther players to the mix should certainly help this ground attack.
The quarterback situation is a little murky. Bart Houston and Alex Hornibrook split time under center last season with Houston arguably being the better of the two. Houston’s gone now, so it’s Hornibrook’s offense to run. The sophomore was nothing special last season, posting just a 125.80 QB rating along with a 58.6 completion percentage. Hornibrook is going to have to improve because the run is not always going to be there. Luckily he has his two top targets in Jazz Peavy (635 yards, 14.77 yards per reception) and Troy Fumagalli (580 yards, 12.34 yards per reception).
Previewing Wisconsin’s Defense
Wisconsin is moving on to its third defensive coordinator in three seasons. The Badgers’ new DC is none other than Jim Leonhard, a former Wisconsin walk-on, who was a three-time All-American, and later played 10 seasons in the NFL. Leonhard’s coaching journey saw him work his way up the ladder of the Wisconsin defensive staff, and now he’s got the chance to lead it. His first chance won’t necessarily be easy though.
Leonhard is first tasked with replacing two key pieces on the outside of the Wisconsin defense. Both T.J. Watt and Vince Biegel were taken in the NFL Draft this past year, leaving a hole in the pass rush. The duo combined for 15.5 sacks, 21.5 tackles for loss, and 20 QB hurries. With that being said, the Badgers will use a combination of senior Garret Dooley and Zack Baun, who combined for 3.5 sacks and 10 tackles for loss in reserve duty last season.
And even though the Badgers lose two very good linebackers, there are still three very good linebackers to shore up the middle of the field. Between T.J. Edwards, Jack Cichy, and Ryan Connelly, the Badgers have a trio that combined to make 208 tackles and 22.5 tackles for loss. This core group of guys is going to be important in defending the run as this unit finished third in the nation in rushing defense (98.79 yards allowed) last season.
In the secondary, Wisconsin returns half of its starters including cornerback Derrick Tindal (three interceptions, 11 pass breakups) and strong safety D’Cota Dixon (four interceptions, 60 tackles). Hawaii transfer Nick Nelson figures to earn the empty corner slot after finishing second in the Mountain West in pass breakups (15) in 2015. As for the free safety spot, Natrell Jamerson figures to slide in there after breaking up four passes in a reserve role last season.
Three Key Games
1. Sept. 16 at BYU - Both of these teams are trying to figure out exactly what they have, and this early matchup will show exactly that. There’s plenty of other teams that Wisconsin would rather play in their first road contest, but at least it’s not a trip to Alabama. BYU QB Tanner Mangum sat behind Taysom Hill last season after a phenomenal freshman season, but he has plenty of big play ability, and this Wisconsin defense needs to respect his big arm.
2. Oct. 7 at Nebraska - This Nebraska team will be different than any other that we’ve seen in the past few years now that head coach Mike Riley has the players and personnel in place to run the system he wants to. It starts on offense with a gameplan that looks to attack opposing defenses through the air. Tulane transfer Tanner Lee will lead the passing game after winning the QB battle in the spring, after throwing for 3,601 yards and 23 touchdowns in his two seasons with the Green Wave. Nebraska’s defense also shifts to a 3-4 scheme which could close most of the holes that were once opened when playing teams like Wisconsin.
3. Nov. 18 vs. Michigan - A late season matchup against Michigan is not exactly ideal for a team that could be in playoff contention. Wisconsin has the edge with the home crowd and experience, but overestimating a Jim Harbaugh-led squad would be a big mistake. This Michigan team may be young, but there’s plenty of talent that should develop over the course of this season. These two teams should both be in the hunt for the Big Ten title, and if everything works out right, this game could help decide the College Football Playoff.
Paul Chryst has done a fantastic job with this Wisconsin team in his first two seasons as the head coach, winning 21 games and making an appearance in the Big Ten title game. This season he looks to get the Badgers over the hump, not just getting them back to the Big Ten Championship, but winning it. There’s plenty of talent on this roster, but whether or not they can put it all together remains to be seen.
The Wisconsin offense is going to try to pound the ball behind its wall of linemen, but it’s going to need to see more efficiency out of its passing game. If Alex Hornibrook can protect the football and make the required throws, the offense will be just fine. However, if he fails to improve, scoring could become really tough for the Badgers.
On defense, this team is solid all around. From the front seven to the secondary, Wisconsin has plenty of experience and playmakers to stop any of the top Big Ten offenses they’ll face. Players like T.J. Edwards and Jack Cichy are primed to lead this defense and keep it among the best in the country.
Overall, Wisconsin should be in line to have its third 10-win season in a row. The schedule really does this team a favor, only having to play one of the Big Ten East’s toughest opponents in Michigan, but the Badgers get that game at home. The team’s toughest game of the season will be on the road against Nebraska, but even that game should be winnable for Chryst and co. This team could be in line for a dark horse shot at the College Football Playoff if it can reach the Big Ten title game and win it. Either way, this should be another very successful season for the Badgers.
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