Quietly, Wisconsin’s football program has faced a fair amount of upheaval and adversity over the last few years, yet they continue to “just keep swimming”, or more appropriately running, to success. The Badgers have just hired their third coach in four years, and will see several new faces on both sides of the ball this season. However, they are still almost universally considered the favorite to win the Big 10 West division, and considering how well they have performed under duress in the recent past why shouldn’t they be?
Even with a beast of a running back ahead of him, Corey Clement nearly rushed for 1,000 yards last season. Clement rushed for nine touchdowns too, and never put the ball on the ground. I’m not saying Wisconsin won’t miss stud running back Melvin Gordon, but I am saying that he wasn’t their only stud running back. Clement also averaged 6.5 yards per carry last season, which can partially be attributed to the offensive line, but give Clement credit for making the most of his opportunities.
Speaking of the offensive line, Clement will have to find three new primary hogmollies up front to pave the way for him, and two of them will be replacing All-American caliber linemen Rob Havenstein and Kyle Costigan. Dan Voltz and Tyler Marz do return at center and left tackle respectively and both have at least twenty starts already in their college careers, but no other linemen on this roster has ever started. As of now, I have seen no official word on who the other starters will be but the three most common names I have seen are Ray Ball, Hayden Biegel and Michael Deiter. Biegel would play right tackle, with Ball and Deiter filling in at left and right guard, respectively.
One player who wasn’t a major part of Wisconsin’s success last year was quarterback Joel Stave. Stave was actually benched at the start of the season for converted safety Tanner McEvoy, but later reclaimed his role. McEvoy has been moved back to safety this season, so the job belongs to Stave. However, Joel will want to improve upon his nine to ten touchdown-interception ratio this season, and a bump up from completing 53.4% of his passes wouldn’t hurt either.
Alex Erickson returns at receiver after leading the team with 55 catches for 772 yards this season. He should be a solid go-to option, but beyond him and Clement’s receiving abilities out of the backfield, there are not a ton of proven commodities at receiver. TE Troy Fumagalli did catch 14 passes for 187 yards as a freshman, so there’s a chance that he could be more than just a safety valve in the passing game.
Wisconsin may be largely considered a smashmouth team, but don’t let that fool you. The strength of this defense is the secondary, where all four starters and most of the two- and three-deep have experience. Tanner McEvoy’s move back to safety should add some talent and playmaking to a secondary, who struggled to force turnovers last season. Darius Hillary and Sojourn Shelton return at corner, and while neither of them intercepted a pass last year, they combined to break up eleven passes total. Michael Caputo also returns at safety, where he led the team in tackles with 85 last season. He also added a sack, an interception, six pass break-ups and two forced fumbles to that tackle total.
While both inside linebackers have departed, the Badgers should be set at the outside linebacker positions with Joe Schobert and Vince Biegel. Schobert and Biegel had 30 tackles for loss, 10.5 sacks, nine pass break-ups and four forced fumbles last season. At inside linebacker, Leon Jacobs would be the most experienced option, but sophomore Keelon Brookins and D’Cota Dixon could make a push too. These three guys are probably the frontrunners for the two inside linebacker spots, and the third should also see his fair share of the field.
Surprisingly, the Badgers’ defensive line was not a particularly disruptive force last season, but there are some young guys coming back who got valuable experience as freshmen, chief among them being Chikwe Obasih. Obasih had 14.5 tackles last season as a true freshman, and should start at one of the end spots this season. While this line wasn’t as good as we’ve come to expect from Wisconsin, a reasonable expectation would be for a few of these young guns to take a step forward in year two (or three).
Prediction: 10-3 Big Ten West Champion
The season opener in Arlington against Alabama should be a pretty good litmus test for the state of this program. Should they keep the game close, or win, then it bodes well for the Badgers going forward, and a win especially would go a long way towards wiping the stench from that 59-0 loss in the Big Ten Championship off. The Badgers also catch a break with the conference scheduling by avoiding both Michigan State and Ohio State in the cross-division slate. However, if they want to win the conference crown they will likely have to take it from one of these two on the field in the conference championship game. Minnesota and Nebraska pose the biggest threats to Wisconsin’s West Division title big, and the Badgers have to play both of them on the road. I think Wisconsin is better than both of these teams, but with both games being on the road I think they do drop one of those two games. I still think they manage to win the division, however.