Big Ten Team Preview: Wisconsin Badgers
WNUR’s Ari Ross previews the Wisconsin Badgers and how conference realignment gives them a great chance to get back to the Big Ten Championship. The WNUR staff agrees with Ari, predicting a 1st place finish in the Big Ten West, leading to a Big Ten Championship appearance.
WNUR’s Prediction: 11-1 overall, 7-1 in conference.
After missing the Big Ten Championship, and hence the Rose Bowl, for just the second time in three years, Wisconsin is once again expected to be back a top the Big Ten. With the addition of Maryland and Rutgers, the Big Ten again realigned divisions, placing Wisconsin in the west, where they won’t have to compete with Ohio State, Michigan and Michigan State to get to the Big Ten Championship. Rather, their main competition in the west will be Iowa, Nebraska and Northwestern. And that means that the Badgers could be jumping around for years to come.
Offense: Junior quarterback Joel Stave leads a Badger offense with seven returning starters and 21 returning lettermen. Known for its running game, Wisconsin will once again be one of the best rushing teams in the Big Ten, with four starters returning along the offensive line along with running back Melvin Gordon, who rushed for 1,609 yards and 12 touchdowns last year. However the Badgers do lose the other part of their two-headed rushing behemoth to the NFL in James White, who rushed for 1,444 yards and 13 touchdowns last year. The Badgers will try to replace White with Sophomore Corey Clement, who rushed for 547 yards and seven touchdowns last year, averaging 8.2 yards per carry. But it’ll be tough to replace one of the top running backs in the Big Ten.
In the passing game, Stave returns for his second season as the starting quarterback. For the first time in four years that Wisconsin returns a quarterback who was the starter the previous year, giving them some consistency in the passing game. However, the Badgers lose their top three pass catchers to the NFL, wide receivers Jared Abbrederis, Jeff Duckworth, and tight end Jacob Pedersen. In total, the Badgers return just 17 percent of their receiving production from last year. Projected starters Jordan Fredrick and Robert Wheelwright, and tight end Sam Arneson, will have to step up to prevent Wisconsin from becoming too one-dimensional on offensive.
Even with the losses at receiver, Wisconsin still should have one of the best, if not the best rushing attack in the Big Ten. However, unless the receiving core can step up, it’ll be tough for Wisconsin to put up a better offensive performance than last year, where they averaged 34.8 points per game on 480.8 yards per game, both good for third in the Big Ten.
Defense: With just three returning starters and 22 returning lettermen, the Badger defense will have its work cut out for them this year. The Badgers lose four of their top five tacklers, including inside linebacker Chris Borland, last year’s defensive captain. Borland led this defense, and he will be tough to replace, especially as none of the returning starters are linebackers. The Badgers returning starters are all defensive backs, they have zero returning starters along their front seven.
With zero returning starters, the Badgers front seven is the least experienced it’s been in years. The coaching staff will have a tough time working seven new starters into their 3-4 defensive scheme. The Wisconsin front seven will have some growing pains, and cannot be expected to preform as well as in previous years. These units go from one of the better Big Ten front sevens to one of the most inexperienced and a huge unknown for the Badgers.
On the bright side, the Badgers secondary returns three starters, and six of the top eight, including last year’s second leading tackler, strong safety Michael Caputo Jr. Caputo finished last year with 63 tackles, three tackles for a loss, three passes defended and three quarterback hits. Caputo, along with returning starting cornerbacks Sojourn Shelton, (36 tackles, seven passes defended and four interceptions) and Darius Hillary Jr. (30 tackles, one sack, one tackle for a loss, one pass defended, two quarterback hits), will lead an experienced secondary that’ll have its work cut out for them with an inexperienced front seven.
While Wisconsin had one of the top defenses in the Big Ten last year, allowing just 305.1 yards per game, third in the Big Ten, the Badgers most likely will not replicate last year’s performance. Inexperience along the front seven will lead to growing pains for this defense, and a drop off from last year’s performance.
Special Teams: Wisconsin returns their top kick returner, punter and kicker and will look to improve on a middle-of-the-pack performance last year. Kenzel Doe led the Big Ten with a 26.5-yard kick return average, but was ninth in punt return average with just a 7.2-yard average. He’ll look to improve on that performance this year. Kicker Jack Russell made 34 of 34 extra points, while hitting 9 of 13 field goals, but just 6 of 10 from beyond 30 yards. With losses on the offensive side, Russell could be forced into kicking from farther out this year. Punter Drew Meyer averaged 38.5-yards per punt, with a net of 35.7 yards, and will look to improve on his average, that ranked in the bottom half of the Big Ten, this year.
Prediction: Even with just 10 returning starters and 48 returning lettermen, Wisconsin should be a contender in the Big Ten West. They start off the season with their toughest non-conference
game in Houston against LSU, but the rest of their non-conference foes aren’t too difficult. In Big Ten play, Wisconsin lucks out and doesn’t face Ohio State, Michigan State or Michigan this year. Their toughest matchups will be against Big Ten west opponents Northwestern and Iowa on the road. If the Badgers can pull out victories at Ryan Field, where they’ve lost their last three trips, and Kinnick Stadium, along with a home victory versus Nebraska, they’ll be in prime position to win the Big Ten West and go to another Big Ten Championship game.