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College Football Preview 2014-2015: 15. Wisconsin Badgers

Melvin Gordon
15. Wisconsin Badgers

Coach: Gary Andersen (2nd year)
2013-2014 Record: 9-4 (6-2 Big Ten)

August 30th vs. LSU (in Houston)
September 6th vs. Western Illinois
September 20th vs. Bowling Green
September 27th vs. South Florida
October 4th @ Northwestern
October 11th vs. Illinois
October 25th vs. Maryland
November 1st @ Rutgers
November 8th @ Purdue
November 15th vs. Nebraska
November 22nd @ Iowa
November 29th vs. Minnesota

In the first year removed from the Bret Bielema era, the Badgers proved to be very dangerous, winning 9 games (easily could have been 10, they were screwed in their loss to Arizona State). Last year saw a number of bright spots including the play of junior running back Melvin Gordon, who returns as a possible Heisman candidate. With a number of other playmakers returning on both sides of the ball, this Badgers team has the talent to improve on those nine games and possibly win the Big Ten West Division.

Backfield: The Badgers once again entered spring with a quarterback competition, this time between junior Joel Stave and Tanner McEvoy. Stave was the starter in 2013 and had a decent season, throwing for 2,494 yards and 22 touchdowns. Though he does have some issues, he is prone to mistakes, throwing 13 interceptions last year and completing just 61% of his passes. He showed a lot of improvement last season, but McEvoy is a talented player with a big arm who could definitely push Stave. Gordon, who rushed for 1,609 yards last year and averaged nearly eight yards per carry, could have an even better 2014. He is a big play threat who can break open games with his electrifying speed. The scary news for opponents is that he isn't the only lethal back returning as sophomore Corey Clement is back. Clement ran for 547 yards in 2013, despite being the No. 3 back on this depth chart behind Gordon and James White, who is now graduated. He also is a speedster that can change games, much like Gordon. Gordon and White led Wisconsin to 3,053 yards on the ground last year, a single-season record for FBS teammates.

Receivers: It is a good thing the Badgers have big play threats in the backfield, because they certainly are lacking in them at receiver. Gone is Jared Abrederis, leaving a number of unproven options in the passing game. Alex Erickson and Jordan Frederick are the Badgers leading returning receivers. Erickson had 9 receptions for 127 yards while Frederick had 10 catches for 106 yards. To make matters worse, both were dealing with injuries in the spring. Senior Kenzel Doe is small but quick and could be a Wes Welker type guy for these Badgers; a possession receiver who can find space and move the chains. Two three-star recruits, Natrell Jamerson and Krenwick Sanders, were nice pickups from the Southeast who can help stretch the field. Gone is tight end Jacob Pedersen, who was a security blanket for Stave in his time with the Badgers. Senior Sam Arneson and incoming freshman Beau Benzschawel, another three-star find, will compete for snaps to replace Pedersen.

Offensive Line: The offensive line should be a considerable strength for Wisconsin, who returns four starters from a solid unit in 2013. With a lot of experience back, this should be a major reason why the Badgers rushing attack will be so effective. Junior Tyler Marz returns at left tackle, a strong linemen with good instincts. At the opposite side of the line is right tackle Rob Havenstein, who has 28 career starts entering his senior year. Havenstein fits the mold of a Wisconsin linemen; a massive hard-nosed linemen. He is 6'8" and 327 pounds and he will be a major help to Stave or McEvoy, whoever does start. The interior linemen also have valuable experience, including senior Kyle Costigan and senior Dallas Lewallen. Combined, the pairing have also made 28 starts, including 21 from Costigan. Costigan will start at the right side, while Lewallen will start on the left, both are pretty good athletes who will lead the way for Gordon and Clement.

Defensive Line: In 2013, the Badgers had the fifth best rush defense in the entire nation and overall, had the seventh best defense. Though, eight starters are gone on the defense and the whole front seven is gone. Defensive coordinator Dave Aranda will hope to make his defense more aggressive and it starts with a lot of blitzes. Although all four starters are gone on the defensive line, this unit still has a lot of talent including redshirt freshman Chikwe Obasih. Obasih was extremely impressive this spring and could push for major playing time, possibly starting. Nose guard Warren Herring, a senior, is a beast and could put together a big 2014. He has great size and is a physical weapon in the heart of the Wisconsin defense. Pushing for possible playing time at defensive tackle could be local Wisconsin commit Billy Hirschfield. Hirschfield has a great motor and good size, he could be a very disruptive force for the Badgers now and in the future.  The other defensive end spot is likely to be handled by another senior in Konrad Zagzebski, who also has plenty of experience despite not starting very often. Zagzebski has nice size and is a great athlete, he fits in very well with Aranda and his new defense.

Linebackers: The leader of this defense the past couple of years, inside linebacker Chris Borland, exhausted his eligibility, leaving a major hole in the middle of the Wisconsin "D". Sophomore Vince Biegel had a great season a year ago, racking up 25 tackles with two sacks. He isn't the best athlete on this defense but he is still tough and relies on his valuable instincts. Starting at outside linebacker is senior Marcus Trotter, a disruptive playmaker. Trotter recorded 24 tackles in 2013 and could put together more in a new starting role. Another senior, Joe Schobert, also had 24 tackles last year and recorded 2.5 tackles for loss. Schobert is a run stopper who can possibly be a force as a blitzing 'backer. Dominic Cizauskas is an inside linebacker who could compete for snaps behind Schobert or the likely other starter in senior Derek Landisch. Cizasuskas is another pipeline find for Andersen and staff and has a bright future ahead of him. This unit lost some real talent, but it still has a lot of experience and it could still be one of the best defenses in the nation at stopping the run.

Darius Hillary
Secondary: This should be the strength of this Wisconsin defense, as three starters return, including the team's leading returning tackler, safety Michael Caputo. Caputo, a junior, is a steady veteran with fantastic range and a player who doesn't make highlight plays, but will make the right plays. He is going to start at strong safety, though the free safety is a question. The real strength of this defensive backfield is at cornerback, where junior Darius Hillary and Sojourn Shelton are fantastic players. Hillary had 30 tackles and an interception in 2013 and is a good athlete can make acrobatic defensive plays. Shelton, a sophomore, is quick and agile and should turn into a more formidable player in coverage. A pair of incoming safeties, Austin Hudson (who arrives from Tampa, Florida) and Lubern Figaro are two thee-star products have great potential.

Special Teams: Junior kicker Jack Russell has had a great career with the Badgers so far and returns, giving the Badgers a real strength in the special teams. Though, Tennessee commit, Rafael Gaglianone could give him quite a challenge for kicking duties. Kenzel Doe will help in the return game.

The Badgers will do what the Badgers do; run the ball behind a veteran offensive line and play strong, hard-nosed defense. The schedule does offer some tough tests especially right away against LSU in Houston and finishes up with Wisconsin's three biggest threats inside the Big Ten West, Nebraska, Iowa and Minnesota. Though, if Stave or McEvoy can improve the passing game and the defense can find some leaders, this team should be a dark horse national title threat.

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