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College Football Preview 2017-2018: 9. Wisconsin Badgers

9. Wisconsin Badgers

Same old formula will be more than enough in weak Big Ten West

  • Location: Madison, WI.
  • Conference: Big Ten (West)
  • Schedule
  • Roster
  • Coach: Paul Chryst (third year)
  • Last Years Record: 11-3 (7-2 Big Ten)
  • Bowl Result: Victory in Cotton Bowl


Prior to 2016 there was plenty of reasons to be concerned about Wisconsin's chances of a third division title in five years. The Badgers were losing a good chunk of their 2015 team and faced one of the most difficult schedules in college football, squaring off against LSU in the non-conference and having to face a stretch off games against Michigan State, Michigan and Ohio State. However, the Badgers used one of the nation's stingiest and most aggressive defenses to stun LSU, beat Michigan State and push Michigan and OSU to the edge. In the end, the Badgers were able to win the Big Ten West before suffering a heartbreaking loss to Penn State in the Championship Game. Despite not winning the conference, it was an undeniably successful season in Madison and shows the consistent level the program has achieved. That consistency and the same old power running attack should fuel a Badgers' team once more ready to take a shot at a conference championship.

Bradrick Shaw
Offense: Few programs in major collegiate football have had the success Wisconsin has with what they've had at quarterback. With the exception of the one season of Russell Wilson, the Badgers have never really had a star at the position but have still been one of the Big Ten's best programs over the past decade. Head coach Paul Chryst used a two-quarterback system to success last year, as senior Bart Houston and redshirt freshman Alex Hornibrook both ran the offense very well. Houston graduated, opening the door to Hornibrook in a full-time role. The young QB threw for 1,262 yards and 9 touchdowns last season but did struggle with turnovers and making throws down the field. He'll need to continue to improve in a lot of ways, but his ability to tuck the ball and run and his overall potential could give Wisconsin one of their better quarterback situations they've had in years. At running back, Wisconsin will move on from Corey Clement, one of the conference's top rushers. Clement struggled with injuries in 2015 but showed his full abilities in '16, recording 1,375 yards and 15 touchdowns. His absence will open the featured back role, with a number of backs ready to take over. Sophomore Bradrick Shaw showed tons of potential last year, with 457 yards and five touchdowns as the Badgers third option. Shaw doesn't have elite speed, but is a hard-nosed, physical runner who really fits the Wisconsin offense. Junior Taiwan Deal will also see plenty of carries after managing 164 yards a year ago, as more of an explosive weapon. Chryst also expects Pittsburgh transfer Chris James to play a big role in his first season in Madison. James ran for 690 yards over two seasons at Pitt, but should be able to do more damage in a system better suited to his strengths. Overall, the loss of Clement may sting, but Wisconsin should have more than enough talented running backs to keep the always-dangerous ground game humming. Expect fullbacks Austin Ramesh and Alec Ingold to also see some action in short yardage situations. On the outside, Wisconsin may have its best collection of receivers in a long time. Senior Jazz Peavy has to be considered the top wide out after recording 635 yards and five touchdowns last season. The explosive senior is as versatile as they come (also ran for 318 yards) and finds ways to make an impact. He isn't a true home run threat, but he'll give defenses fits trying to completely contain him. Senior George Rushing and sophomores Quinton Cephus and A.J. Taylor should also be expected to see targets at wide receiver. Rushing is very experienced but still awaiting a true breakout, while Cephus and Taylor both have tons of talent. At tight end, senior Troy Fumagalli is considered a favorite for the John Mackey Award, given to the country's most outstanding tight end. Fumagalli had 47 catches for 580 yards last season and has some of the best hands you'll see at his position. Wisconsin's offense obviously leans heavily on their offensive line, which opens up lanes for their power rushing attack to work. That O-Line will miss first-round NFL Draft selection Ryan Ramcyzk, but has nearly everybody else back, which should strike fear into opponents. Juniors Beau Benzschawel, Michael Dieter and Jacob Maxwell are all very experienced and impact run blockers that should compete for All-Conference honors. Left tackle is the only spot without a returning starter, although sophomore David Edwards, the projected starter there, did start seven games at right tackle in 2016.

Defense: Wisconsin will have their third defensive coordinator in as many years as former defensive backs coach Jim Leonhard takes over the reigns to the D following Justin Wilcox's departure to become head coach at Cal. Leonard, a former NFL safety, won't have to change much up defensively. He has a group with stars at all three levels, and impressive experience throughout. On the defensive line, Wisconsin should be especially stout, as all three starters return. Senior Chikwe Obasih has been a long-time staple at defensive end, and hopes for a big finale to his Badgers career. He'll be joined by fellow senior end Alec James (3.5 sacks a year ago) and physical nose tackle Conor Sheehy. All three are unquestioned leaders of the team and should play a huge role in keeping this defense aggressive and tough. The linebacker corps will certainly miss Vince Biegel and T.J. Watt, two of the best defenders in college football last season. Watt led the conference in sacks, with 11.5, before becoming a first-round NFL Draft pick, while Biegel added six tackles for loss and four sacks. Without those two, the Badgers will have to find two new playmakers on the outside, but there is plenty waiting in the wings. Senior Garrett Dooley had 40 tackles as a reserve a year ago and brings valuable veteran knowledge. He will compete with fellow senior Leon Jacobs for one of the open OLB spots. On the other side, UW coaches are very excited about the future for redshirt freshman Christian Bell. Bell, a transfer from Alabama, has the size and quick first step to be an absolute force off the edge, but he'll need time to adjust to a different role. On the inside, Wisconsin is as good as you can get at linebacker. Junior T.J. Edwards led the team in tackles last year, picking up 89 while adding three interceptions. He should be flying all over the field once again in 2017. Senior Jack Cichy very well could have led the entire conference in tackles (he was averaging 8.6 per game) but went down mid-season with a torn pectoral. When healthy, the tough, gritty veteran is as valuable as they come. Sophomore Chris Orr is also returning from injury, after he missed the entire 2016 season with a torn ACL. He likely won't be able to lock down a starting role with the talent in the unit, but should find ways to make an impact. Leonhard did a great job with the defensive backs last season, coaching a group that was often undersized to one of the country's premier pass defenses. This year, he'll lose physical safety Leo Musso (74 tackles, five interceptions) and shutdown corner Sojourn Shelton (31 tackles, 12 pass breakups), but the secondary should still be a notable strength. Senior Derrick Tindal should have no problem sliding into the No. 1
D'Cota Dixon
cornerback spot after putting together a tremendous 2016. The bigger question is who will take over the spot opposite of him at corner. Senior Lubern Figaro was rock-solid in a rotational role last year and brings veteran leadership. He should compete with former Hawaii transfer Nick Nelson, a junior with plenty of potential. At strong safety, senior D'Cota Dixon is a real difference-maker for this defense. Dixon managed 60 tackles and four interceptions a season ago, including the interception that sealed the victory over LSU. Free safety is somewhat of a concern with Musso gone, but senior Natrell Jamerson has shown enough that it shouldn't be too much of a problem.

Special Teams: Junior kicker Rafael Gaglianone was 7-8 with a long of 48 before he was lost for the season and replaced by Andrew Endicott (13-19). Gaglianone should be healthy and ready to go, ensuring kicker won't be a problem. At punter, sophomore Anthony Lotti is also healthy after missing a big chunk of '16.

It is no secret that Wisconsin has found a formula to winning in the Big Ten: a power rushing attack behind a physical O-Line, and an aggressive defense that gets after the quarterback. This season they shouldn't change that up in the slightest, although it would be a major help if Hornibrook takes a huge sophomore leap. After last year's brutal schedule, the Badgers look at an extremely favorable schedule. Outside of Michigan and perhaps a road trip to Nebraska, Wisconsin should be favored in every single game they play. If their defense can continue to be top-notch and the offense does its job, there is no reason why the Badgers can't win the Big Ten West and hover around the Playoff conversation, much the same they did in 2016.

Player to Watch
A.J. Taylor, RB/WR
One of the top recruits in Wisconsin's 2016 class, Taylor didn't see a ton of action last season, with the impressive depth in front of him. However, with some of the losses UW suffered at both running back and receiver, his versatility and playmaking ability should definitely be utilized. Taylor has electrifying speed and quickness, and can play multiple positions. He is certainly one of a number of breakout candidates for this offense.

Five-Year Trend
2012: 8-6 (4-4 Big Ten)*
2013: 9-4 (6-2 Big Ten)*
2014: 11-3 (7-1 Big Ten)*
2015: 10-3 (6-2 Big Ten)*
2016: 11-3 (7-2 Big Ten)*

*= Bowl appearance

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