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College Football Preview 2018: 4. Wisconsin Badgers

4. Wisconsin Badgers

While the Big Ten East powers beat themselves up, the Badgers use their same old formula to earn program's first Playoff berth

Alex Hornibrook
Offense: Its not much of a secret what has been missing for some time in Madison: consistent quarterback play. With the exception of one season of graduate transfer Russell Wilson, the Badgers have lacked any QB that can consistently get the ball down the field and really open things up offensively. Entering 2018, however, the Badgers believe they finally have found the one thing they've lacked for some time in the form of junior Alex Hornibrook.

Hornibrook did have some major ups-and-downs in his first full season starter in 2017. He did throw for 2,644 yards and 25 touchdowns, but also struggled with turnovers, tossing 15 interceptions. Yet, the way Hornibrook played down the stretch has Wisconsin fans very excited. The lefty signal-caller threw four touchdowns against a good Miami defense in the Orange Bowl and has looked confident during the spring and early in fall camp. If he can cut down on those turnovers, Hornibrook could put together the best season by a Badger QB since Wilson.

Even if Hornibrook does take some big steps forward, head coach Paul Chryst and OC Joe Rudolph will still lean on the run early and often, in typical Wisconsin fashion. Sophomore Jonathan Taylor came out of nowhere and ended up rushing for 1,977 yards, the most ever by a freshman at the FBS level. A former three-star recruit who was once signed to play at Rutgers, Taylor proved to have excellent vision, a good feel for the offense and tremendous burst in the open field. He won't sneak up on people the way he did in '17, but a big encore should still be expected from Taylor. He is going to rack up plenty of carries playing behind the country's best offensive line. It is hard not to imagine him being a serious competitor in the Heisman race. Wisconsin will also feature junior Bradrick Shaw and Pittsburgh transfer Chris James heavily this season. Many (including me) assumed Shaw would be the feature back last season before Taylor's breakout. He ended up with 365 and four scores as a backup, a role he should play well once more this season. James is a nice change of pace option that should also see a healthy dose of action.

A good collection of receivers returns to Madison, another reason why many think Hornibrook will have a highly successful campaign. The main feature is junior Quintez Cephus, who led the team with six touchdown receptions despite missing the second half of the year. Yet, Cephus' future is in question at the moment. Just recently, he announced he would take a leave of absence from the team, due to an unspecified incident that occurred in April. As of publishing, Cephus' status for the start of 2018 is not clear, but it is expected we will see him at some point this year. Junior A.J. Taylor and sophomore Danny Davis are going to need to step up if Cephus is going to miss significant time. Taylor is a versatile playmaker that can go long every time he touches the ball, but he must work on developing consistency. Meanwhile, Davis showed flashes of stardom last season and could end up being quite the breakout star. The Badgers will surely miss All-American tight end Troy Fumagalli, who acted as Hornibrook's security blanket this past year. Yet, the position is still in good hands, as senior Zander Neuville and junior Kyle Penniston are sure-handed options in the passing game.

Wisconsin reloads on the offensive line as well as anybody in the country, and they are stacked there to enter 2018. All five starters are returning to a group that was pivotal in Taylor and this offense's success a year ago. The right side of the unit is particularly strong, with All-American candidates in tackle David Edwards and guard Beau Benzschawel. Junior Jon Dietzen is likely to move back inside to guard after starting last season at left tackle, leaving that position searching for a new starter, likely sophomore Cole Van Lanen.

With the exception of Fumagalli, nearly every major piece from last year's offense returns, which is an exciting development for the Badgers. Taylor and the ground game will almost surely be among the nation's best, but Hornibrook is the player to watch. If Wisconsin's offense becomes more balanced and lowers their turnover total, it could be among the most efficient and effective in the Big Ten.

Defense: While the offense brings back a ton, defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard has to do a little bit of rebuilding on the defensive side of the ball. Leonhard, a former Badger safety himself, managed to construct a Top 5 defense a season ago despite a rash of injuries at linebacker; he should be able to be creative in creating another top-notch group. 

The defensive line was hit hard, particularly at end, by graduation over the off-season. Senior nose tackle Olive Sagapolu is the only starter back, and he is an important one. Sagapolu is not going to get much recognition, but the veteran is a space-eater up front and underrated at getting after the quarterback (three sacks in 2017). At end, junior Garrett Rand and sophomore Isaiahh Loudermilk looked ready for expanded roles in the spring, but depth is a concern beyond them. 

The heart of the defense lies at linebacker, which is still in great shape. Senior T.J. Edwards shocked more than a few people when he decided to stay another year in Madison despite serious NFL interest. Edwards was a huge playmaker for this defense a year ago, with 81 tackles, four interceptions and seven pass deflections. Leonhard will allow him to roam free and make plays all over the field for this defense, which will be fun to watch. Seniors Ryan Connelly and Andrew Van Ginkel are important supporting characters. Connelly actually led the team in tackles last season (with 88) and has a real nose for the football. Van Ginkel proved to be quite the edge rusher in a reserve role in 2017, but should be ready to do more damage as a starter this season. Van Ginkel had six sacks in '17. Unlike the defensive line, depth is not a concern here, with a number of rock-solid veterans still remaining in rotational roles. Junior Chris Orr and the gem of this year's recruiting class, Illinois product Jack Sanborn, should see plenty of snaps.

If there is a serious issue on this defense it could end up being the secondary, which is very thin in some areas. The biggest question mark is going to be at cornerback, where Wisconsin will sorely miss Derrick Tindal and Nick Nelson, two superb cover corners. Sophomores Madison Cone and Dontye Carriere-Williams are sure to see plenty of action, as is newcomer Donte Burton. Unfortunately, that trio is going to need significantly more help from the Badgers' safeties, because none are polished as man coverage corners just yet. The good news is that senior D'Cota Dixon is still around, and is almost surely going to be the leader of this secondary. Dixon is a little undersized, but makes up for it with incredible instincts and great tackling form. He should be an All-Big Ten defender in his final season on campus.

Wisconsin has been one of the nation's elite defenses for some time now, and still don't expect that to change despite some of their losses. Edwards, Sagapolu and Dixon give this group a proven veteran core to build around, and Leonhard's aggressive blitzing should take some pressure off the secondary. It might not be able to hold opponents to 13.9 PPG (third nationally) this season, but UW should still be awfully stingy and tough to move the ball against.

Special Teams: Senior Rafael Gaglianone returns for his final season with the Badgers after a bounceback 2017 in which he knocked down 16 of 18 field goals. He will be joined by veteran punter Anthony Lotti, who made strides last season as a sophomore. The return game will miss Nick Nelson and Derrick Tindal, forcing somebody else to step up.

Paul Chryst has done a superb job since taking over at Wisconsin and now looks to be equipped with his best team. The offense is still going to be run-heavy, but the return of Hornibrook and some dangerous weapons at receiver should make it much more balanced, making it even more difficult. On defense, there are going to need to be some adjustments made, but there is still a lot of veteran experience returning, and the Badgers develop talent as well as anybody in the conference. There is no team in the Big Ten West that seems to have a realistic chance at overtaking the Badgers this year, but two cross-division road games against Michigan and Penn State will be awfully tall tasks. Even so, the Badgers are my pick to represent the Big Ten in the Playoff. All the tools are there on this roster, and the East Division could beat itself up, with four teams with significant Playoff aspirations. If Wisconsin does get there, they'll have to find a way to put points on the board; no Big Ten team has scored in the Playoff since Ohio State won it in 2014.

Team Projections
Projected Record: 12-1 (8-1 Big Ten, Win Big Ten Championship Game)
Offensive MVP: RB Jonathan Taylor
Defensive MVP: LB T.J. Edwards
Breakout Player of the Year: WR Danny Davis

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