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College Football Preview 2019: 22. Wisconsin Badgers

22. Wisconsin Badgers

The return of star RB Jonathan Taylor ensures a redemptive fall in Madison

A.J. Taylor
Offense: Finding consistency and stability at the quarterback position proved once more to be elusive for the Badgers in 2018. Veteran Alex Hornibrook was never able to take the next step and dealt with injuries, leading to an underwhelming 13 TD to 11 INT ratio. Backup Jack Coan wasn't great in relief, posting mediocre numbers across the board. Hornibrook chose to transfer to Florida State over the off-season, ensuring a new signal-caller will take the reigns of the offense.

Wisconsin is hopeful newcomer Graham Mertz is a much-needed breath of fresh air. Mertz has drawn rave reviews as the top pro-style QB in this recruiting class, coming over Mission, Kansas. He is dripping with potential and enrolled early to get a chance to start, but Paul Chryst may be hesitant to roll with the youngster from the get-go. It wouldn't be shocking to see Coan begin the year, with Mertz finding his way onto the field eventually.

No matter what happens at QB, the Badgers will once again run the ball early and often particularly with the return of Heisman favorite Jonathan Taylor. Taylor ran for 2,194 yards and 16 TD with a superb 7.1 yards per carry. Those are impressive numbers no matter the situation but it becomes more impressive considering everybody in the stadium knew he was going to get the ball. Defenses will once again scheme against Taylor in 2019, but that shouldn't slow down the junior. Fellow junior Garrett Groshek obviously isn't the rushing threat Taylor is, but will be a nice change-of-pace who added 425 yards a year ago.

The Badgers really lacked a top receiving option in 2018 but the good news is that nearly every important wide out is back this fall. That will bode extremely well for an offense that has to establish some type of passing attack if they want to contend for a Big Ten West Title. Senior A.J. Taylor is probably the most versatile weapon the Badgers have as a wide out, possible running back and a possible returner. He led all receivers with 521 yards and is lethal when he gets in open space. Danny Davis and tight end Jake Ferguson will also be crucial components of this offense. Davis had five receiving touchdowns last season while Ferguson had 456 yards as just a freshman. Sophomore Kendric Pryor is also returning, giving this group depth and upside.

There will a rebuilding job on the offensive line, where four starters depart from a veteran-laden group in 2018. Yet, at a place like Wisconsin, that reloads at the position group as well as anybody, that doesn't seem especially problematic. Junior center Tyler Biadasz decided not to go pro, giving the group an anchor right in the middle. Left tackle Cole Van Lanen has been drawing rave reviews from the coaching staff and should be able to step up, as will right tackle Tyler Beach.

Questions continue to linger at Wisconsin's "kryptonite" position: quarterback. Despite this, the overall makeup of the offense is pretty promising. Taylor is without any question a superstar and plenty of talent returns on the outside and up front. How quickly Mertz is able to see the field may make the difference between a solid group and an elite unit.

Defense: The big reason for Wisconsin's drop-off actually was not the quarterback woes, but a defense that took a step back last season. The Badgers fell off to fifth in the Big Ten in scoring defense (34th in the country), fifth in rush defense (54th) and fourth in total defense (29th). Those aren't terrible numbers, but they are a far cry from what the group accomplished in 2018. This group may be need some further retooling, but D-coordinator Jim Leonhard has a group with the talent to return to its old form.

The rush defense was definitely suspect for much of 2018, evidenced by a poor showing in a shocking loss to BYU early in the year. That could change, but some guys are really going to have to take big leap. Junior end Isaiahh Loudermilk and sophomore end Matt Henningsen are good stepping stones to work from. Both are solid in run support, but must become better overall pass rushers. Sophomore Bryson Williams is the favorite to start at nose tackle, a spot that is ever-crucial in this Wisconsin defense.

T.J. Edwards and Ryan Connelly are both gone, leaving behind vacant inside linebacker spots. The pair were terrific and masked other deficiencies in this Wisconsin defense with their range and finishing ability. Edwards packed a stat-line of 112 tackles, 11.5 TFL and three interceptions on the year. Add in the loss of Andrew Van Ginkel, who was a terrific pass rusher off the edge, with 5.5 sacks, and the Badgers have some worries at linebacker.

Despite those concerns, bringing back senior Zack Baun was huge for UW. Set to start at one outside linebacker spot, Baun led Wisconsin with eight QB hurries last season and was also third on the team in tackles (63). He will have to play an even larger role with so much new faces in the unit. Senior Chris Orr also has starting experience and should play on the inside. He is likely to be joined by Jack Sanborn who seems ready to breakout. The gem of the Badgers' recruiting class last season, Sanborn will finally show his talent with more snaps under his belt.

Concerns about the linebacker corps can be offset by a very strong secondary that returns every big name minus D'Cota Dixon. Somewhat of a question last fall, the cornerback position should be a real strength, as sophomores Faion Hicks & Rachad Wildgoose return. Neither are complete shutdown CB's right now, but they are rock-solid who work well in Leonhard's defensive look. Sophomore Scott Nelson returns to man the free safety position. Nelson showed a lot of promise last fall and can make plays sideline to sideline, which he'll have to do more this upcoming season.

Wisconsin went from allowing 4.4 yards per play to 5.5, a drop from third in the nation to 51st. That's incredibly startling and losing key veterans doesn't help, but I expect a bounce-back year. There is talent waiting in the wings and enough experience to solve the problem.

Special Teams: A new placekicker must be found after Rafael Gaglianone graduated, following a 2018 where he was 10-17 on field goals. That was actually really good when compared to Wisconsin's punting problems, as they rated last in the Big Ten in net average. Senior Anthony Lotti has to be better in '19.

Bottom Line: The Badgers made me eat a lot of crow this past fall, as my preseason Playoff pick stumbled early and never recovered. However, the disappointing 7-5 season was capped off with a dominant bowl showing against Miami, laying the momentum for a redemptive 2019. Having a star running back operating behind a skilled O-Line is a tried and true method of moving the ball, while the Badgers gave all the tools to reload defensively. Yet, you still have to hesitate when placing this team back in the Big Ten West driving seat or back in serious Playoff consideration. The aerial attack has a ton of potential but is still so poor, while the schedule includes not only the difficult West Division but crossover meetings with three East powers (Michigan, Michigan State, @ Ohio State). I like Wisconsin to return to double-digit win areas and a quality bowl, but anything beyond that is too much at this point.

Team Projections
Projected Record: 8-4 (5-4 Big Ten)
Offensive MVP: RB Jonathan Taylor
Defensive MVP: LB Zack Baun
Breakout Player of the Year: LB Jack Sanborn
Impact Freshman: QB Graham Mertz

Five-Year Trend
2014: 11-3 (7-1 Big Ten)
2015: 10-3 (6-2 Big Ten)
2016: 11-3 (7-2 Big Ten)
2017: 13-1 (9-0 Big Ten)
2018: 8-5 (5-4 Big Ten)

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