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College Football Preview 2021: 17. Wisconsin Badgers

Graham Mertz, Wisconsin


17. Wisconsin Badgers

Whether or not the young offense improves, the stingy Badger defense will keep them in the Big Ten West hunt

2020 Review
Wisconsin opened up the 2020 Big Ten season with a pounding of Illinois that seemed to set the stage for another division title run. However, COVID problems caused them to miss the next several weeks and complicating their lofty plans. While the Badgers returned by dominating Michigan, the offense sputtered over the next three weeks, scoring just 20 points in total. An overtime win over Minnesota and a victory in the Duke's Mayo Bowl bumped them to 4-3 on the season and seemed to provide them the momentum they need heading into 2021. 

2021 Outlook
Offense: An injury to reigning starting QB Jack Coan forced Wisconsin to turn to redshirt freshman Graham Mertz at the quarterback spot. Mertz kicked off 2020 with a five-touchdown showing against a bad Illinois defense, but his numbers the rest of the way were uninspiring. He went for four touchdowns compared to five interceptions and a 57% completion percentage over the final six games of the season.

Mertz has natural arm talent that Wisconsin has lacked at the position since Russell Wilson was in Madison, but his decision-making last fall was very suspect. Towards the end of the year, he looked to be pressing to make things happen for this offense, leading to the increase in interceptions. A full off-season as the unquestioned starter should help, as will the improved health of his receiver corps.

Tailback Jalen Berger came on strong down the stretch in 2020 and looks to have the makings of the next great Badger back. He totaled 301 yards in four games last season but fully healthy and running behind an elite offensive line, expect him to eclipse 1,000 in 2021. The big question at the position is the lack of depth that Wisconsin usually possesses. Garrett Groshek graduated, and Nakia Watson opted to transfer to Washington State. Expect the Badgers to turn to either Isaac Guerendo or Clemson transfer Chez Mellusi as change of pace options.

To be fair to Mertz, he was operating with an extremely depleted receiver group all season. Not only had star wide out Quintez Cephus gone pro, but the Badgers were also without veterans Danny Davis III and Kendric Pryor for most of the season. Both Pryor and Davis are back to 100 percent heading into 2021, giving Mertz two solid, reliable weapons. Sophomore Chimere Dike and fifth-year senior Jack Dunn really emerged in 2020 and will also be featured. Dike has the upside to be a truly great Wisconsin receiver, showcasing a natural feel for the game and versatility that should excite fans. 

Tight end Jake Ferguson was a massive returnee for this offense. He led the team in nearly every receiving category last fall and easily could have gone pro, but instead decided to stay one more year. He is not only one of the best at his position in the Big Ten, but the entire country.

By normal Wisconsin standards, the offensive line play was somewhat disappointing. It was still a solid group, but paled in comparison to some of the elite units they've put out over the years. With three starters back and plenty of depth, improved play is likely. Three seniors, Kayden Lyles, Logan Bruss, and Tyler Beach, are all big returnees. But, the name to watch is sophomore Logan Brown, a former five-star recruit who is likely to start at left tackle.

The disappointing end to 2020 from the offense forced head coach Paul Chryst to make some changes. While offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph was retained, Chryst will take over play-calling duties. With a healthier receiver group and offensive line, the offense should be better no matter what, but the X-factor is Mertz. He doesn't need to be a superstar for this unit to be effective, but absolutely has to cut down on turnovers.

Defense: The most important piece returning to this Wisconsin defense is their coordinator, Jim Leonhard. The Wisconsin alum flirted with the Green Bay Packers DC job this off-season before instead deciding to stay in Madison. With most of his defense returning, expect Leonhard to once again lad a group that could finish in the Top 10 nationally.

The defensive line rarely has many big names, but it's a group that still finds ways to get the job done. With Isaiahh Loudermilk and Garrett Rand both departing from the group, junior tackle Keeanu Benton takes over as the most recognizable piece, although longtime backup Matt Henningsen should play plenty of snaps. The other defensive end spot likely to be opposite of Henningsen will be a fun position battle to watch. Junior Isaiah Mullens is a favorite to start, but redshirt frosh James Thompson Jr. and Oregon transfer Isaac Townsend will feature in.

Per usual Badger standards, the linebacker group is loaded. With four proven veterans returning, including several All-Big Ten-level players, this group might be one of the best in the nation. The headliner is senior Jack Sanborn, who led the team in tackles last fall, with 52. He is joined on the inside by junior Leo Chenal, a hard-nosed defender who is the top returning leader in sacks. Both of these guys can get after opposing quarterbacks in a way that past Wisconsin inside linebackers simply could not.

At outside linebacker, the Badgers feature senior Noah Burks and sophomore Nick Herbig. Herbig, who came all the way from Hawaii, came on strong in 2020 and has the chance to be special. He totaled 26 tackles last season and also displayed the ability to create chaos in the backfield, with six tackles for loss. Don't be surprised if he develops into a household name this year, even with all the other pieces back at this position.

Wisconsin's pass defense was not bad by any means in 2020 but struggled to create turnovers. With both corners returning, as well as senior free safety Scott Nelson, creating more opportunities for the offense should be the top goal. Corners Faion Hicks and Caesar Williams have proven to be solid, underrated pieces to this Badger defense. Hicks has proven he can still disrupt passing lanes, leading the team with four pass deflections a year ago. Nelson, who missed nearly all of 2019 with injury, came back and displayed his playmaking ability, with a pair of interceptions.

The Badgers continue to be one of the best in the nation at bringing in relatively unheralded recruits and developing them into key pieces on a stout defense. They're absolutely loaded at linebacker and have enough back in the secondary for that to be a strength as well. The pass rush may need some time to get going, but it doesn't need to be elite for this group to get the job done.

Special Teams: The Badger kicking game has been very streaky over the last several seasons. Senior Collin Larsh went 5-7 on field goal attempts last year, but struggled to find his range on long attempts. He is joined by punter Andy Vujnoich, a former Division III transfer who had a strong 2020. 

Bottom Line: COVID issues and injuries throughout the offense led to an understandable slide back to .500 football for Wisconsin in 2020, but the prognostication for '21 looks good. The defense should be once again one of the best in the Big Ten and possibly the entire country. On offense, the receiver corps should be much improved and Berger appears ready to become a true star out of the backfield. Again, the play of Mertz will be a major determining factor on whether this team is able to challenge for a Big Ten Title, but one would assume that more help around him will be huge. While the Badgers will be tested early on with a September slate that includes Penn State and a trip to Soldier Field to play Notre Dame, the schedule is overall favorable. They have possibly the easiest road slate in the league, forced to travel to Illinois, Rutgers, Purdue, and Minnesota. They might just be a step behind Iowa in the division, but don't be shocked if this Wisconsin team once again finds a way to take the West.

Further Breakdown
Team Projections
Projected Record: 9-3 (7-2 Big Ten)
Offensive MVP: TE Jake Ferguson
Defensive MVP: LB Jack Sanborn
Breakout Player of the Year: RB Jalen Berger
Impact Freshman: DE T.J. Bollers

Recruiting Breakdown
Wisconsin's 2021 Class will go down as one of the best in school history. Much of that can be credited to the arrival of five-star tackle Nolan Rucci, whose brother, Hayden, is a tight end on the team. Rucci is a future NFL Draft selection who the Badgers managed to snatch away from the top program in his native state, Penn State. Unsurprisingly, Wisconsin also reeled in several other highly touted linemen, including J.P. Benzschawel from inside the state and Riley Mahlman from Minnesota. Defensively, four-star T.J. Bollers could see immediate playing time at a position of need at defensive end, while outside linebacker Jake Ratzlaff has a bright future. Ratzlaff could've gone to college as a hockey player, but the Badgers convinced him to flip to football and come to Madison.

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