This is part the part of the Big Ten Blog season where we preview the upcoming football season in a road trip fashion. Next stop, we're taking US-151 North up to Madison even though we probably should've went to Minnesota just before Wisconsin. But this is my road trip. Badger time.
2016 Record (Bowl Game) : 11-3 (Cotton Bowl vs. Western Michigan, W 24-16)
Over the past five years Wisconsin has kept a stranglehold on the whichever division they've been in since the Big Ten Championship game was created in 2011. They've made four appearances and have won the Big Ten Championship game twice (2011, 2012). Their 30 conference victories over the past five years are only second to Ohio who has an absurd 39 during that period. Three coaching changes since Barry Alvarez retired after the 2015 season haven't mattered. Big Ten Champs or Bust is the standard.
2016 was not necessarily intended a rebuilding year, but it was going to be a year where a brutal schedule that included an opening weekend match-up with LSU and conference schedule that would see them play four top-10 teams that would exploit the Badgers breaking in a new quarterback. The rushing attack had also regressed by Badger standards in 2015 as they were 95th nationally so expectations for 2016 were tepid by comparison in Madison.
Wisconsin then proceeded to knock off #5 ranked LSU at Lambeau Field in classic Big Ten West fashion, a no-touchdown first half mixed within a defensive showdown determined by a late field goal that would see Wisconsin win 16-14. Though Wisconsin would lose to both Ohio State and Michigan (both by a touchdown), the Badgers wouldn't have any slip-ups the rest of the regular season. Only another seven point loss from Penn State was between them and a Rose Bowl appearance. A Cotton Bowl win would push them to 11 wins, admirable in a season where a freshman took the quarterback job as soon as Big Ten play started.
It's not going out on a limb to say the Wisconsin quarterback doesn't have to be dynamic to lead the Badger offense, Russell Wilson notwithstanding. Joel Stave is the second leading passer ALL TIME at Wisconsin. Freshman Alex Hornibrook was thrown to the wolves in his first career start after he took over for Bart Houston following a 23-17 win against Georgia State. Hornibrook was efficient going 16-26 for 195 yards and a touchdown against Michigan State. He returns after having an accuracy rating at 58.6%. The caveat: he only threw for 105.2 yards per game.
However, a staple of past season's success has been the effectiveness of the running game. The Badgers lose 1881 yards rushing from 2016 with 1375 of those yards graduating with Corey Clement. Junior Chris James has transferred over from Pitt, rushing for 690 yards over a two-year time period. He looks to take over the starting role this year. OK, the real staple of every good Badger team is good offensive line play. First-team All-American left tackle Ryan Ramczyk will need to be replaced. Luckily for the Badgers, they return four starts on the O-line with the shortest being 6'6" including right guard Beau Benzschawel. So Wisconsin will be fine on the height and complicated consonant placement name front.
Like many Wisconsin teams of past, the running game for Wisconsin will be most effective if their game-managing quarterback can open of any semblance of a passing game.
Joel Stave is the second leading passer ALL TIME at Wisconsin. Ah, already noted. The good news for Alex Hornibrook: he gets back his two top receivers from last season. Receiver Jazz Peavy caught 43 passes for 635 yards. He also rushed for 320, so he presents a dynamic option for the sophomore quarterback. Tight end Troy Fumagalli caught 47 passes for 580 yards and is 6'6" and is by far the best tight end in the Big Ten West.
Wisconsin led the nation in scoring defense in 2015 by allowing only 13.7 points per game. With Michigan and Ohio State returning to the schedule last year, Wisconsin managed to only allow 15.6 points per game in addition to breaking in a new defensive coordinator. In 2017 Wisconsin will again have a new defensive coordinator in former Badger saefty Jim Leonhard. With
seven six returning starters from last year's defense and an easier schedule, Wisconsin will continue the trend of being one of the country's stingiest defenses.
Nose tackle Conor Sheehy will anchor the front three after coming off a third-team All-Big Ten season a year ago. Olive Sagapolu, Chikwe Obasih and Alex James will all cycle at defensive end. Wisconsin is averaging just under 100 rushing yards per game over the last two seasons, that success will be sustained with experience along the front even with the new coordinator.
TJ Watt and his Big Ten leading 11.5 sacks have graduated to the NFL at outside linebacker. Hope for Wisconsin was that a healthy Jack Cichy would help replace the Watt family-sized hole at linebacker. Despite missing seven games in 2016 Cichy was still able to accrue 60 tackles and WOULD'VE been fifth in returning tackles per game. He WOULD'VE been the seventh returning starter on a defense that only allowed 218 points the entire year. Unfortunately he tore his ACL a couple week ago. Thems the breaks. Inside linebacker and leading tackler TJ Edwards will need a new partner inside and, for the moment, that appears to be junior Chris Orr who also tore his ACL that kept him out in 2016. One door closes, another Orr opens. Zing.
Though the secondary will be missing first-team All Big Ten cornerback Sojourn Shelton and the team's leading interceptor Leo Musso, the unit is experienced. Cornerback Derrick Tindal led the team with 11 passes broken up while safety D'Cota Dixon has already made 30 appearances for the Badgers in his career. It won't matter if the defensive backs come into some issues as the best quarterback they'll face is *squints at schedule for tenth time* Wilton Speight at Michigan. Yikes.
For the eleventh time, Wisconsin's schedule sets them up for a success as they miss both Ohio State and Penn State this year. They get Iowa, Northwestern and Michigan at home. Any issues that arise will come from a slow start to the conference schedule as the play Northwestern and Nebraska in consecutive weeks. But that's picking straws given the experience returning. Look for Wisconsin in Indianapolis come December.