Gary Andersen went 9-4 in his first year as the Badgers' head coach; by comparison, consider the year his predecessor had in Arkansas. However, with a good amount of talent, nine wins was something of an underachievement for last year's group. There was the Arizona State-debacle, which, unfortunately, took the game out of the players' hands, but UW also fell apart against Penn State with a shot at the Orange Bowl on the line.
This year, there isn't as much experienced talent on the team as last year, and the transition, especially on the defense, will be more palpable. But with a move to the Big Ten West, and a soft schedule, Wisconsin is the favorite to win its division and get to its third Big Ten Championship game in four years.
2013 scoring offense: 34.8 PPG (third in the conference), total offense: 480.8 YPG (third), rushing YPC: 6.62 (second), passing efficiency: 133.75 (sixth)
Average scoring offense conference ranking over last five years: 2.4
Best scoring offense conference ranking over last five years: First (2009, 2010, 2011)
Worst scoring offense conference ranking over last five years: Sixth (2012)
Returning starters: QB Joel Stave; RB Melvin Gordon; FB Derek Watt; WR Jordan Frederick; OL Dan Voltz, Kyle Costigan, Rob Havenstein, Tyler Marz, Dallas Lewallen
Open Positions: WR, TE
Offensive Formation: Power
Offensive Philosophy: Power rushing to wear defense down and control clock
It seems like Wisconsin has run the same offense forever, and it has worked forever. That offense is classic Big Ten football based on a massive offensive line, great running backs, and a quarterback who is more of a game manager than the focus of the offense. Andersen has made it clear he wants to remain true to the Badgers' roots, but he also wants to slowly augment those roots.
As Elliot Hughes from Isthmus.com reported, those augmentations include a mobile quarterback and more spread looks, as well as option and zone-read plays. However, those changes will take a few years and recruiting classes to implement. In effect, depending upon who wins the quarterback job, don't expect 2014 to be a far departure from classic Wisconsin power football.
The quarterback will dictate how much the Badgers' offense will adjust. Junior Joel Stave is a two-year starter and a former walk-on. Despite his experience, he still has to battle for the starting position as Andy Baggot of Madison.com noted. Stave is a classic game manager in the Wisconsin-quarterback mold. He is immobile and probably doesn't have the talent to take over a game. Last year, he finished with a 138.13 efficiency rating and a 22:13 TD:Int ratio. It was a solid sophomore effort, but his inconsistency and inability to step up when needed was problematic. He threw three interceptions against Penn State which spelled the Badgers' doom and that loss was the likely difference between a trip to the Orange Bowl and the Cap One Bowl. Stave's competition comes from Tanner McEvoy, a junior who began his college career at South Carolina, transferred to a Juco, then transferred to Wisconsin. Even though he came to UW as a quarterback, he played safety last year; this spring saw a switch back to quarterback. Obviously, McEvoy is more in line with the athleticism Andersen wants in his quarterback.
At running back, it is another year and another potential All-American for Wisconsin. Junior Melvin Gordon will lead the way. In 2013, he had 1,609 yards, 7.81 YPC and 12 touchdowns. This year, the Heisman hype has already started. In Wisconsin's offense, there are plenty of touches to go around, and sophomore Corey Clement (547 yards, seven touchdowns) will get playing time. Taiwan Deal, a Rivals 4-star recruit, will have an opportunity to see the field as a true freshman. Derek Watt, who started at fullback last year, will play an expanded role this year, as the classic fullback role transitions into more of an H-back.
Receiver is wide open. The Badgers not only graduated their top four pass catchers, but they graduated Jared Abbrederis, a four-year starter, and UW's best receiver since Lee Evans. The returning wide receiver experience amounts to 64 career catches. The field of possible starters includes senior Kenzel Doe; junior Jordan Fredrick; sophomores Robert Wheelwright, Reggie Love, Alex Erickson; as well as all true freshmen. The Badgers also lost their top two tight ends, but UW tends to reload at tight end. The likely starter is senior Sam Arneson with junior Austin Traylor backing him up.
As with running back, it is no surprise that Wisconsin has probably the best offensive line in the conference. The Badgers return five players with starting experience. That said, depth is a concern, as the second string includes two sophomores and two freshmen.
The Badgers offense has a number of ifs. At worst, it will be a good offense that will bowl over weaker defenses, but will have trouble with better opponents. But if the offense can find consistency at quarterback, a playmaker or two at receiver, and can avoid the injury bug along the offensive line, it can be one of the best in the conference.
2013 scoring defense: 16.3 PPG (second in conference), total defense: 305.1 YPG (third), rushing YPC allowed: 3.22 (second), passing efficiency allowed: 113.63 (third)
Average scoring defense conference ranking over last five years: 3.0
Best scoring defense conference ranking over last five years: Second (2012, 2013)
Worst scoring defense conference ranking over last five years: Fourth (2009, 2011)
Returning starters: CBs Darius Hillary, Sojourn Shelton; S Michael Caputo
Open positions: DE, NT, LB, S
Defensive formation: 3-4
Defensive philosophy: Control the line of scrimmage, attack
As with the offense, the defense has undergone and will continue to undergo transition; unlike the offense, the transition will not be gradual. Historically, UW has run a traditional, straightforward Big Ten 4-3 front. Last year, it moved to a 3-4 that thrived on unpredictability, and thrive it did. PPG-wise, Wisconsin had its best defense since 2006. The question is how much of that was due to the new scheme and how much of that was due to the players. Last year's team not only returned five of the front seven, but also put three players into the NFL Draft. The last time UW put three-or-more defensive players in the Draft was 2005. While UW has established a tradition of reloading at certain offensive positions, there is no place on the defense that has moved into the reloading realm.
This year, the defense only returns three, and at this point, it looks short on NFL talent.
The line returns five starts, and for a 3-4, the starters are a bit undersized. The rush-side end will be manned by red-shirt freshman Chikwe Obasih. He has the most potential in the front, but he is still a freshman. The other end will be between junior Jake Keefer and senior Konrad Zagzebski. Keefer would have had a shot at playing time last season, but he sat out with a torn ACL. Senior Warren Herring will start at nose tackle. He has one start to his credit, but at a listed 293 pounds, is small for a nose tackle in a 3-4. All of the depth is young and/or unproven.
The linebackers not only lose all of the starters, but they lose Chris Borland, the heart and soul of the Badgers' defense for the past two years. Outside linebacker Vince Biegel, a sophomore, grabbed two starts last year and is the most talented of the group. Senior Marcus Trotter will start inside, and while he is limited, he is also dependable. The other inside spot will go to senior Derek Landisch, who picked up one start last year and has been a career special teams stalwort. The final starting spot will go to senior Joe Schobert. The starting four are solid, if unspectacular, but depth is an issue.
The back four are the most experienced unit on the field, despite losing safety Dezman Southward, who went in the third round of the Draft. This year, Caputo will move from free to strong, while both starting cornerbacks return. The free safety spot will probably go to a true freshman, with Rivals 2-star Austin Hudson and fellow 2-star Lubern Figaro the most likely candidates. The depth sufferred a substantial blow with the recent retirement of Vonte Jackson. However, senior Peniel Jean will compete for playing time as a nickelback or at safety.
The Badgers lose four of their top-five tacklers, five of their top-seven pass rushers, and all but two players who recorded an interception. Couple this with the transition to a 3-4, and it's hard to be optimistic about this defense. Thankfully, Wisconsin's clock-control offense has always been the defense's best ally, but expect a few steps back for the 2014 Badgers defense. The question is how many steps back?
Junior Jack Russell is the incumbent place kicker. Last year, he made 9-of-13 field goal attempts. He will be challenged by true freshman Rafael Gaglianone. Fellow-junior Drew Meyer will remain the punter. He had a mediocre 2013, finishing with a 38.58 average.
Meanwhile, Kenzel Doe was the second-best kick returner in the conference—26.45 average with one touchdown—and he will also handle punts.
The place kicker and Meyer will be counted on to improve, as a punter and kickoff unit are an inexperienced defense's best friend. If they do improve, Wisconsin will have some of the better special teams in the conference. If not, it will be mediocre.
A pound sign—#—indicates must-win for Wisconsin.
An exclamation point—!—indicates a probable loss.
A dollar sign—$—indicates a swing game.
08/30: LSU (in Houston) $
09/06: Western Illinois #
09/20: Bowling Green #
09/27: USF #
10/04: at Northwestern $
10/11: Illinois #
10/25: Maryland $
11/01: at Rutgers #
11/08: at Purdue #
11/15: Nebraska $
11/22: at Iowa $
11/28: Minnesota $
Stave, or whomever is quarterback, is not Russell Wilson, but he is as efficient as former Badger quarterback Scott Tolzien. No huge playmakers come out of the receivering corps, but they do their job, and with Wisconsin's running game, the passing game only has to do so much. Meanwhile, the defense takes a small step back from last year, but is still formidable despite the turnover.
The Badgers scratch out a close win in Houston, automatically putting them into the playoff discussion. They beat every opponent going forward by at least ten points, and after securing the Axe for the 11th straight year, Wisconsin, at 12-0, writes a ticket for its third Big Ten Championship game in the four years of the game's existence.
Whoever wins the quarterback spot is inconsistent. This leads to a game of musical quarterbacks. Meanwhile, nobody steps up as a go-to receiver, the offensive line sees a slew of injuries and the defense isn't much more than adequate.
Wisconsin gets stomped by LSU on national television. It rolls off three wins, but loses a close game to Northwestern. It then beats Illinois, but loses to Maryland before winning two straight. It has a chance to steal the Big Ten West crown but two losses in the final three weeks seals UW's fate with a 7-5, 4-4 conference record.
Wisconsin has a ton of questions, but it has a 12th man in its corner—the schedule. After the opening contest against LSU, there isn't a challenge on UW's schedule until the Northwestern game, and some might argue there isn't a real challenge until mid-November, when the Badgers play Nebraska and Iowa in successive weeks. Regardless, the questions are substantial and the easiest schedule in the world won't erase them. That said, Wisconsin is the first Big Ten team in this series that has a legitimate shot at 12-0, but it's not going to happen.
Wisconsin will lose by at least two scores to LSU. It will blow away its next three out-of-conference opponents and it will win its first two conference games. However, it will get surprised on homecoming by a resurgent Maryland. It will then put up three wins, including a victory over Nebraska, before rolling into Iowa City for what amounts to the Big Ten West championship game. It will lose a heartbreaker, but will take home the Axe to finish the year. Not bad, given the amount of turnover on this year's squad.
Final Record: 9-3 (6-2 in conference)
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