Welcome to the Deadspin 25, a college football poll that strives to be more democratic and less useless than every other preseason poll. Leading up to the college football season kickoff, we will give you previews of the 25 teams that you, the readers, voted to be most worthy of writing about. Now, No. 19 Wisconsin.
Sooner or later in this industry, you just have to sit down, unfold your napkin, grab your fork and knife, ask for just a bit more grated cheese, and eat shit.
Madison is a fun town, Wisconsin is a fine school, but the Badgers, God bless ‘em, are about to get wrecked this season. If you’re looking for blame or reason, just take a gander at their schedule, chalk it up to karma, and come back in 2017.
For every shortcoming I pointed out last year, Wisconsin managed to make me look a fool twice over, rolling to its third straight season of double digits in the win column and a Cotton Bowl victory. My diagnosis that the schedule was too tough for the Badgers to overcome was incorrect, not in its assumption of Wisconsin’s talent level, but that of the teams it would face. The Badgers faced six regular-season opponents that were considered by some writers to be top-10 squads at the time they played. They went 3-3 against these teams, losing to Ohio State, Michigan, and Penn State (all teams that finished with at least 10 wins) and besting LSU, Michigan State, and Nebraska (the Spartans were horrendously overrated and finished 3-9, while LSU and Nebraska each finished with four losses). I should have both seen through Mike Dantonio’s facade and assumed the Tigers would be a disappointment; I did not. I will not let Paul Chryst make a fool of me again.
The Badgers enter the 2017 season fresh off claiming the runner-up spot in the Big Ten in 2016, having come within one shitty fourth quarter of topping Penn State and claiming the crown in the title game. They’ll head into this season with a weaker non-conference schedule and an unfair amount of returning talent, so their chances of returning to the Big Ten title are really going to be affected most by how much ground Iowa and Nebraska can make up—the Badgers have the benefit of skipping a cross-division game with Ohio State this season, a benefit of playing in the weaker West division.
The biggest alteration Wisconsin underwent this offseason was committing to one quarterback, both because it’s his time and because, well, he’s all they’ve really got right now. With Bart Houston fighting for a spot on the Pittsburgh Steelers roster, Wisconsin will hand the reins over to Alex Hornibrook, who was named the starter in March. Hornibrook split time with Houston last year—Houston logged 141 attempts to Hornibrook’s 181—though the elder quarterback received more starting nods, including in the team’s win over Western Michigan in the Cotton Bowl.
Hornibrook is a redshirt sophomore with a year of watching from the sidelines and a half-season of running an 11-win team under his belt. He’s a typical pro-style quarterback, a southpaw with the arm to make the mid-level, 10-to-20-yard throws, and the touch to be a threat in the red zone. He doesn’t have a ton of zip, but he still manages to thread the needle occasionally thanks to decent placement. Hornibrook needs to cut back on his turnovers—he threw seven picks to nine touchdowns last year—but presumably a year’s worth of experience and film study will help him shore up some of the more errant choices he made last season. Wisconsin’s offense thrives on grinding down opposing defenses with its big boys in the trenches and whoever the hell they plug in to rush for 1,000 yards; if Hornibrook can give the passing game a little push—and he’s got the weapons to do it—then this offense might actually rejoin the nation’s top-50 scoring teams.
One other thing to take note of regarding the quarterback situation: It’s Hornibrook or bust. Behind him are two guys with no college experience, freshman Jack Coan and redshirt freshman Kare’ Lyles, which means that should anything happen to their signal-caller of choice, the offense, and especially the passing attack, will be in crisis mode unless Coan or Lyles both possess preternatural abilities to read and react to Big Ten defenses.
While fans all scramble to talk about the man throwing the ball, though, the more important position group (the most important one as it relates to Wisconsin’s offensive game plan) is still working through some of the kinks that come with turnover. The offensive line—and by no coincidence, the Wisconsin running game—has spent the past two years looking very much out of place. This is a line that historically is renowned for being big motherfuckers, with guts popping out of their jerseys, capable of pushing any sad sap that lines up opposite them around the field like a dummy. Due to injury and poor line-specific recruiting efforts in the past, the two most recent versions of the Wisconsin line have been rarely consistent, both in personnel and performance. This year’s group seems prepped to get back to the good ole days.
Redshirt junior Michael Deiter is the veteran statesman of the group, having logged 27 starts, 11 of which came at left guard, where he’ll be lining up this year. Redshirt freshman Tyler Biadasz apparently balled the fuck out this spring, so much so that he took the starting center spot. Among the other changes along the line, former tight end David Edwards will take over Ryan Ramczyk’s post at left tackle, while junior Jacob Maxwell assumes the right tackle spot. This group will block for running back Bradrick Shaw, as the group is without Corey Clement and Dare Ogunbowale this season. As mentioned earlier, the rushing attack has kind of been subpar the past two years. Admittedly, following the Melvin Gordon Show is a tall task, and asking a guy to do better than Clement’s eight 100-yard games seems a bit picky, but behind this line, Shaw might actually do it.
Senior tight end Troy Fumagalli is back a year after leading the offense with 47 catches, which he turned into 580 yards of offense and a pair of scores. He’ll again pair well with speedster Jazz Peavy, who led the team in receiving yards last season with 635 to go along with five scores through the air and another on the ground. The fiery redshirt sophomore is all over the place for the offense, and if you tune into any given Wisconsin game, you’re likely to notice a skinny fucker blazing past the other team’s secondary—that’s Peavy. While he hasn’t proved to be an every-down guy yet, George Rushing appeared in all 14 games last season and is expected to again be a familiar target out wide; he’s currently confined to the sidelines due to a leg injury that has in a boot, but the Wisconsin receiver seems hopeful regarding his chances to return.
The famed Wisconsin defense seems to be ready for yet another year of dominant play, though it will be tested with an injection of inexperience both on the field and in the press box. Defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard is just three years removed from playing in the NFL and logged his sole season of coaching experience last year as the Badgers’s defensive backs coach; now, with Justin Wilcox doomed to black pit that is Cal, Leonhard will head up what is consistently one of the most impressive defenses in the nation.
The defense held opponents to 15.6 points per game last year by way of a suffocating front and hard-nosed secondary that bullied damn near every offense it faced save the Buckeyes and Nittany Lions. This season, Wisconsin has the pieces to continue this trend, especially up front, where it returns all four starting defensive linemen from 2016, as well as a pair of backups that saw major playing time due to injuries last season. Chikwe Obasih and Conor Sheehy will occupy the end spots while Olive Sagapolu, a 6-foot-2, 348-pounder, is back to terrify centers as nose tackle.
The biggest cause for concern comes at the next level, where Wisconsin will have to replace outside linebackers Vince Biegel and T.J. Watt—a combined 15.5 sacks of defensive production. Biegel will be replaced by redshirt senior Garrett Dooley, who already had to fill in for Biegel when he went down with injury last year. At the two inside slots, losing linebacker Jack Cichy to a torn ACL hurts, given his proven capabilities (60 tackles in 2016); that blow will be softened by the fact that the Badgers get back a load of experienced inside backers. T.J. Edwards, who has 25 starts to his name, is a sure-fire starter, and he’ll be joined by either redshirt sophomore Ryan Connelly and junior Chris Orr, who have logged a combined 15 starts.
In the defensive backfield, cornerback Nick Nelson, a Hawaii transfer, is expected to step in for Sojourn Shelton, who is now fighting for a roster spot with the Arizona Cardinals. On the last line, play-making safety D’Cota Dixon, who snagged four picks last year and sealed a pair of wins against LSU and Nebraska with last-minute heroics, will try and bring along corner-turned-safety Natrell Jamerson; after an up-and-down spring, it seems like the secondary as a whole has started to congeal. Given that’s the only area Big Ten teams could have hoped to exploit, it seems safe to say the Wisconsin defense as a whole, barring some Michigan State-like plunge, will fucking rule yet again this year.
Troy Fumagalli is a goddamn man. He’s what Bill Belichick would come out of the lab with while cackling and muttering to himself, “Now I have two.” He’s an unbelievable specimen, a team leader in receptions, and a sure-fire future NFL player. And he does it all with only has four fingers on his left hand. Fumagalli is the tight end you’ve been waiting for.
Outside of Penn State’s Mike Gesicki (and maybe Oklahoma’s Mark Andrews) there’s really no other tight end in college football that even deserves to be mentioned in the same sentence as Fumagalli. The hulking, versatile Illinois native led his team in receptions last year, a team that, unlike the Sooners and Nittany Lions, was not blessed with a top-10 quarterback or pass-heavy, high-scoring offensive scheme. Hook him up with Baker Mayfield or Trace McSorley and I can nearly promise you Fumagalli would walk away with an 800-yard season.
A three-star recruit that Wisconsin only offered a 2/3 scholarship—two years as an unpaid walk-on, three years as an unpaid but tuition-covered player—Fumagalli will now head into his senior season with a focus on improving his blocking technique and bumping up his stat-sheet numbers, per an interview with Land of 10. Considering his overall work, as well as his masterful bowl performance that apparently left Western Michigan head coach P.J. Fleck both terrified and a little aroused, Fumagalli really doesn’t have much to accomplish other than boosting his already-high draft stock. Another year of exquisite Big Ten play should bring in plenty of awards and a trip to wherever the hell the NFL Draft is held next spring.
Yes. The Badgers have the pieces to make a run at the playoff. They’ve got back a monstrous defensive front, a stingy secondary, a returning starting quarterback, a versatile and capable receiving corps, and a cadre of capable running backs; as long as the injury bug doesn’t infest the Badgers locker room, this team deserves to be named right alongside Ohio State and Michigan as playoff favorites to emerge from and win the Big Ten.
So far, the biggest knock I can find is Wisconsin’s non-conference schedule—the selection committee will not be impressed by wins against Utah State, FAU, or BYU, so the Badgers better be damn near perfect in conference play if they want a real shot at a postseason game that people actually care about.
Sept. 1: Utah State
Sept. 9: FAU
Sept. 16: @ BYU
Sept. 30: Northwestern
Oct. 7: @ Nebraska
Oct. 14: Purdue
Oct. 21: Maryland
Oct. 28: @ Illinois
Nov. 4: @ Indiana
Nov. 11: Iowa
Nov. 18: Michigan
Nov. 25: @ Minnesota
Correction (5:27 p.m. ET): This article originally stated Corey Clement would be the team’s starting running back. However, Clement is now a member of the Philadelphia Eagles. The post has been updated to reflect this.