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. 9 Wisconsin.
Wisconsin came about as close to the playoff as any team could have in 2017. The Badgers ran through a perfect season on their side of the Big Ten and entered the conference championship game against Ohio State ready to add their name to college football’s sole meaningful postseason event. They had the defense, the running back, and even a quarterback to boot. That Wisconsin lost to the Buckeyes and ultimately missed out on the playoff was supremely disappointing; what’s not is the larger body of work that their 2017 season joined.
Seven of the last nine seasons have ended with double digits in the win column for Wisconsin. Head coach Paul Chryst is entering his fourth year as head coach and is coming off the best performance of his career, a 13-1 finish that ended with an Orange Bowl victory against Miami. The Badgers are on an upward swing and, while the playoff slipping out of their fingers in 2017 was painful, it’s a notice to the rest of college football that Wisconsin is ready to take one of those four vaunted slots. While the Badgers defense should be a fine bunch yet again, the biggest treats on Wisconsin’s roster can be found on the offensive side this season.
The most important thing you need to know about the Wisconsin offense is that the entire offensive line is back, and so is running back Jonathan Taylor. Those facts alone should be enough to cement another 10-win season for the folks in Madison. Taylor was insane as a freshman, coming within 23 yards of a 2,000-yard season; the line he ran behind was, somehow, just as impressive. Michael Deiter was at left tackle last year but appears to be moving over to guard this year. On the other side of the center, Beau Benzschawel will shore up the right guard slot. All three of these guys were named to the preseason first-team All-America team, and for good reason.
Their return signals more than an impending 2,000-yard season, though. It all but ensures that quarterback Alex Hornibrook won’t have to worry about carrying the team, which is great news.
Hornibrook returns as a junior after his first full season as a starter. In that season, he had ups and downs due to accuracy issues and a depleted receivers corps. He finished the year with 25 touchdowns to 15 picks and completed 62.5 percent of his passes. Hornibrook largely showed up when he needed to, minus that pesky conference title game. His four-touchdown Week 3 outing against BYU stood out, as did another four-score performance and resulting MVP honors against the Hurricanes in the Orange Bowl.
The goal for Hornibrook in 2018, more so than the Wisconsin offense, will be for him to lean toward posting more of those Orange Bowl-type of games and fewer of the ugly no-touchdowns, two-picks outings. That goal will be challenged by turnover, as the passing game is going to feature some familiar faces in new places this year.
Receivers Jazz Peavy and George Rushing are gone, though the Badgers didn’t really have either of them last year, as they both officially left the team in November for undisclosed reasons after sitting out with leg injuries. The more impactful departure was that of tight end Troy Fumagalli, who became the No. 1 option for Hornibrook last year, leading the team with 46 receptions and 547 yards. He’s off to the NFL now, catching passes for the Denver Broncos. Also, Quintez Cephus was charged with sexual assault on Monday, which means a great many things, but as it relates to this silly college football preview, means that the 2017 team leader in touchdowns and yards per catch is off the team, probably for good.
This leaves Wisconsin in an interesting spot. The Badgers have the bodies and the talent, it just isn’t exactly ideal to force them to be dependable weekly stars. Junior A.J. Taylor and sophomore Danny Davis are back after they each caught five touchdown passes last year and topped 400 yards in 2017. They’ll be joined by Kendric Pryor, who didn’t see a ton of action but did manage to find the end zone three times.
As much as the offense has to figure out who will be the star of the passing game out wide, the defense is in an even trickier position up front.
Last year, Wisconsin boasted one of the best defenses in the land. The Badgers held opponents to an average 13.9 points per game; the most they ever allowed was a 27-point outburst by Ohio State in the Big Ten title game. (For reference, that was the fourth-lowest point total of the year for the Buckeyes.)
The defense hemorrhaged seven starters when the 2017 season ended and the offseason hasn’t been much kinder. The Badgers defensive line was supposed to feature back-flipping senior nose tackle Olive Sagapolu, junior end Garrett Rand and redshirt sophomore end Isaiahh Loudermilk. Instead, the spring and summer decided to be rude and heap injuries upon the bunch.
Loudermilk underwent surgery on his left knee that could possibly keep him out of the first month of play, and Rand tore his Achilles in June, meaning he’s shut down for the season. That leaves redshirt freshman Aaron Vopal with a load of responsibility he wasn’t meant to shoulder until next year and redshirt junior backups Kraig Howe and David Pfaff with an opportunity to bust into the top rotation. There’s a lot of uncertainty here, and so it helps that the next level at least boasts the experience needed to cover up for any mishaps that might happen up front.
Wisconsin operates out of a 3-4, though with its unfair depth at the linebacker position, it might as well just run an 0-7. The two inside spots go to a pair of seniors that might just be the conference’s best interior linebackers. T.J. Edwards and Ryan Connelly both could have made for the NFL after solid junior campaigns; instead, they decided to come back and now every offense in the Big Ten will suffer. The two combined for 169 tackles, 22 for loss, and five sacks. That’s not including the four picks Edwards snagged, either.
The outside backers will have to replace Garret Dooley and Leon Jacobs, but they return Andrew Van Ginkel, which is a big help. The senior racked up 10 tackles for loss, 6.5 sacks, and two picks last season in limited time last year. He’ll be joined by Zack Baun.
The secondary is a split between returning experience and replacing it. Derrick Tindal and Nick Nelson are out at corner, with Nelson declaring for the NFL draft a year early. Their departure thrusts Madison Cone and Dontye Carriere-Williams into the starting roles. Behind them, safety D’Cota Dixon will again be the headliner of the defensive backfield—last year, he had to undergo shoulder surgery and missed part of the season, forcing Joe Ferguson into the lineup, which worked out fine given he picked off four touchdowns. Still, Dixon is the full package and with him hopefully back for a full season, this secondary should again hold up just fine against Big Ten offenses.
I’m sure Wisconsin was talking big about running back Jonathan Taylor all last offseason, but holy shit, I don’t think even the most fervent Wisconsin supporter could have expected what they ended up getting out of the stud from Salem, New Jersey.
By the time it was all said and done, Taylor had rushed for 13 scores and 1,977 yards, which should be impossible but is instead the new NCAA freshman rushing yards record. He compiled 10 100-yard games and three 200-yard outings. He was, in a word, unbelievable. He’s big, burly, and rude with the stiff-arm; add in his breakaway speed and Taylor is the greatest running back in the Big Ten this season. You should watch him every chance you get.
Oh yeah, Wisconsin definitely has what it needs to make the playoff this year. Hell, the Badgers had what they needed last season, too. Maybe Hornibrook regresses and throws too many picks; maybe Taylor’s freshman season was a stroke of luck; maybe the defense can’t handle all the changes up front; maybe the receiving core doesn’t produce a star.
Those are all possible, but not probable, scenarios. In reality, you’re looking at a Wisconsin team that more than has what it needs to run through the Big Ten and make it to the championship game. Going to Michigan, Northwestern, and Penn State will be rough, but the Badgers have what they need to compete and best all of those teams. The key now will be beating whoever ends up in the conference title game.
Aug. 31: Western Kentucky
Sept. 8: New Mexico
Sept. 15: BYU
Sept. 22: @ Iowa
Oct. 6: Nebraska
Oct. 13: @ Michigan
Oct. 20: Illinois
Oct. 27: @ Northwestern
Nov. 3: Rutgers
Nov. 10: @ Penn State
Nov. 17: @ Purdue
Nov. 24: Minnesota