SQ College Football Top-25 Preview: #17 Wisconsin
The college football staff at SQ have put together a ranking of the top-25 teams heading into 2015. To get our readers prepared for the upcoming season, the staff has created a preview for each one of these teams. Today’s focus is on #17 Wisconsin.
Team: Wisconsin Badgers
Location: Madison, Wis.
SQ Ranking: 17th
2014 Record: 11-3
Finish in AP Poll: 13th
Head Coach: Paul Chryst (1st year)
Previewing the Badger Offense: Like always, the Badgers have a talented running back and quarterback. Even though rushing phenom Melvin Gordon has left--and was drafted high in the past NFL Draft-–the Badgers just reloaded.
Gordon broke the single-game rushing record last year against Nebraska. Gordon's rushing abilities helped guide the Badgers to a Big Ten Championship appearance.
Junior running back Corey Clement is the No.1 rusher on the depth chart, and has experience. Last season, Clement came close to breaking off a 1,000 yard season. Look for him to eclipse the mark this season, and then some.
From a QB perspective, there isn't a controversy like there was last year (the Joel Stave/Tanner McEvoy saga) for the Badgers. Senior Joel Stave is the man taking the snaps, but the pressure is on him even more than last year mainly because Gordon isn't around to pile up the offensive yardage.
Even though Stave threw up nine touchdowns on ten interceptions last year, you can't hold him solely accountable for the three losses. Against LSU and Northwestern, Stave didn't have a complete game. Against LSU (at NRG Stadium), he did not play, and the Badgers only accumulated 50 yards of passing. When facing Northwestern on the road, Stave came in with literally six seconds left in the first half while trailing 10-0.
The only game where Stave was truly at the helm of a loss was to Ohio State in the Big Ten Championship game, a three-interception, zero-touchdown affair en route to a 59-0 loss to the Buckeyes.
The Buckeye defense stifled Stave, and demolished Wisconsin en route to a 59-0 blowout.
Give Stave control of the situation, and there is a good chance he succeeds. With Alabama as the first opponent of the year, Stave needs to be Maverick out of Top Gun if the Badgers want to open the year 1-0. With five returning starters on offense (Wisconsin's lowest since 2012), the wheels may sputter a little bit before the Badgers hit their stride. Luckily, Hawaii, Miami (OH) and Troy are their opponents after the Alabama game, which gives Wisconsin some time to sort out the inexperience on offense.
Receiving isn't a big issue, but the Badgers are still trying to find their next Jared Abbrederis. Abbrederis was a standout from 2010-2013, and ended his Badger career second all-time on the receiving list. This year, senior Alex Erickson will be the main target for Stave. Junior receiver Robert Wheelright and sophomore tight end Troy Fumagalli add to the triad of options for Stave. If the Badgers want to win, these three on the receiving core will need to put up some big numbers.
Previewing the Badger Defense: The Badger defense returns six starters, one more than their offense. Senior safety Michael Caputo anchors the pass defense, while junior linebacker Vince Biegel is the tour de force up front.
Even though McEvoy didn't pan out as QB, he's found a home as a safety. Coming off a 27-tackle season, McEvoy has the chance to evolve even more with the help of Caputo. Last season, Caputo led the Badgers in tackles with 106--the only Badger to eclipse 100 tackles.
Last season, the pass defense crippled the Badgers in prime time games. Against LSU, the Tigers took advantage with over 239 passing yards. In the Big Ten Championship, Ohio State collected 257 yards in the air. The pass defense will need to improve if Wisconsin wants to start off with a win against Alabama. If the Crimson Tide defense isn't throttled, then it will be a long night in AT&T Stadium for the Badgers on Sept. 5.
As linebackers go, Wisconsin maintains support with Biegal and the No.4 tackler on the team, Joe Schobert. Biegal led the Badgers in sacks last year with 7.5, while Schobert came in second in the sack department with three.
Like the passing defense, the rush defense did fine...up until a road or neutral site game. Ohio State poured in 301(!) yards of rushing against the Badgers; Northwestern picked up 203 on the ground. Both of those games resulted in a Wisconsin loss. Even against Auburn in the Outback bowl (a win), the Badgers gave up 219 rushing yards.
Teams that could reach 365 or more yards of total offense against the Badgers went 3-1 last season. If the Badgers want to win games, holding teams to under 365 yards of offense will be key. With Alabama at a neutral venue, and both Nebraska and Minnesota on the road, these will be trouble spots for the defense.
Three Key Games
1. Wisconsin vs. Alabama (Sept. 5) [in Arlington, Texas] – This game will be the toughest test Wisconsin faces in the regular season. Alabama comes off a sour loss to Ohio State in the Sugar Bowl Semifinal and can extract revenge against a Big Ten member. We'll see how good the passing and rushing attacks are for the Badgers. If Stave can hold his own and guide Wisconsin to a wi n, the sky becomes the limit.
2. Wisconsin at Nebraska (Oct. 10) - Lincoln, Neb. has not been kind to the Badgers; all-time, the Badgers are 0-3 at Nebraska. The last time the Badgers came to town, they squandered a lead and lost by three. The Big Ten West crown cuts through Nebraska, but unlike last year, the Badgers don't have Gordon to rush all over the Cornhuskers. Winner of this game controls their destiny in the Big Ten West.
3. Wisconsin at Minnesota (Nov. 28) - Paul Bunyan's Axe is on the line. It's a rivalry game that has seen Wisconsin win the past 11 times, but the last two losses have come in Minneapolis, Minn. Minnesota put some teams on notice last year, even giving eventual national champion Ohio State a scare. As a season finale for the Badgers, they need to close out strong, especially if they are gunning for their fourth trip to the Big Ten Championship in five years.
One of the last times Minnesota toppled Wisconsin for Paul Bunyan's Axe.
Final Analysis: The Badgers play a few big games that either are on the road or at a neutral site. Alabama will be the most difficult obstacle in the regular season by a long shot. However, every game is winnable. If Wisconsin can establish a rushing and passing identity in games, while producing a defense that doesn't bleed yardage, the Badgers have a decent shot at being in a New Year's Six game. In the end, I have the Badgers going 10-2 in the regular season, and securing the Big Ten West crown.