2019-08-13 14:41:481 Oct 2018 01:53 AM EST
-by Daniel Mogollon, Staff Writer; Image: Wisconsin running back Jonathan Taylor. (Image Source: Getty Images)
We continue our Big Ten preview series with the Wisconsin Badgers, as we shift to the West Division:
Origin of Optimism: The Badgers have as much athletic skill talent as the program has ever had. Junior Jonathan Taylor is coming off a Doak Walker award winning season and he already has two top-10 Heisman Trophy finishes thanks to his big-play ability. Enough said. As good as he is, wide receiver is considered by many to be their strongest position group on offense. A.J. Taylor averaged 16.3 yards per catch last season, while deep threat Danny Davis III led them with five receiving touchdowns, and Kendric Pryor is a weapon when he gets in space. Throw in redshirt freshman Aron Cruickshank, who is already making highlight plays in practice, and Wisky has never had a quartet of pass catchers with this much speed and quickness. Rounding out their bevy of playmakers is tight end Jake Ferguson, who was their second-leading receiver in 2018 with 36 catches for 456 yards and four touchdowns as a redshirt freshman. He’s a real weapon in the throw game. The skill talent is there to have a potentially explosive offense in Madison. (Note: Wide out Quintez Cephus has been reinstated but still hasn’t been ruled eligible.)
Cause for Concern: The 2018 Badgers lost possession of Paul Bunyan’s Axe for the first time in 15 years. They lost to a mediocre BYU for their first out-of-conference home defeat in 15 years (41 games). Their four double-digit losses were their most since 2001. You know what else they lost? A lot of talented players, including four starting offensive linemen and three starting linebackers (their signature units on each side of the ball). Of the four O-linemen lost, two were first-time All-B1G and one was second team. Of the linebackers lost, two were drafted and the third, T.J. Edwards, was second-team All-B1G (first-team by media). Last season was probably their worst team since 2008 (went 7-6) and while they were overrated, this season’s roster is not better.
Breakout Player: It’s now or never for outside linebacker Zack Baun, Wisconsin’s only returning starting linebacker and their leading returning tackler with 63 stops a year ago. Where he really needs to elevate his game is as an edge rusher. He flashed some ability coming off the edge with 3.5 tackles for loss as a redshirt freshman in 2016, however last season he recorded only 7.5 TFLs in 13 starts, with just 2.5 sacks. With Alex Van Ginkel gone, Baun is needed to step up as their best pass rusher. The hope is with a season of starting experience under his belt and a year removed from his season-ending foot injury in 2017, the linebacker is ready to breakout. He did have eight quarterback hurries, which he needs to turn into sacks this season. Having an improved D-line to occupy blockers should help his cause. Inside linebackers—veteran fifth-year senior Chris Orr and true sophomore Jack Sanborn—are candidates as well.
X-Factor: Assuming a young and inexperienced, but still talented offensive line will come together, it will come down to the quarterback play on offense. The Badgers added a big-time recruit in Graham Mertz, but it appears that junior Jack Coan will be the man heading into the season, most likely because he has a major edge in experience. Last season, the Badgers threw the second-most interceptions among B1G teams despite the second-fewest pass attempts. That needs to change. In five games last season, Coan was intercepted three times to five touchdowns. In four starts, his season-high was 160 passing yards (three-overtime game) and he struggled against the better defenses he faced. Yes, he was under center for their bowl blowout win against Miami, but was just 6-of-11 with a TD and an INT against the ‘Canes. Overall, he completed 60.2 percent of his passes. Unless the talented Mertz is ready as a true freshman, Coan will have to be better if the Badgers are going to compete for the West division title this season.
Schedule: The conference schedule is rough AF. For starters, the B1G West is much improved and deeper than it’s ever been since the divisions were re-aligned. Even a road game at Illinois could be dangerous. But the real killer comes in the crossover games, as the Badgers host Michigan as well as Michigan State, and visit Ohio State. That’s three preseason top-20 teams and arguably the best three teams in the East. So, Wisconsin could sweep the West and still not win the division. MAC foes Central Michigan and Kent State are easy wins, but their opener at South Florida could be tricky.
It’s a Disappointing Season If: The Badgers have a repeat of 2018 with five regular-season losses, including four in B1G play.
It’s a Successful Season If: Wisky bounces back and handles business in the B1G West. If they do, nine wins is possible.
Over/Under – 8.5 Wins (O +120/U -140): Even though they’re only underdog by more than three points in two games (vs. Michigan, at Ohio State) nine wins is the ceiling in my opinion. So, they will probably have to max out in order to go over, which is why I’m taking the under on the Badgers for a second-straight season. In searching for two more losses, there are seven more opportunities for them to lose. Heading into the season, Wisconsin is a three-point favorite or less in two games: vs. Michigan State (-3), vs. Iowa (-2.5), and could very be getting points at Nebraska. Plus, at South Florida (-13.5), vs. Northwestern (-7), vs. Purdue, and at Minnesota are all potentially losable games. The Badgers could be better this season and still not win enough games to go over.
Daniel Mogollon is a member of the Pro Football Writers of America and the Football Writers Association of America. He is also a voter for the Thorpe and the Rotary Lombardi Award, as well as the Latino Sports MVP Awards.
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