Once again, Wisconsin enters a season capable of winning a Big Ten championship and playing in a New Year’s Day or better bowl.
The Badgers, who won the Big Ten West Division and defeated Western Michigan in the Cotton Bowl last season, are looking to take it a step further this year by landing a spot in the College Football Playoff.
The good news, for the Badgers, is the schedule is much softer this season. After playing LSU in the opener and enduring a brutal three-game stretch against Michigan, Michigan State and Ohio State last season, the Badgers have a much easier slate with non-conference games against Utah State, Florida Atlantic and BYU.
Wisconsin avoids Ohio State and Michigan State and hosts Michigan, though the easier slate leaves lesser margin for error for its playoff hopes.
New defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard has reason to smile by inheriting the bulk of last season’s top-ranked defense. The Badgers return 27 of the 33 players who lettered for the team, but will miss the leadership and big-play ability of T.J. Watt and Vince Biegel. The Badgers’ defense allowed only 15.6 points per game last season, ranking fourth in the FBS.
Less than two weeks into fall camp, the Badgers suffered a major blow when starting linebacker Jack Cichy tore his ACL in practice. The season-ending injury hurts Wisconsin’s depth, particularly added with some key subtractions in the offseason.
“It’s a big loss for us, but it gives others an opportunity to play,” Wisconsin coach Paul Chryst said.
One of the areas of concern is quarterback. Sophomore Alex Hornibrook is coming off a productive freshman season, but displayed bouts of inconsistency with his accuracy. Freshman Jack Coan had a stellar spring and had not missed a beat in the fall camp, as he will push Hornibrook for playing time if he falters.
Coming off an 11-3 season, the Badgers will rely on running back Bradrick Shaw to offset the loss of standout Corey Clement. Shaw rushed for 457 yards and five touchdowns last season, while receiver Jazz Peavy and tight end Troy Fumagalli are set to be Hornibrook’s main targets.
Unlike past seasons, the Badgers should roll into conference play. Outside a tough matchup at BYU, the Badgers’ offensive line will have some time to mesh, while Shaw should benefit from the added carries and responsibilities. The defense is strong, though will endure a brief period of adjustment with a new coordinator and the loss of Biegel.
MOST IMPORTANT PLAYER: RB Bradrick Shaw — He averaged 5.2 yards per carry in limited duty last season. With Corey Clement and Dare Ogunbowale gone, the Badgers’ offense will lean on Shaw to ease the pressure off quarterback Alex Hornibrook. The Badgers have always been known as a running team, so the importance of Shaw developing into a go-to back is essential to the offense, in particular with a developing offensive line and the lack of a multitude of weapons at wide receiver.
BREAKOUT STAR: LB T.J. Edwards — Despite leading the team with 89 tackles last season, Edwards has flown under the radar in his career. With linebackers T.J. Watt and Vince Biegel exhausting their eligibility and Jack Cichy, who had 60 tackles last season, suffering a season-ending injury in fall camp, Edwards will take on a bigger role, both in production and leadership. How he adapts to a new defensive coordinator and expanded position will be instrumental in Wisconsin’s success.
NEWCOMER TO WATCH: CB Nick Nelson — The Hawaii transfer has already shown he will be a big-time contributor this fall. The junior is set to take over for four-year starter Sojourn Shelton, and will be helped by his experience working with Leonhard while redshirting last season. Nelson is set to team up with UW cornerback Derrick Tindal, with the pair having the potential to form one of the better tandems in the conference. Nelson also will help out in the punt return department after serving as Hawaii’s punt returner.
The Badgers visit Minnesota on November 25th.
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