No. 13 Wisconsin
It's the same story for Wisconsin. They have the veteran talent, defensive playmakers and offensive line to make a serious run at a national championship. Now they just need to overcome the preseason loss of Jack Cichy and find some offensive consistency.
And they couldn't have asked for a better schedule to finally get over the hump.
2016 Record: 11-3 (7-2, Big Ten)
Wisconsin's fourth 11-win season since 2010 was overshadowed by three close losses that killed both their playoff and Big Ten championship hopes.
"We lost three games this year," then-junior safety D'Cota Dixon said after the Penn State loss. "It was a great, phenomenal season for everyone, really. And you play the game to get in moments like this, to get in situations like this. When you have the game sealed, when you have the game in your hands and its in your destiny, in your control, and you blow a 21-point lead, it's so hard. It's just so frustrating."
Head Coach: Paul Chryst (3rd year, 21-6 overall)
Madison native and former Wisconsin quarterback Paul Chryst has 21 victories in his first two seasons as head coach, by far the most of any Badgers' coach in their first two seasons.
“For us, in recruiting, we're always going to start in Wisconsin,” he said. “And I think if we can keep the best players in the state there, it gives us a really good chance. And then it's going out wherever we go, and certainly going to start in the Big Ten footprint, but finding kids that are a good fit for Wisconsin.
Key Returning Offensive Players
QB Alex Hornibrook, RB Bradrick Shaw, WR Jazz Peavy, TE Troy Fumagalli, OT David Edwards, G Beau Benzschawel, C Michael Deiter
Wisconsin proved 2015 was an anomaly for a historically bruising run game. They returned to their running ways by averaging 203 yards per game last year. The passing game, however, lagged far behind and was a big reason for their losses to Michigan and Ohio State (312 yards and four interceptions).
Quarterback Alex Hornibrook is back after an up-and-down freshman season that featured a 58.6-percent completion clip, nine touchdowns and seven interceptions. This offseason he's showed off better arm strength and the ability to make almost every throw on the field, things the coaching staff and veterans have attributed to higher confidence.
“He’s gained that confidence because he knows he’s established himself as that guy,” senior receiver Jazz Peavy said. “He’s supposed to be our starter, so he carries himself that way.”
Peavy is back after leading the team with 43 receptions for 635 yards. He was equally effective as a ball-carrier, averaging 15.1 yards per tote on a combo of reverses, jet sweeps and pitches. And you could see more of that for a team that did improve their run game from a year ago but still struggled often.
"When (the running game) goes south, it’s frustrating,” then-sophomore guard Michael Deiter said after their loss to Michigan. “Then you’ve got to be able to throw the ball, and we weren’t doing that well, either. We weren’t protecting well, and as an O-line we’ve got to take that to heart and figure it out."
Senior tight end Troy Fumagalli — one of the top 2018 draft prospects at his position — is also back, as is sophomore running back Bradrick Shaw. Shaw was one of three running backs to average more than five yards per carry, but the other two — along with Corey Clement — are gone.
Key Returning Defensive Players
DE Conor Sheehy, LB T.J. Edwards, CB Derrick Tindal, S D'Cota Dixon
Wisconsin's defense ranked in the nation's top 10 in scoring, rushing and total defense, among many other categories. That success earned coordinator Justin Wilcox the Cal head coaching job and prompted Paul Chryst to promote secondary coach and former Badgers' safety Jim Leonhard.
Leonhard was already tasked with replacing NFL Draft picks T.J. Watt and Vince Biegel at linebacker. Now he's also replacing Jack Cichy, an All-Big Ten candidate who tore his ACL in spring practice. Remarkably, the Badgers are still in good shape at the position and across the defense.
They're led by T.J. Edwards, their only player with at least 80 tackles, eight tackles for loss and three sacks a season ago. He's a rare middle linebacker with size (6-foot-1, 244 pounds) and cover ability, routinely harassing tight end and slot receivers or chasing down running backs out of the backfield.
"My first couple of years, I would think so much on the field," Edwards said. "I'd worried about so many different things I can't control. Now, just reacting instead of thinking. Instead of sitting there and waiting for things to happen, I just react. There's no second-guessing myself. That's something I had to work on the first year I started."
All-Big Ten defensive end Conor Sheehy is also back, as are veterans in secondary in corner Derrick Tindal and safety D'Cota Dixon. The pair combined for 14 passes defended and seven interceptions. Because Chyst and Leonhard don't fret about alignment and traditional packages, don't be surprised if Dixon plays closer to the line of scrimmage more often this year.
Notable Player Losses
RB Corey Clement, RB Dare Ogunbowale, OT Ryan Ramczyk, LB Jack Cichy, LB T.J. Watt, LB Vince Biegel, CB Sojourn Shelton, S Leo Musso
Jack Cichy is still on the roster and has eligibility remaining, but his ACL tear will keep him out all of 2016. Chryst admitted the injury shook the team.
"You can’t separate it," he said when asked how you move on. "I didn’t think we had great energy the last two. There were some workmanlike things going on. But certainly it’s one of your captains, and guys respect him. And those of you who have been at practice, he does liven practice up."
T.J. Watt and Vince Biegel were two of the most disruptive players in the conference, and corner Sojourn Shelton had 12 passes defended and four interceptions in 2016.
Offensively, their top two rushers are gone in Clement and Ogunbowale, as is first-round draft pick Ryan Ramczyk from the offensive line.
Notable Player Additions
RB Chris James, OT Patrick Kasl, CB Nick Nelson
While Paul Chryst isn't one to inject teams with a pile of freshmen and transfers, a few new faces could start or see significant snaps immediately.
Chris James is an all-purpose sophomore running back who sat out last season after transferring from Pittsburgh. He'll be a major special teams weapon. And redshirt freshman Patrick Kasl is in line to start Week 1 at left tackle.
Junior corner Nick Nelson, a transfer from Hawai'i, is competing to replace Sojourn Shelton at cornerback.
Wisconsin's non-conference slate is highlighted by a Week 3 trip to BYU for the first leg of a 2017-18 home-and-home series. It comes a week after they host Lane Kiffin, De'Andre Johnson and Florida Atlantic.
Their Big Ten schedule is extremely friendly. They do have Nebraska on the road and Michigan at home but avoid both Ohio State and Penn State.
|Friday, Sept. 1||vs. Utah State|
|Saturday, Sept. 9||vs. Florida Atlantic|
|Saturday, Sept. 16||at BYU|
|Saturday, Sept. 30||vs. Northwestern|
|Saturday, Oct. 7||at Nebraska|
|Saturday, Oct. 14||vs. Purdue|
|Saturday, Oct. 21||vs. Maryland|
|Saturday, Oct. 28||at Illinois|
|Saturday, Nov. 4||at Indiana|
|Saturday, Nov. 11||vs. Iowa|
|Saturday, Nov. 18||vs. Michigan|
|Saturday, Nov. 25||at Minnesota|