It looked like it was all going to come together for Wisconsin in 2018. The Badgers had just come off a 13-1 season, capped off by an Orange Bowl victory over Miami. The Badgers returned freshman sensation Jonathan Taylor at running back, a veteran quarterback in Alex Hornibrook and a plethora of pieces on both lines and the defensive backfield.
Nothing went as planned.
Wisconsin’s hopes of a national championship were dashed in an upset loss at home against BYU. Injuries and inconsistent play saw Wisconsin finish 5-4 in Big Ten play, and the end of a 14-year winning streak against Minnesota. Wisconsin did end the season on a high note, again beating Miami in the Pinstripe Bowl.
Coming into 2019, there will be some familiar faces, such as Doak Walker Award-winning running back Jonathan Taylor and receivers Danny Davis III and Kendric Pryor, but there will be plenty of new faces as well.
Who They Lose
Wisconsin was rocked by the news that starting quarterback Alex Hornibrook was transferring at season’s end, he would end up at Florida State. The offensive line also took a massive hit with the departures of 3, 1st team All-B1G offensive linemen in Beau Benzschawel, Dave Edwards and Michael Deiter.
The Badgers took an equally massive hit on defense, as 4 of their 5 leading tacklers from 2018 graduated. Players such as Ryan Connelly, TJ Edwards, Andrew Van Ginkel and D’Cota Dixon. Also a departure of note is Olive Sagapolu, the big nose tackle who caused lots of problems for opposing offenses last season.
Who They Return/Gain
With the departure of Alex Hornibrook, there is a young gun that has found his way to Madison: true freshman Graham Mertz. Mertz was a 4-star out of high school and ranked the best pocket-passer quarterback by many recruiting services. Other offensive returnees include 2,000-yard rusher Jonathan Taylor, receivers Danny Davis III and Kendrick Pryor, and offensive lineman Tyler Biadasz.
Defensively, the Badgers only return one of their 5 leading tacklers in 2018 in senior outside linebacker Zack Baun. Jim Leonhard’s defense returns little in the front seven, but he has a young secondary, returning defensive backs Eric Burrell, Scott Nelson, Falon Hicks, Caesar Hicks and Rachad Wildgoose. Other returnees include defensive end Matt Henningsen and linebacker Chris Orr.
The football gods did Wisconsin no favors with their scheduling, with crossover opponents Michigan, Michigan State and Ohio State. The Badgers also have to travel to Nebraska and to Minnesota. However, the toughest test for Paul Chryst’s Badgers will be their trip to Columbus on October 26th.
Even with plenty of new faces, the Badgers reload rather than rebuild. Graham Mertz becomes a freshman sensation and gives the Badgers the downfield threat they’ve so desperately needed. Jonathan Taylor continues his torrent pace with another 2,000-yard season, setting himself up for a chance to set a new NCAA career rushing record.
The Ceiling: 10-2, Big Ten Championship Game appearance, NY6 Bowl game
Wisconsin’s passing woes continue with the insertion of a true freshman quarterback who will make true freshman mistakes. The Badgers becomes one dimensional and the rushing attack can’t hide behind a virtually new offensive line. The offensive issues cause the defense to get worn out rather quickly.
The Floor: 6-6, Bowl game in Detroit or Nashville
The Bottom Line
This season will be an interesting one for Wisconsin, with many unknown parts making their way into the spotlight. The play of quarterback Graham Mertz will be key, and while he doesn’t have to do spectacular things, he will need to have a good ability to manage the game.
A virtually new offensive line will need to gel quickly, but should get some relief with the playmaking ability of running back Jonathan Taylor. The Badgers will also need young guys to step up on defense and make big plays against some of the best offenses in the Big Ten.
There’s are a couple reasons Wisconsin was chosen 3rd in the Big Ten West:
#1: They are as consistent as it comes in college football
#2: The Big Ten West is WIDE open.