Head Coach: Paul Chryst
2018 Record: 8-5, 5-4 Conference
Bowl: 35-3 win over Miami at Pinstripe Bowl
Season Win Prop: 8 wins (O -155, U +125)
Make 4 Team Playoff: Yes +2500, No -10000
The Wisconsin Badgers entered last season with a No. 4 AP ranking. It hardly stood up. The Badgers proceeded to go 8-5 in a rather mediocre season, but one at least punctuated with a big win its Pinstripe Bowl matchup against Miami. As often the case, injuries played a massive role—but cannot be fully to blame, either. There were plenty of ridiculous penalties and turnovers that played a larger role. Wisconsin has some turnover this season, which is probably good because last year hardly went “according to plan,” to be cliche about it.
The offense is bolstered in a huge way by the return of a very talented running back in Jonathan Taylor. He rushed for 2,194 yards last season and dashed for 16 touchdowns. That was as a freshman, too. Continued growth is expected, which should send a chill down Big 10 foes’ collective spines. Considering he had five 100-yard-plus performances on a team with so few receiving threats, it only becomes that much easier to accept he has a quite strong chance at the Heisman this year.
The Badgers did rank just No. 9 in the Big 10 in passing efficiency, and it really all rooted to a lot of inconsistency in the pocket. Alex Hornibrook had some quality seasons, particularly his freshman year, but Wisconsin ultimately does itself a favor in seeing Hornibrook transfer out for graduate eligibility. Replacing him will be junior Jack Coan (most likely). Blue-chip prospect Graham Mertz will not be ignored, either, though. While Mertz is the more talented of the two, he will take time to adapt to Chryst’s offense.
Coan should benefit from some improved receiving, at least. AJ Taylor, Danny Davis, Kendrick Pryor and TE Jake Ferguson all pack plenty of talent, and developing consistency should make life easier for the Wisconsin backfield this year. The most problematic thing is that the offensive line lost four players, two to early NFL departure and two to graduation. The Badgers are pleased that at least center Tyler Biadasz returns for his junior season after contemplating a leap to the NFL. Left tackle Cole Van Lanen is superb, too. The remaining three linemen, however, have a lot of learning and work on their plates, and most lack experience.
The defense was strong in some aspects last year, beginning with its strength in the middle. The losses of ILBs TJ Edwards and Ryan Connelley are substantial due to both players’ versatility and ability to play multiple roles in the defense. The Badgers also lose some quality talents at nose tackle, strong safety, and outside linebacker. The remaining cast has plenty of issues, unfortunately, as well. The front will consist of Isaiah Loudermilk, Bryson Williams, and Garrett Rand. Rand has a history of injury issues (including an Achilles’), and all three of these starters have little depth backing them. It hardly bodes well.
Linebacker Chris Orr is plenty experienced on the inside and he will have to step up his leadership to ease the transitions of others. OLB Zack Baun enters his senior season after starting as a junior for the first time, and he will have to continue to improve on a fair effort in 2018. The Badgers are strongest in its secondary. Jim Leonard was rough on last year’s group but the continued maturation of it should help Wisconsin form a tough secondary this season.
Rafael Gaglianone had his struggles, but he graduated and that leaves sophomore Collin Larsh as the new placekicker. Punting was disgusting last year, and the Badgers finished dead last in punt average in the Big Ten. With the same Anthony Lotti and Connor Allen combo punting, a return to that state is probable. Kick returns will be handled by sophomore Aron Cruickshank and punts go to Jack Dunn.
The Badgers have too many concerns at too many key positions and last year was nothing of a momentum-building season, despite the nice Bowl win to conclude it. The quarterback issue is probably even worse than expected, simply because Chryst’s offensive system is so demanding on it, and the offensive line is nothing stellar. The Badgers are hoping on more breakout seasons than is reasonable, and it will eventually catch up to them in the Big Ten.
Prediction: 7 wins (under)