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The big 2014 Wisconsin football preview: Still the best in the new West?

Wisconsin's dominant front seven must rebuild, and there are even more questions about the passing game than before. But the Badgers are still more proven than any of their West rivals and are the division favorite until proven otherwise.

SB Nation 2014 College Football Countdown

Confused? Check out the advanced-stats glossary here.

1. A different kind of Year 0

For the most part, Gary Andersen's first year in charge of the Wisconsin football program went fine.

The Badgers won at least nine games for the fourth time in five years, finished in the F/+ top 20 for the fifth straight season, again produced one of the most effective, explosive rushing attacks in the country, put a top-10 defense on the field, and came within a seven-point loss in Columbus of reaching their third consecutive conference title game. Defensive coordinator Dave Aranda's 3-4 defense fit extraordinarily well with the new personnel, and the Badgers' three-headed running back combined for a gaudy 3,600 rushing yards and 32 touchdowns. Wisconsin was as good as ever in 2013.

In a lot of ways, though, the real work begins this fall. When a coach takes a rebuilding job, I often talk about the Year 0 effect, in which a coach is building from the ground up and installing his system, and the first-year results are both awful and of little consequence. Sometimes it takes until the second year to see what the coach is trying to build. (Sometimes it takes even longer.)

But on the opposite end of the spectrum, you get a different type of Year 0 effect. Andersen inherited a nearly perfect distribution of talent and experience on his first Wisconsin roster when he came to Madison from Utah State. Not only did he have three strong running backs, a go-to receiver, and a top-notch offensive line, but he also inherited perhaps the most experienced defensive front seven in the country, one capable of meeting the size requirements of a shift from a 4-3 to a 3-4 front.

This time around, he must replace four of his top six linemen and each of his top four linebackers.

The Andersen-Aranda duo has quickly established itself as one of the better sets of defensive coaches in the country. Andersen was a successful defensive coordinator at Utah, and it took Aranda and him just two years to put together the pieces of a top-10 defense at Utah State (No. 9 in Def. F/+ in 2012). So perhaps everything will work out just fine.

But the training wheels are off, so to speak, and we'll see if the Badgers can avoid some temporary regression as Andersen gets his own personnel firmly established.

Wisconsin is in an odd position. Only seven programs have ranked in the F/+ top 20 in each of the last five seasons: Alabama, LSU, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Oregon, Stanford, and Wisconsin. But of those seven, only Wisconsin has lost more than eight games in the last two years. The Badgers were just 17-10 in 2012-13, in part because of a baffling losing streak in games decided by one possession. They've lost 13 of 16 such games, and they've lost all eight since a 16-14 win over Andersen's Utah State squad early in 2012. It has given the program an air of vulnerability that most consistently excellent teams would not have.

Vulnerability or no, Wisconsin is remarkably well-positioned. The Badgers benefited significantly from the Big Ten's redrawn division boundaries; with Michigan State and Ohio State in the East, Wisconsin is easily the most proven program in the West, and a division title in 2014 would further emphasize that.

Can the defense hold together enough to fend off division foes like Nebraska, Iowa, and a potentially resurgent Northwestern? And while we're asking questions, just how worried should we be about the Wisconsin passing game?

2013 Schedule & Results

Record: 9-4 | Adj. Record: 11-2 | Final F/+ Rk: 19
Date Opponent Opp. F/+ Rk Score W-L Adj. Score Adj. W-L 5-gm Adj. Avg.
31-Aug Massachusetts 118 45-0 W 45.6 - 17.5 W
7-Sep Tennessee Tech N/A 48-0 W 31.6 - 9.5 W
14-Sep at Arizona State 13 30-32 L 36.3 - 26.8 W
21-Sep Purdue 114 41-10 W 38.1 - 20.1 W
28-Sep at Ohio State 9 24-31 L 32.2 - 20.5 W 17.9
12-Oct Northwestern 59 35-6 W 39.1 - 15.9 W 16.9
19-Oct at Illinois 71 56-32 W 38.5 - 33.7 W 13.4
2-Nov at Iowa 29 28-9 W 35.4 - 15.6 W 15.5
9-Nov BYU 30 27-17 W 36.8 - 18.7 W 15.5
16-Nov Indiana 56 51-3 W 44.2 - 12.3 W 19.5
23-Nov at Minnesota 55 20-7 W 23.1 - 13.0 W 16.9
30-Nov Penn State 61 24-31 L 34.2 - 35.7 L 15.7
1-Jan vs. South Carolina 10 24-34 L 33.2 - 33.6 L 11.6
Category Offense Rk Defense Rk Spec. Tms. Rk
F/+ +9.5% 28 +15.8% 9 +0.9% 50
Points Per Game 34.8 27 16.3 6
Adj. Points Per Game 36.0 16 21.0 10

2. A less-than-spectacular finish

Not every one-possession loss is created equal. In fact, the three Wisconsin suffered came with no overriding pattern or level of performance. First, the Badgers were hosed at Arizona State in one of the strangest endings you'll ever see. Then, they trailed by 17 to a favored Ohio State team in Columbus before putting together a late, futile rally. Finally, they suffered an inordinate number of defensive breakdowns against an underdog Penn State squad in Madison, again fell behind by 17 points early in the fourth quarter, and saw a late rally, and a last-second Hail Mary, fall short.

Until the Penn State game, the Badgers had left little to chance, thoroughly defeating any team ranked outside of the F/+ top 15. But the level of play diminished at the end of the season.

  • Adj. Points Per Game (first 5 games): Wisconsin 36.8, Opponent 18.9 (plus-17.9)
  • Adj. Points Per Game (next 5 games): Wisconsin 38.8, Opponent 19.2 (plus-19.6)
  • Adj. Points Per Game (last 3 games): Wisconsin 30.2, Opponent 27.4 (plus-2.8)

After averaging at least 5.5 yards per play in each of the first 10 games, Wisconsin's offense averaged just 4.6 against Minnesota and 5.4 against Penn State. Meanwhile, after allowing greater than 5.0 yards per play just twice in the first 11 games, the defense allowed 8.0 to Penn State and 7.3 against South Carolina. Neither unit was particularly banged up by the end of the year, but the results just slipped a bit. Until it happens again, we'll just say it was an odd occurrence.

Offense

FIVE FACTORS -- OFFENSE
Raw Category Rk Opp. Adj. Category Rk
EXPLOSIVENESS IsoPPP 1.25 19 IsoPPP+ 111.6 18
EFFICIENCY Succ. Rt. 48.0% 19 Succ. Rt. + 110.8 27
FIELD POSITION Def. Avg. FP 28.2 34 Def. FP+ 104.4 15
FINISHING DRIVES Pts. Per Trip in 40 4.3 63 Redzone S&P+ 101.3 57
TURNOVERS EXPECTED 20.4 ACTUAL 19 -1.4
Category Yards/
Game Rk
S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
PPP+ Rk
OVERALL 18 19 27 28
RUSHING 8 5 24 7
PASSING 95 42 39 93
Standard Downs 16 32 8
Passing Downs 35 33 67
Q1 Rk 19 1st Down Rk 10
Q2 Rk 24 2nd Down Rk 31
Q3 Rk 15 3rd Down Rk 66
Q4 Rk 63

3. Some unexpected red zone troubles

Again, Wisconsin was a top-20 team as a whole and left minimal room for doubt in most games; in the Badgers' nine wins, their average scoring margin was plus-29.7 points. So for most of the year, the ship sailed rather smoothly.

But if we're looking for glitches, we do find a surprising one. Despite a rushing attack that was devastating for most of the season (fifth in Rushing S&P+), Wisconsin was only average near the goal line. The Badgers averaged a mediocre 4.3 points per trip inside the opponent's 40 and ranked just 57th in Redzone S&P+. One would expect better, all things considered.

Short yardage was actually an issue away from the goal line, too. While Wisconsin's line stats were great overall -- 12th in Adj. Line Yards, fifth in Opportunity Rate (percentage of rushes gaining at least five yards) -- the Badgers were, again, thoroughly average in short-yardage situations (53rd in Power Success Rate). With a lot of experience returning up front (five players with starting experience, 75 career starts) and a pair of good-to-great running backs, one would assume those numbers improve in 2014. But one would have assumed they wouldn't have been that bad in 2013.

Quarterback

Note: players in bold below are 2014 returnees. Players in italics are questionable with injury/suspension.

Player Ht, Wt 2014
Year
Rivals Comp Att Yards TD INT Comp
Rate
Sacks Sack Rate Yards/
Att.
Joel Stave 6'5, 225 Jr. 2 stars (5.4) 208 336 2494 22 13 61.9% 16 4.5% 6.8
Curt Phillips 7 14 37 0 2 50.0% 0 0.0% 2.6
Tanner McEvoy 6'6, 223 Jr. 3 stars (5.5)
Bart Houston 6'4, 217 So. 3 stars (5.7)
D.J. Gillins 6'3, 185 Fr. 4 stars (5.8)

Running Back

Player Pos. Ht, Wt 2014
Year
Rivals Rushes Yards TD Yards/
Carry
Hlt Yds/
Carry
Opp.
Rate
James White RB 221 1444 13 6.5 7.4 43.0%
Melvin Gordon RB 6'1, 207 Jr. 4 stars (5.8) 206 1609 12 7.8 7.1 53.4%
Corey Clement RB 5'11, 210 So. 4 stars (5.8) 67 547 7 8.2 7.7 53.7%
Joel Stave QB 6'5, 225 Jr. 2 stars (5.4) 22 70 1 3.2 2.1 40.9%
Jared Abbrederis WR 6 119 2 19.8 13.3 100.0%
Austin Ramesh RB 6'1, 235 RSFr. 3 stars (5.6)
Taiwan Deal RB 6'1, 225 Fr. 4 stars (5.8)

4. Hey, Melvin

Hey, we finally joined Facebook!

One way to avoid short-yardage struggles is to bust a huge share of big plays. Third-and-2 doesn't matter as much when you're rushing for 15 yards on second-and-4. And in Melvin Gordon, Wisconsin has one of the most explosive running backs in the country. After announcing his presence with a nine-carry, 216-yard performance against Nebraska in the 2012 Big Ten title game, the junior from Kenosha proved consistent and capable of taking on a heavier load in 2013. Despite splitting carries with two other capable backs, Gordon rushed for at least 140 yards in eight games last fall and averaged at least 8.0 yards per carry six times.

Actually, mentioning only Gordon in the above paragraph might be unfair to Corey Clement, who was even more explosive, albeit in one-third the carries. It's also unfair to opponents that both return this fall.

Gordon, Clement, and James White combined for more than 275 rushing yards per game in 2013; each averaged at least 6.5 yards per carry and 7.1 highlight yards per opportunity. White was more of a bruising force, but Gordon and Clement are each over 205 pounds and were far more efficient than White. With White gone, that might open the door for some carries for someone like Austin Ramesh or Taiwan Deal, but both Gordon and Clement are built to carry a pretty solid load. And again, they'll be doing so behind a high-class line, albeit one that still has some room for improvement.

Receiving Corps

Player Pos. Ht, Wt 2014
Year
Rivals Targets Catches Yards Catch Rate Target
Rate
%SD Yds/
Target
NEY Real Yds/
Target
RYPR
Jared Abbrederis WR 122 78 1086 63.9% 37.1% 61.0% 8.9 138 8.8 158.5
Jacob Pedersen TE 58 39 551 67.2% 17.6% 60.4% 9.5 89 9.7 80.4
James White RB 43 39 300 90.7% 13.1% 68.4% 7.0 -103 6.8 43.8
Jeff Duckworth WR 21 12 176 57.1% 6.4% 64.3% 8.4 21 7.2 25.7
Jordan Fredrick WR 6'4, 210 Jr. 3 stars (5.5) 18 10 106 55.6% 5.5% 73.3% 5.9 -25 5.9 15.5
Alex Erickson WR 6'0, 198 So. NR 16 9 127 56.3% 4.9% 66.7% 7.9 10 8.9 18.5
Kenzel Doe WR 5'8, 170 Sr. 2 stars (5.4) 12 7 57 58.3% 3.6% 41.7% 4.8 -32 5.0 8.3
Sam Arneson TE 6'4, 254 Sr. 3 stars (5.7) 10 6 57 60.0% 3.0% 85.7% 5.7 -18 7.6 8.3
Brian Wozniak TE 8 6 33 75.0% 2.4% 57.1% 4.1 -34 4.0 4.8
Derek Watt FB 6'2, 231 Jr. 3 stars (5.6) 8 3 20 37.5% 2.4% 50.0% 2.5 -29 2.7 2.9
Melvin Gordon RB 6'1, 207 Jr. 4 stars (5.8) 3 1 5 33.3% 0.9% 100.0% 1.7 -13 1.4 0.7
Robert Wheelwright WR 6'2, 198 So. 3 stars (5.7) 3 1 3 33.3% 0.9% 0.0% 1.0 -15 1.3 0.4
Reggie Love WR 6'3, 210 So. 3 stars (5.6)
Troy Fumagalli TE 6'5, 233 RSFr. 3 stars (5.5)
Jazz Peavy WR 6'0, 182 RSFr. 3 stars (5.5)
Dareian Watkins WR 6'1, 200 Fr. 4 stars (5.8)
Chris Jones WR 6'2, 190 Fr. 3 stars (5.7)
Krenwick Sanders WR 6'2, 190 Fr. 3 stars (5.7)

5. Where do the big pass plays come from?

Wisconsin had a strong, explosive offense overall despite getting next to no big plays from the passing game. The Badgers got 23 rushes of 30+ yards in 2013, tied for the most in the country with Auburn and Ohio State. Meanwhile, they got just 14 passes of 30+ yards, tied for 91st in the country with Arkansas State, Boston College, Michigan State, UTEP, and Wake Forest.

And that was with Jared Abbrederis. The long-time No. 1 receiver from Wautoma caught 182 passes for 2,851 yards (15.7 per catch) and 20 touchdowns from 2011-13, and he was one of the most heavily featured wideouts in the country last year. Only seven receivers were targeted with a higher percentage of their teams' passes than Abbrederis, who saw the same number of passes as Wisconsin's next three targets combined.

Of course, all four of those targets are now gone. Whereas James White could be replaced pretty easily in the running game, he was one of the most proficient out-of-the-backfield receivers in the country; plus, tight end Jacob Pedersen averaged nearly 10 yards per target. This was a wonderfully efficient group even if the big plays were nearly non-existent. There are some intriguing youngsters vying for playing time, from sophomores Rob Wheelwright and Alex Erickson to freshmen Dareian Watkins (a four-star signee), Chris Jones, and Krenwick Sanders, but they're all quite yougn.

So the passing game starts over, and there's at least a chance that this statement goes for more than just the receiving corps. Quarterback Joel Stave's full-season numbers were decent -- completion rate over 60 percent, sack rate under five percent -- but his mistakes were costly and a little too frequent. You want your interception rate under about two percent, especially if you're not completing long passes, and his was 3.9. He went just 29-for-53 with three picks against Penn State, and he opened the door at least a little bit for someone else to steal the starting job in 2014.

The most likely candidate, by far, is junior Tanner McEvoy. A good enough athlete to have played a bit at safety last year, McEvoy's progress was a spring story line, especially with Stave out with a shoulder injury.

Offensive Line

Category Adj.
Line Yds
Std.
Downs
LY/carry
Pass.
Downs
LY/carry
Opp.
Rate
Power
Success
Rate
Stuff
Rate
Adj.
Sack Rate
Std.
Downs
Sack Rt.
Pass.
Downs
Sack Rt.
Team 114.5 3.28 3.91 48.8% 70.4% 16.8% 143.1 2.6% 6.1%
Rank 12 16 17 5 53 31 26 15 53
Player Pos. Ht, Wt 2014
Year
Rivals Career Starts Honors/Notes
Ryan Groy LG 33 1st All-Big Ten
Rob Havenstein RT 6'8, 327 Sr. 3 stars (5.6) 28
Kyle Costigan RG 6'5, 315 Sr. 2 stars (5.3) 21
Tyler Marz LT 6'5, 321 Jr. 3 stars (5.5) 13
Dallas Lewallen LG 6'6, 322 Sr. 3 stars (5.6) 7
Dan Voltz C 6'3, 313 So. 4 stars (5.8) 6
Zac Matthias RG 5
Ray Ball LG 6'7, 321 Jr. 3 stars (5.5) 0
Walker Williams RT 6'7, 322 So. 3 stars (5.7) 0
Alex Walker LT 6'4, 239 So. 3 stars (5.6) 0
Trent Denlinger RG 6'6, 297 So. NR 0
Hayden Biegel LT 6'6, 281 RSFr. 3 stars (5.5)
Ben Hemer LG 6'4, 274 RSFr. NR
Jaden Gault RT 6'6, 310 Fr. 4 stars (5.8)
Michael Deiter C 6'5, 310 Fr. 3 stars (5.5)

Defense

FIVE FACTORS -- DEFENSE
Raw Category Rk Opp. Adj. Category Rk
EXPLOSIVENESS IsoPPP 1.04 17 IsoPPP+ 106.9 34
EFFICIENCY Succ. Rt. 37.8% 19 Succ. Rt. + 114.8 17
FIELD POSITION Off. Avg. FP 30.7 56 Off. FP+ 102.5 32
FINISHING DRIVES Pts. Per Trip in 40 3.5 8 Redzone S&P+ 108.8 28
TURNOVERS EXPECTED 22.3 ACTUAL 20.0 -2.3
Category Yards/
Game Rk
S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
PPP+ Rk
OVERALL 7 19 17 8
RUSHING 5 9 19 4
PASSING 17 28 20 37
Standard Downs 14 23 14
Passing Downs 36 16 84
Q1 Rk 20 1st Down Rk 29
Q2 Rk 22 2nd Down Rk 25
Q3 Rk 8 3rd Down Rk 10
Q4 Rk 68

Defensive Line

Category Adj.
Line Yds
Std.
Downs
LY/carry
Pass.
Downs
LY/carry
Opp.
Rate
Power
Success
Rate
Stuff
Rate
Adj.
Sack Rate
Std.
Downs
Sack Rt.
Pass.
Downs
Sack Rt.
Team 116.8 2.52 3.15 36.1% 61.4% 19.5% 96.6 4.4% 8.3%
Rank 17 14 48 33 29 58 66 66 35
Name Pos Ht, Wt 2014
Year
Rivals GP Tackles % of Team TFL Sacks Int PBU FF FR
Pat Muldoon DE 13 22.0 3.4% 4.5 2.0 1 0 1 0
Beau Allen NG 13 15.0 2.3% 2.0 1.5 0 0 0 0
Konrad Zagzebski DE 6'3, 278 Sr. 3 stars (5.6) 13 14.5 2.2% 2.0 0.0 0 0 0 0
Tyler Dippel DE 12 13.5 2.1% 0.5 0.0 0 0 1 0
Warren Herring NG 6'3, 294 Sr. 3 stars (5.5) 13 13.5 2.1% 6.0 4.0 0 0 0 0
Ethan Hemer DE 13 10.0 1.5% 2.0 0.0 0 2 0 0
Bryce Gilbert NG 6'2, 305 Sr. 3 stars (5.6) 8 6.0 0.9% 1.0 1.0 0 0 0 0
Jake Keefer DE 6'3, 265 Jr. 4 stars (5.8)
James Adeyanju DE 6'2, 265 Jr. 3 stars (5.7)
Alec James DE 6'4, 239 So. 3 stars (5.7)
Arthur Goldberg NG 6'3, 290 So. 3 stars (5.5)
Chikwe Obasih DE 6'3, 260 RSFr. 4 stars (5.8)
Garret Dooley DE 6'2, 227 RSFr. 3 stars (5.7)
Billy Hirschfield DE 6'6, 270 Fr. 3 stars (5.7)
Conor Sheehy DE 6'4, 275 Fr. 3 stars (5.7)

6. An underrated front rebuilds

With a cast of three-star defensive linemen, Wisconsin coaches Gary Andersen and Dave Aranda have built a Badger defense that is physical and difficult to run against inside but also protects the secondary and allows the defensive backs to play "bend don't break" coverages.

The linemen protect the linebackers, the linebackers protect the secondary, and the opponent finds itself with nearly nowhere to go. Borland gets a lot of the credit, and he's a phenomenal player, but let's pause and sing the praises of the Badger DL: Pat Muldoon, Beau Allen, Ethan Hemer, Tyler Dippel, Warren Herring, and Konrad Zagzebski. It is a unit that is both largely unheralded and one of the most dominant units in college football in 2013.

Last November at Football Study Hall, Ian Boyd wrote a lovely piece about how and why the Wisconsin defensive line was so good in 2013. (The defense then proceeded to fall apart. Blame Ian.) The line didn't make many plays of its own, but its primary job was to free up linebackers, and it very much did that. But of the six players Ian listed above, four are now gone. Meanwhile, those freed-up linebackers will have completely different names this year as well.

Wisconsin's pass defense had some issues in 2013, especially late in the season. The pass rush wasn't incredibly dynamic (though it was pretty good in blitzing situations), and while the downfield breakdowns weren't incredibly common, they were pretty significant. But Wisconsin was able to force teams to become one-dimensional because of a top-notch run defense. Not a single team averaged better than 4.5 yards per carry on the Badgers last year, not even Ohio State.

Now we're looking at a "strength gets weaker, weakness gets stronger" situation. The secondary is exerienced, but there are new names littered throughout the front seven. The coaching is top-notch, and the return of Zagzebski and Herring shouldn't be overlooked, but it's hard to imagine there won't be at least a little bit of regression.

Linebackers

Name Pos Ht, Wt 2014
Year
Rivals GP Tackles % of Team TFL Sacks Int PBU FF FR
Chris Borland ILB 12 91.5 14.1% 8.5 4.0 0 2 1 1
Ethan Armstrong OLB 13 42.0 6.5% 5.0 2.0 0 2 0 0
Conor O'Neill ILB 12 33.0 5.1% 5.5 1.0 0 1 1 0
Brendan Kelly OLB 12 29.0 4.5% 7.0 4.5 0 2 3 0
Derek Landisch ILB 6'0, 230 Sr. 3 stars (5.5) 10 26.0 4.0% 2.0 1.0 0 1 1 0
Vince Biegel OLB 6'4, 233 So. 4 stars (5.9) 13 22.0 3.4% 3.0 2.0 0 2 0 0
Joe Schobert OLB 6'2, 230 Jr. NR 13 18.0 2.8% 2.5 1.0 0 3 0 0
Marcus Trotter ILB 6'0, 233 Sr. 3 stars (5.6) 5 16.0 2.5% 2.0 0.0 0 1 0 0
Leon Jacobs ILB 6'2, 225 So. 2 stars (5.4) 13 5.5 0.9% 1.0 0.0 0 0 0 0
Jesse Hayes OLB 6'3, 236 Jr. 3 stars (5.7)
Jack Cichy ILB 6'2, 208 So. NR
Keelon Brookins OLB 5'10, 193 RSFr. 4 stars (5.8)

7. Potential? Check

The experience level plummets, but Wisconsin has recruited quite well along the line and linebacking corps. Four-star redshirt freshman Chikwe Obasih was a spring standout and could start, and there are nine other linemen and linebackers who were given either a four-star rating or the highest three-star rating by Rivals.com. Vince Biegel made a couple of plays when afforded the opportunity last year, and it doesn't appear that size will be too much of an issue despite youth. There is potential everywhere you look, but almost nobody has proven much on the field.

Secondary

Name Pos Ht, Wt 2014
Year
Rivals GP Tackles % of Team TFL Sacks Int PBU FF FR
Michael Caputo FS 6'1, 206 Jr. 3 stars (5.6) 13 49.5 7.7% 3 0 0 3 0 0
Sojourn Shelton CB 5'9, 172 So. 3 stars (5.7) 13 33.5 5.2% 0 0 4 5 1 0
Dezmen Southward SS 13 33.0 5.1% 3.5 0 1 5 1 1
Darius Hillary CB 5'11, 187 Jr. 3 stars (5.5) 13 25.5 3.9% 0 0 1 5 1 0
Nate Hammon SS 6'1, 196 So. 2 stars (5.2) 12 22.0 3.4% 1 1 0 1 1 0
Tanner McEvoy SS 6'6, 223 Jr. 3 stars (5.5) 11 20.0 3.1% 1 0 1 4 0 0
Peniel Jean SS 5'11, 187 Sr. 3 stars (5.7) 12 13.0 2.0% 0 0 0 4 0 0
Leo Musso FS 5'10, 195 So. 2 stars (5.4) 13 11.0 1.7% 1 0 1 0 0 0
Jakarrie Washington CB 11 9.0 1.4% 0 0 0 0 0 0
Kyle Zuleger S 13 9.0 1.4% 0 0 0 0 1 0
T.J. Reynard CB 5'8, 172 Jr. NR 7 6.5 1.0% 0 0 0 1 0 0
Jerry Ponio S 13 4.0 0.6% 0 0 0 0 0 0
Dare Ogunbowale CB 5'11, 186 So. NR 8 3.0 0.5% 0 0 0 0 0 0
A.J. Jordan FS 6'0, 178 Jr. 3 stars (5.6)
Devin Gaulden CB 5'10, 180 Jr. 3 stars (5.5)
Vonte Jackson S 6'1, 199 So. 4 stars (5.8)
Hugs Etienne CB 5'11, 182 So. 3 stars (5.7)
Austin Hudson SS 6'2, 185 Fr. 2 stars (5.4)

8. Hold onto the damn ball

Short yardage struggles and untimely turnovers from the offense certainly played a role in Wisconsin's continued failures in close games. But there's been another factor; in 2012-13, Wisconsin defenders have intercepted 17 passes and broken up 112. The national average of interceptions as a percentage of passes defensed is typically around 22-23 percent; for Wisconsin, it's been 13 percent in the last two years, and you could say it's cost the Badgers 12 or 13 takeaways.

Failing to capitalize on turnover opportunities helps you consistently lose close games. It also forces you to defend for longer periods of time and could lead to more breakdowns. Wisconsin's secondary was ultra-young in 2013 -- among the top eight tacklers were six freshmen or sophomores -- and it could have used every break it got.

Despite the loss of safety Dezmen Southward, the level of experience is quite a big stronger in 2014. Seven of the aforementioned eight return, including a potential star in sophomore corner Sojourn Shelton, who both made and allowed some big plays last fall. The secondary might have to carry a bit more weight this year if the front seven isn't making quite as many plays against the run.

Special Teams

Punter Ht, Wt 2014
Year
Punts Avg TB FC I20 FC/I20
Ratio
Drew Meyer 6'3, 185 Jr. 53 38.6 3 15 19 64.2%
Kicker Ht, Wt 2014
Year
Kickoffs Avg TB OOB TB%
Andrew Endicott 5'9, 166 So. 57 58.3 9 0 15.8%
Kyle French 26 64.2 6 0 23.1%
Place-Kicker Ht, Wt 2014
Year
PAT FG
(0-39)
Pct FG
(40+)
Pct
Jack Russell 6'0, 172 Jr. 34-34 8-10 80.0% 1-3 33.3%
Kyle French 23-24 4-6 66.7% 1-2 50.0%
Returner Pos. Ht, Wt 2014
Year
Returns Avg. TD
Kenzel Doe KR 5'8, 170 Sr. 20 26.5 1
Kyle Zuleger KR 8 19.1 0
Kenzel Doe PR 5'8, 170 Sr. 16 7.3 0
Jared Abbrederis PR 11 8.5 0
Category Rk
Special Teams F/+ 50
Field Goal Efficiency 87
Punt Return Efficiency 44
Kick Return Efficiency 19
Punt Efficiency 94
Kickoff Efficiency 46
Opponents' Field Goal Efficiency 67

9. A little more leg, Drew

The Wisconsin special teams unit basically had two weaknesses in 2013, and one got at least partially rectified when Jack Russell took over for Kyle French as place-kicker. But the Badgers still needed a bit more leg from punter Drew Meyer, who did pretty well in terms of kick placement but ranked just 94th in both Net Punting and Punt Efficiency.

Despite high efficiency on both offense and defense, then, Wisconsin was only decent in terms of the field position battle. If the punting game improves at least a little bit, return man Kenzel Doe could turn this unit into an overall strength. (Seriously, almost every damn Big Ten team has a great return man.)

2014 Schedule & Projection Factors

2014 Schedule
Date Opponent Proj. Rk
30-Aug vs. LSU 12
6-Sep Western Illinois NR
20-Sep Bowling Green 52
27-Sep South Florida 86
4-Oct at Northwestern 50
11-Oct Illinois 63
25-Oct Maryland 51
1-Nov at Rutgers 78
8-Nov at Purdue 108
15-Nov Nebraska 40
22-Nov at Iowa 34
29-Nov Minnesota 73
Five-Year F/+ Rk 24.1% (10)
Two-Year Recruiting Rk 47
TO Margin/Adj. TO Margin* 1 / 1.9
TO Luck/Game -0.3
Approx. Ret. Starters (Off. / Def.) 10 (6, 4)

10. The West is the place to be

It's going to be an interesting year in the Big Ten West.

Wisconsin is easily the top dog and most proven entity, but the Badgers do have some questions to answer regarding one of last year's biggest strengths (defensive front seven) and one of its biggest weaknesses (big pass plays).

The offense will be good regardless, but if there's slippage in run defense, and the secondary is still creating some messes of its own, then the offense will have to win some shootouts. And while the running game will be as good as anybody's, you do have to threaten defenses through the air.

If Wisconsin can maintain a top-30 level despite these questions, and if the Badgers can remember how to win tight games again, they could conceivably end up with a better record in 2013 despite some regression. The schedule features just one projected top-30 team (LSU in the season opener) and only two others projected higher than 50th.

But how they fare against Iowa and Nebraska could determine whether they reach the conference title game for the third time in four years. The numbers like their chances quite a bit, but they do still have more uncertainty than we're used to seeing.

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