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The 2017 Badgers might be the most Wisconsin football team ever

Another 10-win season and Big Ten West title, powered by in-house strength? The goal could be even higher.

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LSU v Wisconsin Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

[Barry Alvarez] always used to say there's always going to be big people in Wisconsin. ... I'll never forget, I hired a defensive line coach. He came to me and he goes, 'Coach, you're right. There are big people in Wisconsin.' He goes, 'I went to the grocery store last night, and there was a 6-10 kid sacking groceries.'"

Former Wisconsin head coach Bret Bielema

When Alabama wins, it’s with a suffocating defense and an offense that’s reacted to trends, from Bear Bryant adopting the Wishbone in the 1970s to Nick Saban tinkering with the spread in the 2010s.

When Florida State wins, it’s with the most recent version of the pro-style offense, a prolific quarterback, and a terrifying stable of receivers and defensive backs.

When Wisconsin wins, it’s with big people.

There are two steps in staking out a recruiting strategy:

  1. Figure out if you can land blue-chippers.
  2. If you can’t, figure out who you can get.

When Alvarez was named head coach at Wisconsin nearly 30 years ago, he figured out that blue-chippers were only going to be so much of an option, but that he could land all the strong guys he wanted if he developed relationships in-state. He could go out of state to find workhorse running backs and speed guys on the perimeter, and he could build a style that relied on physical play. It wouldn’t always work, but it usually would.

We are a year away from the 25-year anniversary of Wisconsin’s first Rose Bowl under Alvarez. The 1993 Badgers made it into my 50 Best* College Football Teams of All Time book and capped what had been a four-year overhaul.

Chryst barely missed out at the time. He was a backup UW quarterback and switched to tight end, catching 12 passes in 1988. Alvarez got hired a year after he left. But after coaching stints at UW-Platteville, Illinois State, Oregon State, and the CFL, Chryst assumed a role on Alvarez’s staff in 2002. He was Bielema’s offensive coordinator in 2006, held the Pitt job for three years, and assumed the throne from Bielema’s successor, Gary Andersen, in 2015.

Chryst’s Pitt tenure was disappointing. He brought stability to a program that was seemingly churning through a new coach every year, but went 6-7, 7-6, and 6-6, improving on paper (the Panthers were 34th in S&P+ his final year) but falling victim to bad bounces and iffy close-game execution.

Apparently the problem was that he was trying to Wisconsin somewhere other than Wisconsin. After 19 wins in three years at Pitt, he has 21 in two in Madison. He was 5-10 in one-possession games in the land of Yinzers; he’s 8-5 at UW. His offense hasn’t hit its stride yet, but his defense has been dynamite.

The Badgers run on standard downs, throw 330-pound linemen and 220-pound running backs at you, and play with pride on defense. They defined this style under Alvarez and maintained it through Bielema (9.7 wins per year), Andersen (10), and Chryst (10.5).

The veterans define terms for recruits, the Wisconsin grads on the staff — offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph, defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard, tight ends coach Mickey Turner, strength coach Ross Kolodziej, etc. — serve as proof of concept, and the ship keeps sailing.

Wisconsin is an obvious Big Ten West favorite, though there will be tests. Last year’s top two running backs are gone, as are All-American left tackle Ryan Ramczyk, all-conference defensive backs Leo Musso and Sojourn Shelton, and security-blanket quarterback Bart Houston. The Badgers are on their third defensive coordinator in three years (the price of success), and Chryst promoted Leonhard despite the former UW star having just one year of coaching experience.

A new backfield for a run-heavy team and green leadership for a defense that has had to carry significant weight? That has to make you a little nervous, right?

2016 in review

2016 Wisconsin statistical profile.

In last year’s Wisconsin preview, I noted that the Badgers would improve on paper but almost certainly regress in the win column thanks to a brutal schedule. Whoops.

Indeed, the Badgers faced four of the top eight teams in the country, per S&P+, but the rest of the schedule didn’t shape up as tough as expected — Michigan State and Nebraska weren’t nearly as good as projected — and the Badgers’ ability to play Badgerball against non-elite competition led to yet another huge season.

  • Wisconsin vs. S&P+ top 10 (1-3): Avg. percentile performance: 76% | Avg. yards per play: Opp 5.6, UW 5.0 (minus-0.6) | Avg. postgame win expectancy: 37%
  • Wisconsin vs. everyone else (10-0): Avg. percentile performance: 85% | Avg. yards per play: UW 5.6, Opp 4.6 (plus-1.0) | Avg. postgame win expectancy: 89%

The Badgers proved the benefits of a high floor. Their percentile performance never fell below 60 percent in any game; they were one of only three teams to pull that off, and the other two faced each other in the title game.

A high floor doesn’t necessarily allow you to beat top teams, but it’s good for avoiding upsets. Wisconsin dealt with dreadful turnovers luck against Georgia State and needed longer than expected to get by the Panthers, but they otherwise handled business. That won them the Big Ten West and got them within a touchdown (a 38-31 loss to Penn State) of winning the Big Ten.

If they can replicate that, expect another huge season. The Badgers miss Ohio State and Penn State and don’t play LSU in non-conference, so there’s only one projected top-10 team on the schedule.


Wisconsin offensive radar

Full advanced stats glossary.

Wisconsin forgot how to run in 2015. Corey Clement, the heir apparent, missed most of the season, and most of the carries went to a former walk-on (Dare Ogunbowale) and a freshman (Taiwan Deal). The Badgers fell to 97th in Rushing S&P+ and leaned far too heavily on Joel Stave’s arm; it worked because the defense was so good, but the Badgers were 83rd in Off. S&P+, only the second time since 2005 (the first year of S&P+ data) they had ranked lower than 34th.

2016 saw a couple of steps in the right direction. The Badgers still had their third-worst offense of the S&P+ era, but they rose to 49th in Off. S&P+ and 48th in Rushing S&P+. Clement returned (though he played inconsistent ball), Ogunbowale took a step, and a freshman, Bradrick Shaw, showed efficiency potential.

Despite serious shuffling at quarterback, Wisconsin improved on passing downs. The duo of receiver Jazz Peavy and tight end Troy Fumagalli kept the chains moving.

Pittsburgh v Virginia Tech
Chris James
Photo by Michael Shroyer/Getty Images

There’s little reason to think the improvement will stop. The production from Clement and Ogunbowale (4.6 yards per carry) was replaceable, especially if Shaw can build on the potential he showed last year. He rushed for at least five yards on 43 percent of his carries, more than Ogunbowale (40 percent) or Clement (a paltry 31 percent), and he has a fun new battery mate in Pitt transfer Chris James.

James finished his 2014 freshman campaign under Chryst strong; in his last four games, he rushed 39 times for 233 yards (6 yards per carry), but he fell out of favor under Pat Narduzzi. He had a nice spring, and it appears he and Shaw will split carries. And they’ll be doing so behind a line that returns seven players with 91 career starts between them.

Ramczyk pulled the ultimate Wisconsin move, transferring from UW-Stevens Point for one season, starting all 14 games at left tackle, and earning All-American honors. Losing him will hurt, but there’s a very Wisconsin line in place.

  • Size? Those seven players average 6’6, 321.
  • Honors? Guard Beau Benzschawel was all-conference last year.
  • Locals? Four of the seven are from Wisconsin.
  • Walk-on stories? See Brett Connors, a utility man and potential starter.
  • A smattering of star recruits? Redshirt freshman and left tackle of the future Cole Van Lanen was a four-star, as is incoming freshman Kayden Lyles.

By the way, I haven’t mentioned any senior RBs or linemen. Whatever growth happens in 2017, expect even more in 2018.

Wisconsin should be able to do the thing it most wants to do. That’s good, but the Badgers will still have to pass occasionally. They haven’t been particularly good at that since Russell Wilson left.

In the last five years, UW has not produced a team passer rating over 135.9. The good news: they produced that last year. The bad news is that Bart Houston (149.7) was more of a reason than Alex Hornibrook (125.8). Houston struggled early and got benched in favor of the lefty redshirt freshman; Hornibrook held on for a while, but the two began splitting time in November, and Hornibrook suffered a head injury against Minnesota. Then Houston thrived.

In Peavy and Fumagalli, Hornibrook’s got two of the most proven weapons in the Big Ten West, and athletic sophomores like receivers A.J. Taylor and Quintez Cephus and tight end Kyle Penniston (plus freshman receiver Danny Davis) might be ready to handle more of a load. But if Hornibrook struggles or gets hurt, the job will fall to either a redshirt freshman (Karé Lyles) or a true freshman (Jack Coan). That’s scary.

81st Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic - Western Michigan v Wisconsin
Alex Hornibrook
Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images


Wisconsin defensive radar

Trust me, I know the Leonhard story well. He is the embodiment of Wisconsin football. A walk-on from Tony, Wisc., he was a three-time All-American and Wisconsin hall of fame inductee, and despite his 5’8 stature, he spent a decade in the pros, starting for about four seasons and picking off 14 passes.

Leonhard retired after 2014, spent a year as basically a staff volunteer for UW in 2015, then landed his first official gig — Wisconsin DBs coach — last fall. And now he’s the coordinator for a defense that has ranked in the Def. S&P+ top 10 for back-to-back years. After Aranda left for LSU and replacement Justin Wilcox left for the Cal head coaching job, Chryst stayed in-house.

I’m not going to question Leonhard’s aptitude or potential as a teacher, but ... this is all rather quick, isn’t it?

This feels like the ultimate “Screw it, we’re Wisconsin” move. And because of the experience elsewhere on the coaching staff and the experience littering the two-deep, it might work. But consider this a red flag. If, in six months, we’re looking back at a disappointing 2017, I’m thinking “glitchier-than-expected defense” lands behind “QB injuries” on the list of reasons.

With the experience, though, this unit could almost coordinate itself. Wisconsin returns every lineman, three dynamic, proven linebackers (T.J. Edwards, Jack Cichy, Ryan Connelly), and a wealth of experience in the backfield.

81st Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic - Western Michigan v Wisconsin
T.J. Edwards
Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images

Wisconsin’s biggest strength in 2016 was big-play prevention. The Badgers swarmed to the ball against the run and only struggled in pass defense a couple of times. Georgia State and Penn State combined to complete 69 percent at 15.5 yards per completion; everybody else: 50 percent completion rate, 11.7 yards per completion.

They did this despite dealing with injury issues. Only one of the four primary linemen (end Chikwe Obasih) played in all 14 games, and only two of the top five linebackers did. But with a different lineup on the field nearly every game, the front seven powered a No. 18 ranking in Rushing S&P+.

There’s a little bit of a hole at outside linebacker, where T.J. Watt and Vince Biegel departed after combining for 21.5 tackles for loss and 15.5 sacks last year. But senior Garret Dooley and sophomore Zack Baun combined for 10 and 3.5, respectively, in reserve duty, and transfer Andrew Van Ginkel went from unrated recruit to nearly four-star prospect after recording 18 TFLs at South Dakota in 2015, then dominating at Iowa Western CC.

Ohio State v Wisconsin
D'Cota Dixon (14)
Photo by Mike McGinnis/Getty Images

It’s hard to imagine the front seven regressing much, and despite two key losses, the secondary still boasts more experience than most.

Musso and Shelton are gone after combining for nine interceptions, 13 breakups, and four TFLs, but the senior foursome of safeties D’Cota Dixon and Natrell Jamerson and corners Derrick Tindal and Lubern Figaro returns. They’re joined by Hawaii transfer Nick Nelson (15 breakups in 2015).

Few defenses boast this level of continuity. Maybe that’s enough to overcome inexperience in the coaching booth. Screw it, this is Wisconsin; it’ll probably be fine.

Special Teams

This unit was all over the map. P.J. Rosowski’s kickoffs and their coverage were great, Natrell Jamerson and Ogunbowale were fine in kick returns, and Andrew Endicott, filling in for injured Rafael Gaglianone, was solid in the place-kicking department.

Punts, however, are huge parts of Wisconsin games, and the Badgers lost ground in both punts and returns. Peavy didn’t do much with the latter, and while Anthony Lotti’s punt were rarely returnable, they were also short.

That everybody but Endicott returns is good (and Gaglianone returns to solve that issue), but until punting improves, it will be hard for UW to top last year’s No. 44 Special Teams S&P+ ranking.

2017 outlook

2017 Schedule & Projection Factors

Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
1-Sep Utah State 73 22.8 91%
9-Sep Florida Atlantic 99 30.1 96%
16-Sep at BYU 46 11.3 74%
30-Sep Northwestern 37 14.5 80%
7-Oct at Nebraska 42 10.5 73%
14-Oct Purdue 87 27.7 95%
21-Oct Maryland 72 22.5 90%
28-Oct at Illinois 85 22.1 90%
4-Nov at Indiana 39 9.6 71%
11-Nov Iowa 48 16.7 83%
18-Nov Michigan 10 1.3 53%
25-Nov at Minnesota 47 11.7 75%
Projected S&P+ Rk 11
Proj. Off. / Def. Rk 45 / 6
Projected wins 9.7
Five-Year S&P+ Rk 14.0 (13)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 36 / 34
2016 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* 12 / 10.7
2016 TO Luck/Game +0.5
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 67% (66%, 68%)
2016 Second-order wins (difference) 10.3 (0.7)

This should be one of the most Wisconsin Wisconsin teams of all time, and I’m not talking about the fact that UW grads hold the head coaching job and both coordinator positions. Wisconsin has an interesting stable of running backs, a great tight end, a huge offensive line, a seasoned defense (replete with a couple of transfers from smaller schools), and a size advantage in nearly every matchup.

Leonhard’s inexperience does concern me, but that might mean more in 2018, when the defense isn’t loaded with seniors.

For now, it’s easy to assume UW will maintain at least a top-20 defense and improve again on offense.

With a schedule much lighter than last year’s — not only is Michigan the only projected top-10 team on the slate, the Wolverines are the only projected top-35 team — Wisconsin is your easy Big Ten West favorite. Road trips to Nebraska and Minnesota loom, but S&P+ projects the Badgers as the favorite in every single game and gives them a less than 71 percent chance in just one game. That’s a good recipe for a trip to the conference title game.

Team preview stats

All power conference preview data to date.