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Wisconsin isn’t just ‘Wisconsin good’ any more

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Paul Chryst fielded maybe the best Badger team since the 1960s last fall, and he doesn’t need that many new contributors to pull a repeat.

NCAA Football: Orange Bowl-Wisconsin vs Miami Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

Bill C’s annual preview series of every FBS team in college football continues. Catch up here!

First things first: Wisconsin was really good last year.

That may seem like a strange place to start when talking about a team that went 13-1 and finished in the AP top 10 for the second straight year. Of course the Badgers were good, right?

Right, but you’re probably couching that a bit. They were Wisconsin good. The defense was good for a Wisconsin team: smart and sound but not all that athletic, right? Quarterback Alex Hornibrook was probably good for a Wisconsin quarterback: a game manager who avoided mistakes.

It’s okay to admit that you do this. UW has, perhaps more than any other FBS school besides the service academies, committed to a type. The Badgers are going to run the ball, produce All-American offensive linemen, and create contributors out of walk-ons. They’re going to hold their own in the trenches, slow the game down, and make you play by their rules, and most of the time that will be enough.

They can recruit to this system, and they can win with this system, as attested by the six Rose Bowls, eight top-10 finishes, and 12 seasons of double-digit wins since Barry Alvarez took over in the late-1980s.

The program is built around people who know how it can be done there. Alvarez is now the athletic director, head coach Paul Chryst was a UW quarterback and eight-year Badger assistant, defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard was one of those star walk-ons, etc. UW has become impossible to elaborate on because it appears so easy to describe. Hell, just look at the title of my 2017 Wisconsin preview: “The 2017 Badgers might be the most Wisconsin team ever.

Indeed. Out of nowhere, a freshman running back rushed for nearly 2,000 yards. A tight end and former walk-on led the team in receiving. The offensive line featured two All-Americans and another first-team all-conference guy. The defense, led by a former walk-on with a former walk-on as the top tackler, won the trench battles. The Badgers rolled to their fifth division title in seven years.

So fine. If you try to fit UW into a box, you’re justified. But I want to make it clear: Wisconsin was more than Wisconsin Good, more than Big Ten West good — the Badgers were Playoff-level good. And they came within one drive of making it.

  • They finished sixth in S&P+, their best mark since 1962.
  • They were third in Def. S&P+, best since 1951.
  • In their nine conference wins, they prevailed by an average of 32-13.
  • They allowed more than 4.8 yards per play just three times all season and allowed more than 24 points just once.
  • Against an Ohio State that finished best in the country per S&P+, they had the ball in Buckeye territory with a chance to win.

On the rare occasion that someone stood up, the Badgers responded.

  • Northwestern made a late charge to turn a 21-point deficit into a one-possession game, then the Badgers pinned them at their 2 and sacked the QB for a game-clinching safety.
  • Purdue trailed by eight and created a first-and-goal with under nine minutes left, but Leon Jacobs picked off a pass, and Wisconsin ate up the last 8:14 with a 16-play drive.
  • Michigan cut the lead to four points in the third quarter, then managed two first downs in their final four possessions in a 14-point loss.
  • Miami came out charged up in the Orange Bowl and leaped to a 14-3 lead. Wisconsin all but put the game away with a 21-0 second quarter.

This was an awesome team. And the Badgers are basically a redesigned secondary away from being equally good this fall.

A lot of Big Ten West programs, who have heard for years just how sketchy their division is, are getting their acts together, and their fans are starting to wonder, “How long until we become West contenders?”

The answer is another question: “How long until you can play at a top-10 level?” Because Wisconsin doesn’t appear interested in lowering its bar. The Badgers’ conference road slate is brutal this year, and maybe that opens the door for another contender. But someone’s going to have to come and take the title from Wisconsin.

NCAA Football: Orange Bowl-Wisconsin vs Miami
Paul Chryst
Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

Offense

2017 Wisconsin offensive radar

While we’re at it, Hornibrook is not a good quarterback for Wisconsin — he’s just good. Maybe not Heisman good, but the Badgers ranked seventh in both Passing and Passing Downs S&P+ and first in the nation in Third Down S&P+. They were one of the best at creating third-and-manageable situations, but when they didn’t, Hornibrook caught them up.

He couldn’t pierce the Ohio State secondary in the Big Ten Championship, going just 19-for-40 with two picks. Perhaps that clinched his Wisconsin-ness in the eyes of many fans. But he was 18-for-19 against BYU and 15-for-19 against Minnesota, and against Miami, Indiana, and Utah State (three defenses that ranked 31st or better in Passing S&P+), he had a 66 percent completion rate, a 9-to-1 TD-to-INT ratio, and a 174.2 passer rating.

He was also better in the second half than the first and better on second and third down than first down. And he continued to thrive after he lost his best receiver in early November.

Running back Jonathan Taylor got all the headlines, but when Wisconsin thrived, Hornibrook and the passing game were often the reason.

Wisconsin has a lot of experience in the passing game, strange as that might sound. Former four-star prospects A.J. Taylor and Danny Davis III combined for 57 catches, 893 yards, and 10 touchdowns as a sophomore and freshman, respectively. The Badgers likely won’t have Quintez Cephus at the start of the season, at least, as he faces sexual assault charges.

Tight end and safety valve Troy Fumagalli is gone, but this is Wisconsin. There are plenty of tight ends (senior Zander Neuville, junior Kyle Penniston, sophomore Luke Benzschawel, redshirt freshman Luke Ferguson, true freshmen Cormac Sampson and Jaylan Franklin). Neuville and Penniston caught 16 of 22 passes last year; they’re probably ready for bigger roles.

NCAA Football: Big Ten Championship-Ohio State vs Wisconsin
Jonathan Taylor
Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

Still, the Badgers are going to run the ball on first down until you stop them, and it’s going to take you a while.

Taylor is so perfect for this offense. Sixty-five percent of his carries came on first down, when everyone knew what the Badgers were going to do, but he averaged 6.3 yards per carry on first down. Oh, and he averaged 9.2 per carry on third down. And 9.1 per carry in tie games. And 7.5 per carry between the 20s. Et cetera.

To say the least, his line helped, and everyone’s back: All-American guard Beau Benzschawel, All-American tackle David Edwards, all-conference guard/tackle Michael Deiter, third-team all-conference starting center Tyler Biadasz, and two-year starting guard Jon Dietzen. Young former four-star recruits like sophomore Cole Van Lanen and redshirt freshman Kayden Lyles will have to wait their turn.

For all of Wisconsin’s experience, though — Fumagalli and fullback Austin Ramesh are the only lost starters — there’s still room for improvement.

  • Taylor was great, but Wisconsin still averaged just 5.8 yards per play on first down, 65th in FBS.
  • Wisconsin ranked just 80th in IsoPPP, which measures the magnitude of your successful plays. As consistent as Taylor was, the Badgers lacked big plays, meaning they often had to go seven or nine plays to score. That backfired at times.
  • Hornibrook did make some mistakes. He threw 15 interceptions in 318 passes, a nearly 5 percent INT rate, about twice as high as you’d like. He had four multi-pick games, and turnovers helped Northwestern and Purdue keep things close. For as underrated as I consider him to be, there are still areas in his game to clean up.

There’s no reason to think this year’s offense will be any less successful than last year’s. Losing your fullback and tight end seems like it could decrease efficiency, but if Wisconsin has proved anything, it’s that the next FB or TE at UW is usually as good as the last.

Defense

2017 Wisconsin defensive radar

You never want to set the bar too high, too quickly. You want to allow yourself room for growth. Ignoring this was pretty much the only mistake Leonhard made in his debut as UW coordinator.

Leonhard heads into his third year as a full-time coach, and he’s already led Wisconsin’s best defense in more than 60 years. How on earth do you top that? The former UW walk-on and 10-year NFL defender spent 2015 studying the coaching craft and 2016 as defensive backs coach, and Chryst unfathomably decided Leonhard was already ready for the DC position. Even less fathomable: Chryst was right.

2017 Wisconsin defensive efficiency & explosiveness

Wisconsin produced nearly the same level of efficiency as Michigan, without the big-play risk. They were good at leveraging you into passing downs (12th in standard-downs success rate), and once they did, you were toast (first in passing-downs success rate).

They did this because of what might have been the best linebacking corps in the country. Five linebackers — ILBs Ryan Connelly and T.J. Edwards and OLBs Leon Jacobs, Andrew Van Ginkel, and Garret Dooley — combined for 53.5 tackles for loss, 22.5 sacks, nine interceptions, 14 pass breakups, and five forced fumbles. In terms of havoc plays (TFLs, passes defensed, and FFs), this quintet had almost as many (81.5) as Nebraska’s entire defense (84). And the Wisconsin secondary was close behind (78 havoc plays).

NCAA Football: Wisconsin at Illinois
Andrew Van Ginkel
Mike Granse-USA TODAY Sports

Jacobs and Dooley are gone, which means that at least one OLB — junior Zack Baun? Senior Arrington Farrar? A sophomore like Noah Burks or Christian Bell? — will need to raise his game. But Connelly and Edwards are back, and Van Ginkel might have been the best player on the defense by the end of the season.

There are question marks elsewhere.

  • Cornerback. Nick Nelson and Derrick Tindal are gone. Sophomore Dontye Carriere-Williams saw plenty of action last year, but his level of disruption (seven passes defensed) paled in comparison to that of Nelson and Tindal (combined: 33 PDs).
  • Safety. Senior D’Cota Dixon is back at strong safety, but in Natrell Jamerson and Joe Ferguson (combined: 3.5 TFLs, 18 PDs), UW has to replace another pair of disruptors. Sophomore Eric Burrell and redshirt freshman Scott Nelson will figure heavily.
  • Defensive end. Alec James and Conor Sheehy are both gone after combining for 13.5 TFLs, eight sacks, and three breakups, impressively disruptive for ends in a 3-4. Sophomore Isaiahh Loudermilk had 1.5 sacks among his 8.5 tackles, but he’ll be asked to take on a much larger load once he’s healthy. [Loudermilk’s been recovering from offseason knee surgery and should be back around the start of Big Ten play. End/tackle Garrett Rand is likely out for the season after an offseason Achilles injury.]

It’s going to be hard to match last year’s top-five production. The sound play will still be there, but the havoc should regress. Leonhard has earned the benefit of the doubt, though.

NCAA Football: Maryland at Wisconsin
D’Cota Dixon
Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

Special Teams

Over three years under Chryst, UW has improved from 96th to 44th to 28th in Special Teams S&P+. Last year’s return game was underwhelming, but place-kicker Rafael Gaglianone was awesome (12-for-14 under 40 yards, 4-for-4 over 40), and kickoff coverage was tremendous. All the legs are back, and while there’s turnover in the return game, it probably won’t get worse.

2018 outlook

2018 Schedule & Projection Factors

Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
31-Aug Western Kentucky 90 24.9 92%
8-Sep New Mexico 111 30.4 96%
15-Sep BYU 76 21.4 89%
22-Sep at Iowa 36 8.1 68%
6-Oct Nebraska 60 18.3 86%
13-Oct at Michigan 10 -3.1 43%
20-Oct Illinois 99 27.8 95%
27-Oct at Northwestern 38 8.8 69%
3-Nov Rutgers 84 23.3 91%
10-Nov at Penn State 8 -4.9 39%
17-Nov at Purdue 54 12.1 76%
24-Nov Minnesota 67 19.5 87%
Projected S&P+ Rk 12
Proj. Off. / Def. Rk 25 / 8
Projected wins 9.3
Five-Year S&P+ Rk 14.5 (8)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 36 / 35
2017 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* 5 / 5.6
2017 TO Luck/Game -0.2
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 63% (84%, 42%)
2017 Second-order wins (difference) 12.0 (1.0)

Offense gets a little better, defense gets a little worse, ship keeps sailing smoothly. Wisconsin is projected to fall in S&P+, but only to 12th, 24 spots ahead of anyone else in the Big Ten West. The Badgers are favored by at least eight points in every West contest and should blaze through a non-conference slate that includes three teams that have had good seasons in recent memory (WKU, New Mexico, BYU) but probably won’t in 2018.

That said, the road slate is about as tricky as it could be. The Badgers face maybe their three biggest division challengers (Iowa, Northwestern, Purdue) on the road, and from the East, they travel to Michigan and Penn State. Even with a significant advantage on paper, they’re one road upset loss away from going about 6-3 in conference play, which could open the door for a division challenge.

Of course, they’re basically one road upset victory away from being a CFP contender again, too.

Team preview stats

All power conference preview data to date.