Coach: Paul Chryst (second season, 10-3)
2015 record: 10-3 (6-2 in B1G)
Biggest losses: Joe Schobert, LB; Joel Stave, QB; Michael Caputo, S
Biggest returners: Corey Clement, RB; Vince Biegel, LB; T.J. Edwards, LB
2016 recruiting class ranking (247sports): No. 28 (5th in B1G)
Top committed recruit: Four-star DT Garrett Rand
2016 strength: Linebackers
A unit that loses its defensive coordinator and an All-American usually isn’t the formula for an obvious “strength.” Wisconsin doesn’t work like that. The Badgers are loaded with experience at linebacker with Vince Biegel, T.J. Edwards, Jack Cichy and Chris Orr all back. What we saw from this group in the Holiday Bowl against a dynamic USC offense said a lot about the Badger linebackers. Yes, the loss of Aranda will hurt. His blitzing schemes were among the best in the country.
Whoever takes over this defense will have the benefit of some of the surest tackling linebackers you’ll find. It’ll be the new coordinator’s job to put them in position to pin their ears back and make plays, just like they did throughout a 2015 season in which they finished first in scoring.
2016 weakness: Secondary
I understand that Wisconsin was seventh in the country against the pass in 2015. In fact, nobody allowed fewer passing touchdowns than the Badgers. But Michael Caputo, Tanner McEvoy and Darius Hillary are all gone, which means Sojourn Shelton will lead an inexperienced group. Derrick Tindal, Leo Musso and D’Cota Dixon will all be asked to shoulder the load. Musso could have potential to force turnovers, but that’s the biggest question mark for this group. Caputo, McEvoy and Hillary all had playmaking ability that could get the defense off the field after a long drive. If the Badger linebackers struggle to pressure quarterbacks without Aranda, will the secondary get picked apart? That remains to be seen. But it wouldn’t be surprising to see this group go through a transition phase against a front-loaded 2016 schedule.
Way-too-early 2016 projection: 8-5 (6-3 in B1G)
If there’s ever been a tougher start to a schedule, I haven’t seen it. There’s a good chance that Wisconsin will face five (!) preseason top 20 teams in its first seven games. The LSU showdown will get all the offseason hype because of the Aranda reunion, but take a look at what the Badgers have to start B1G play: at Michigan State, at Michigan, vs. Ohio State, at Iowa. Wisconsin could play really well and easily have five losses going into November. That will depend largely on the success of Bart Houston, who figures to take Joel Stave’s place at quarterback. He is a fifth-year guy with 15 games of experience, but he’s going to have to play like a seasoned vet against some of the nation’s top defenses. If Corey Clement and the young Badger offensive line — which started four redshirt freshmen in the Holiday Bowl — can stay healthy, that would go a long way. Wisconsin is one of nine schools in the country with double-digit wins in five of the last seven seasons. If it gets there again with that brutal schedule, Paul Chryst will get my vote for coach of the year.