10 most critical questions Wisconsin must answer in 2022
Wisconsin had a strong year in 2021, even with the rough start.
Right out of the gate, the Badgers went 1-3 and found themselves in an early hole. The team rallied with a 7-game winning streak to jump back into contention for the B1G West before losing the final game of the regular season against Minnesota.
When it was all said and done, Wisconsin finished 9-4 with a bowl win over Arizona State in Las Vegas. And yet, the Badgers were left wanting just a bit more after falling short in some close games.
Heading into 2022, Wisconsin returns a strong mix of talent but must replace some key pieces on both sides of the ball. With that in mind, here are 10 of the biggest questions facing the program this season.
1. What does Braelon Allen have in store as a sophomore?
Make no mistake about it: Braelon Allen was a catalyst for Wisconsin’s turnaround in 2021, all while playing at 17 years old. His first 100-yard game didn’t come until the Badgers’ 5th game, yet he still racked up over 1,200 yards and 12 touchdowns on the season.
Heading into 2022, Allen is primed to be the next superstar running back for the Badgers. But this season, he’ll need to be electric from the get-go for Wisconsin to be competitive. It’s another tall task for a player so young, but it would be unwise to doubt what Allen can do moving forward.
2. Is Graham Mertz capable of making a big jump as a passer?
Expectations for Graham Mertz were sky high as he came to Wisconsin as a 4-star recruit and top-75 player in the 2019 class. Unfortunately, Mertz has underperformed at times and seemingly even regressed from 2020 to 2021.
Last season, Mertz completed 59.5% of passes and had 10 touchdowns to 11 interceptions. It goes without saying that Mertz has to be more efficient, regardless of who he is throwing the ball to. If he can take a step forward, it will give the Badgers offense another facet to go with the impressive ground game.
3. Can Chez Mellusi stay healthy?
There’s no denying Braelon Allen should be Wisconsin’s lead back. At the same time, it’s worth mentioning that the Badgers were likely at their best with both Allen and Chez Mellusi at full strength.
Prior to going down with an injury, Mellusi rushed for 815 yards and 5 touchdowns. That included 3 games of 140+ rushing yards, all wins for Wisconsin. Hopefully, Mellusi is able to open the season fully healthy and complement Allen’s lead role in the backfield.
4. Can Chimere Dike turn into a go-to receiver?
Chimere Dike has had a solid start to his career as a big-play receiver at Wisconsin. Over his first 2 seasons, Dike has averaged 14.9 yards per catch with a pair of touchdowns. But entering 2022, Dike will need to play a bigger role.
During 2021, the Badgers had 3 players over 400 yards receiving: Jake Ferguson, Danny Davis and Kendric Pryor. Those guys are all gone, leaving Dike as the most experienced and productive receiver returning to the team. He will need to take a step forward as a reliable weapon for Graham Mertz in order for the offense to thrive.
5. How can the Badgers replace Leo Chenal and Jack Sanborn?
Replacing unanimous 1st and 2nd-team All-B1G selections in Leo Chenal and Jack Sanborn is no easy task. However, Jim Leonhard’s defense has multiple inexperienced, yet capable candidates.
Probably atop the list of linebackers to immediately contribute at a high level is Nick Herbig. He had the 3rd-most tackles on the team behind Chenal and Sanborn last season with 61. He also had the most sacks on the team (9) and most pass deflections among linebackers (4). In other words, he has a nose for the ball and shouldn’t have any trouble stepping up.
6. Will Wisconsin get off to a strong start?
While it’s true that Wisconsin’s schedule last season was frontloaded — battles with Penn State, Notre Dame and Michigan in the first 4 weeks — 1-3 is never going to cut it.
Not to mention, Wisconsin blew 2 late chances to knock off Penn State in Madison. We’re talking about a team that finished 7-6.
But the Badgers don’t play anyone even as difficult as that 7-6 Nittany Lions group to start 2022. Chryst’s squad starts out the season with 3 straight home games — against Illinois State, Washington State and New Mexico State — all of which the Badgers will be favored to win handily. Win those 3 and the Week 4 matchup against Ohio State in Columbus will be all the more interesting.
Take a loss to Washington State or (you never know) either buy game early and the Badgers can throw any chances of a Week 4 upset of the Buckeyes out the window.
7. Will the Badgers bring home the Axe?
Wisconsin leads the all-time series with Minnesota 62-59-9. The Badgers have won 16 of the last 18 but lost to PJ Fleck’s squad last year.
But the Badgers’ domination of the trophy series should resume, especially with the game in Madison this year. Returning the Axe to Wisconsin will not only give the program much-needed bragging rights, but it would also mean a win to close out the regular season. Considering the state of the B1G West, a season-ending win could play a large role in determining the division winner.
8. Can Wisconsin maintain control of the Heartland Trophy?
Similarly, Wisconsin owns the Heartland Trophy by a narrow margin thanks to recent domination of Iowa. The Badgers have a 49-44-2 lead, taking 5 of the last 6 games against the Hawkeyes. Last year’s victory in Madison was likely Wisconsin’s most important win of the season.
Iowa is projected to be a top 25 team this season, which makes the Badgers’ trip to Iowa City that much more important. If Wisconsin wants to win the B1G West and get back to the B1G Championship Game, the showdown vs. the Hawkeyes is likely a must-win. Coming out of Kinnick on top is never an easy task.
9. Which transfer defender will have the biggest impact?
Having 1 transfer cornerback is good, having 3 is even better. The Badgers added Justin Clark, Cedrick Dort Jr. and Jay Shaw. The defense, though definitely strong, will be losing Caesar Williams and 4-year starter Faion Hicks.
Shaw is the most talented of the newcomers. He made 43 appearances at UCLA with 16 starts, snagging 5 interceptions and earning 2nd-team All-Pac-12 honors. Clark, out of Toledo, could start at nickel for the Badgers. It would be surprising if all 3 did not make a significant impact on the defense.
10. Can Bobby Engram rejuvenate the offense?
We don’t need to tell you this: To win football games, you have to score. You can have the ’85 Bears defense all you want, but Jim McMahon and Walter Payton had to score every once in a while, too. The Badgers struggled to score last season and still won 9 games. If that number (25 points per game, 85th/130 in D1) can go up, even a little bit, Wisconsin could be in contention for a B1G title once again.
New offensive coordinator Bobby Engram comes to Madison from the Baltimore Ravens, where he coached tight ends. There has been some success from positional coaches moving up the ranks in college football, and Wisconsin needs it in a big way.