5 ways Wisconsin will be better in 2023 ... and 5 ways the Badgers will be worse
We know it was a stressful offseason, Badgers fans. Change, or shall we say, overhaul, just doesn’t happen in Madison.
Yes, Gary Andersen’s 2-year stint in 2013-14 was short lived. Normally, stability thrives in this proud program. Barry Alvarez is a big reason why.
Jim Leonhard took over as interim coach after Paul Chryst was fired midway through 2022. Many thought Leonhard had done enough to be the permanent HC after leading the Badgers to a bowl game.
But AD Chris McIntosh had other plans. He had visions of swinging big on a hire. Swing big he did as McIntosh landed one of the country’s biggest fish in Luke Fickell from Cincinnati.
Fickell brought in Phil Longo from North Carolina to run the offense. It’ll be a culture shock for some in Madison. A pass-first offense in the Great White North? A risky proposition.
After the dust settled on the new hires, optimism again set in. Let’s take a look at the Badgers’ 2023 outlook. Five ways Wisconsin will improve on its 7-6 season, then 5 reasons they might not. Let’s start with the good.
Better: 2-headed RB monster
Braelon Allen and Chez Mellusi are good. Really good.
The duo combined for 1,715 rush yards and 13 TDs in 2022. Many of those yards gained were against 7 and 8-man defensive fronts.
With Longo’s offense coming to town, it will force defenses to respect the pass. That means less stacked boxes and more opportunities for backs to flourish.
In a program whose history is filled with terrific tandems, Allen and Mellusi look to make their mark in 2023.
Better: QB play
On paper, Tanner Mordecai is an upgrade over Graham Mertz. The SMU transfer’s stats speak for themselves. Back-to-back seasons of 3,500+ passing yards and 72 TDs. Can he replicate that in a system that’s tailored to his strengths?
It may take fans awhile to adjust to the new tempo and style. But this offense has a chance to be lethal.
The Badgers already had a nice returning nucleus on offense. Adding Mordecai moves the needle on the potential of this group.
Wisconsin did work here too via the transfer portal. The Badgers added CJ Williams (USC), Bryson Green (Oklahoma State) and Will Pauling (Cincinnati).
Throw in returning veterans Chimere Dike (47 catches, 689 yards) and Skyler Bell (30 catches, 444 yards), and this position is loaded with speed and talent.
Longo’s offense involves slinging it around the yard. The Badgers’ WR room is as stacked as it’s ever been.
Fickell (64-25 career record) is one of the best coaches in college football. He knows defense and knows how to win. He’s a perfect fit in Madison.
Stealing Longo from UNC was huge. Yes, a philosophy change on offense is taking a chance. But the Badgers have the horses to make it work and work well.
A high-flying offense paired with a hard-nosed defense? That’s a scary proposition for B1G opponents.
Better: Schedule dynamics
The 2023 schedule sets up nicely. A September trip to Pullman to face Washington State is the only real roadblock to a 5-0 start prior to an Oct. 14 home date with Iowa.
Michigan and Penn State are absent from the schedule, and Ohio State comes to Madison prior to Halloween.
Road games in Champaign and Minneapolis loom large. Win those and things shape up nicely for a West Division title and trip to Indy.
Worse: Tight end
Depth is the main concern here. Injuries and issues have put a dent in this position.
Riley Nowakowski could be out several weeks with a foot injury. Starter Jack Pugh is healthy, but missed time due to a personal matter. Senior Hayden Rucci will need to step up.
Wisconsin will need to shore up this area. Last year, starter Clay Cundiff suffered an injury against Ohio State and missed the remainder of the year. It’s a position that the Badgers have been snakebit at recently.
Projected starter Jake Renfro is currently sidelined with a sprained foot. He’s unlikely to play Week 1, and foot sprain injuries can linger.
The Badgers still are solid up front with guys like Tanor Bortolini and Jack Nelson leading the way. But finding the 5 best guys to insert might result in reshuffling positions to accommodate for Renfro’s absence.
Worse: Outside linebacker
The Badgers will continue to be one of the league’s best defensive teams. But that doesn’t mean they won’t miss the presence of departed OLB Nick Herbig.
The First-Team All-Big Ten performer in 2022 led the team with 11 sacks and 15.5 TFL. He was a disruptor and the heart of soul of the defense. He’s now doing his thing in the NFL with the Steelers.
Maema Njongmeta and Jordan Turner look ready to step in and lead at inside linebacker, while CJ Goetz and Darryl Peterson will get opportunities on the outside. The Badgers will need strong depth to account for Herbig’s absence.
Worse: Pass D
Ok, this could be stretch. But going off the assumption that the Badgers’ defense will be on the field longer in 2023, it’s a good bet the defense will give up more yards through the air.
If the Badgers’ new offense puts points on the board early and often, shootouts wouldn’t be uncommon. A program known for grinding teams down in the 4th quarter with a nasty ground game may have to defend the pass more in 2023 if its offense starts quick and is in the lead often.
Worse: Turnover margin
While Mertz was at times merely a game manager, he threw only 10 picks in 2022. Expect that number to climb, just because Longo will have Mordecai airing it out much more.
Wisconsin’s new-look offense will assuredly display some quick strikes and big plays. But early on there could be growing pains. Mordecai hasn’t played against the physical, fast defenses he’ll see weekly in the B1G. It could translate into a few ugly picks — especially early in the year.
Allen lost only 1 fumble in 2022. Remarkable for the amount of hits he took and times he toted the rock. A few more of those in 2023 could happen.