Wisconsin was favored in all 12 games during the regular season on its way to an 8-4 record, so why would the bowl game be any different? The experts say the Badgers are just under a touchdown better than Arizona State heading into Thursday night’s Las Vegas Bowl. Of course the oddsmakers are right this time around, because the Badgers are going to win this game, and here are 5 reasons why.

Opt-out advantage

In an era with pre-bowl game opt-outs and transfer portal entries becoming the norm, the Badgers have been pretty much immune so far. Nobody has left the team since the regular season ended.

Meanwhile, Arizona State will be without its do-it-all running back Rachaad White and his backup DeaMonte Trayanum, and the Sun Devils will not have their top two cornerbacks, Chase Lucas and Jack Jones. Linebacker Darien Butler is the team’s best defensive player, and he too decided not to play, and wide receiver Johnny Wilson entered the transfer portal after battling back from an injury.

For whatever reason, Wisconsin players enjoy playing together and want to finish the season strong every year, which is a big reason the Badgers are 5-1 in bowl games under Paul Chryst. That may seem like a small thing, but it isn’t when you consider how many teams quit on the season when expectations aren’t met. This is clearly a cultural advantage built inside the program, and it’s how Wisconsin put itself in position to win the B1G West in the final weekend by winning 7 games in a row despite a 1-3 start.

Graham Mertz has lots to prove

Wisconsin’s quarterback played well down the stretch of the regular season, but Graham Mertz is nowhere close to where many expected him to be as he gets ready to wrap up his 3rd season in college football. Mertz really struggled in games when Wisconsin needed him the most, and if his play resembles anything like what what we saw in the games against Penn State, Notre Dame and Minnesota, the Badgers will be in trouble.

Regardless of how Mertz performs on Thursday night, it’s not out of the question for the coaching staff to take a look at the transfer portal to bring in somebody to challenge him for the starting job in 2022. He knows he has a lot to prove and should be focused on playing his best football in the final game before heading into an important offseason.

Defensive edge

Heading into the bowl game, Wisconsin’s defense ranks No. 1 nationally in opponent yards per play against FBS teams. If you look at the box scores from all 12 games Wisconsin played trying to identify the matchup where the Badgers struggled to stop the run, you won’t find one. With the Badgers’ dominance in run defense and Arizona State’s one-man show that is Rachaad White being unavailable, Wisconsin should have plenty of success in limiting what the Sun Devils do offensively, as they ran the ball on 58.6% of snaps this season.

If Arizona State is going to have any success offensively, it will have to come in the passing game, where the Badgers did not do a great job defending in the final 2 games of the regular season. The Sun Devils passing offense did not look all that impressive late in the season, as Jayden Daniels threw for 121.8 yards per game over the last 4 matchups. His biggest strength comes on the ground, so if the Badgers limit that part of his game, they should be in a great position to have another big day defensively.

Turnover margin

Wisconsin started out the regular season extremely poorly, and the biggest reason was turnovers. The Badgers offense turned the ball over at a high rate and rarely stole a possession on defense, but that flipped during the second half of the year. Wisconsin turned the ball over 15 times in the first 6 games while forcing just 4 turnovers, and it never won the turnover battle in that span. In the final 6 games, the Badgers never lost the turnover battle and created 19 turnovers while giving the ball away just 7 times.

After how they started, it’s a miracle the Badgers finished the regular season with a positive turnover margin. They finally started taking advantage of opponents’ mistakes after having chances early in the year with plenty of dropped interceptions. Without Arizona State’s best offensive playmaker going up against a dominant Wisconsin run defense, the Sun Devils will be forced to throw more than they’re used to, so the Badgers should have some opportunities at creating takeaways. Arizona State will enter the Las Vegas Bowl ranked No. 96 nationally in giveaways per game, and Wisconsin will need to take advantage of that.

A fresh Braelon Allen

This is the final game in which anybody in the media can mention he’s just 17 years old, so we have no choice but to take advantage of it. Braelon Allen has the look of being the next great Wisconsin running back.

Allen was a significant reason for the 7-game winning streak as he rushed for more than 100 yards in each of those contests for an average of 144.7 yards on the ground over that stretch. After playing a spring high school football season and taking on a full workload in the B1G months later, Allen admitted he wore down in the final few weeks of the regular season. He had his worst statistical performance of the year against Minnesota with just 47 yards on 17 carries, but after more than a month in between games, Allen should be ready to close out an incredibly impressive freshman season on a high note.