Crystal Ball: Predicting every game on Wisconsin’s schedule in 2021
Editor’s note: Saturday Tradition’s annual Crystal Ball series continues today with Wisconsin. We’ll stay with the B1G West all week.
For 2 weeks in 2020, Wisconsin looked like one of the best teams in the country. Then, all of a sudden, it couldn’t even break double digits in points in a game. With how last season turned out, there are probably some who forget how dominant the Badgers were against Illinois and Michigan.
The expectation was that a season marred by a pandemic would produce some puzzling results, and indeed it did for the Badgers. After averaging 47 points through 2 games, Wisconsin averaged less than 7 over the next 3 games. It was like 2 different teams.
Of course, context is important. Wisconsin was decimated by a COVID outbreak, the first team to really experience one (and spark all sorts of fun hypotheticals for the media). Eight members of Wisconsin’s 2-deep were unavailable even 3 weeks after the opener. Graham Mertz, Wisconsin’s highest-rated QB commit in the 247Sports era, tested positive shortly after tossing 5 TDs in his first start and then hurt his shoulder against Michigan, an injury that limited him the rest of the season. Wisconsin’s top 2 wideouts (Danny Davis and Kendrick Pryor) both suffered concussions and missed most of the season.
And to compound that, Wisconsin didn’t have that game-breaking rusher for the first time in a long time.
So, what should we make of such an odd, uncharacteristic season?x
This doesn’t change the perception of Wisconsin at all
If you still finish over .500 and win a bowl game in your “down year,” your program is in very, very good shape. That’s Wisconsin. It has had a winning season every season since 2001. The Badgers beat rival Minnesota in overtime and rolled past Wake Forest in the Duke’s Mayo Bowl to keep that streak intact.
In fact, I think I respect Wisconsin even more after last season. Plenty of programs bottom out from time to time. Michigan and Penn State were examples from last season. Northwestern did in 2019. It happens.
I think most people would be shocked if Wisconsin doesn’t return to its previous perch atop the West. With their highest-ranked prospects at QB and RB in the modern era, the typically stout offensive line and what projects to be one of the top defenses in the country, Wisconsin will rise again.
The QB could be special
Wisconsin’s programs are known for many good things; it routinely produces elite running backs and offensive lines, for example. But the Badgers never recruit elite QBs (Russell Wilson was a transfer). Mertz, the No. 3 pro-style QB in the 2019 class and No. 65 overall recruit that year, possesses the sort of high ceiling that every program desires.
While Mertz is no sure thing, he has already flashed his ability on big stages. He threw a record 5 TD passes in the All-American Bowl before getting to Wisconsin, and then he threw 5 TD passes against Illinois in his first career start, completing 19 of 20 passes.
The passing attack fell off later in the season as Mertz played through an injury to his throwing shoulder and also was without his 2 starting wideouts. With Pryor and Davis back, tight end Jake Ferguson as a weapon in the pass game and Jalen Berger poised for a big season at running back, Wisconsin’s offense should be vastly improved from the 103rd-ranked unit it was in 2020.
Enjoy Jim Leonhard while you can
Leonhard declined an opportunity to become the defensive coordinator for the Green Bay Packers to stay with the Badgers. But for how long? A coach as young and as bright as Leonhard surely will have other stops, but for now, he is content to be in Madison coaching in college.
While Wisconsin’s defense was well-established before Leonhard took over as DC in 2017, the results speak for themselves. The Badgers have had a top-5 defense nationally in 3 of Leonhard’s 4 seasons. The 38-year-old is one of the best young coaches in the sport, and it speaks volumes that an organization like the Packers would target him.
He has a lot to work with at Wisconsin this season with 8 starters back, headlined by an elite linebacking crew of Jack Sanborn, Leo Chenal, Noah Burks and Nick Herbig. The only real concern is up front, with nose tackle Keeanu Benton as the only returning starter.
Good luck, Big Ten offenses.
Week 1: vs. Penn State (W)
On paper, this should be one of the best games of the Big Ten season. These are the programs I’d put in the B1G’s second tier behind Ohio State. Both are coming off down seasons, but both finished last season strong and could be in contention for New Year’s Six Bowl games. I’m taking Wisconsin because the Badgers are at home, have a better situation at QB and a better defense.
Week 2: vs. Eastern Michigan (W)
Early-season MAC games are especially dangerous with all of the returning starters those teams have (Eastern Michigan has 21!), but Wisconsin (17 returning starters) will be ready.
Week 3: Bye
Week 4: vs. Notre Dame at Soldier Field (W)
If this matchup happened in 2020, yeah, Notre Dame is winning that one. But this is 2021, and Notre Dame’s QB is … Jack Coan? With all due respect to Coan — he had a decent season as the Badgers’ starter in 2019 — Graham Mertz is the QB1 for a reason. They never had a true competition, as Coan got hurt last preseason and Mertz never relinquished the job. But Mertz would’ve won.
While Notre Dame may have an advantage at a few key spots, there’s just no way I’m picking Wisconsin’s former QB to beat the Badgers. That would be pretty embarrassing for Wisconsin, and I think the defense will be geared up to face their former teammate.
Week 5: vs. Michigan (W)
The Badgers have thoroughly dominated Michigan recently, outscoring the Wolverines 84-25 the last 2 years. And honestly, it felt every bit as lopsided, if not more. Michigan hasn’t gained any ground on the Badgers, and I don’t see how this game is any different than it has been the last 2 years.
Week 6: at Illinois (W)
Is a 2019 repeat on the horizon? I don’t think so. Wisconsin won’t be overlooking the Illini this time around.
Week 7: vs. Army (W)
Army is coming off a bye and will be ready for the Badgers. But at home, Wisconsin is tough to beat.
Week 8: at Purdue (L)
I’ll admit, this doesn’t make a ton of sense on paper. I think Wisconsin is a very good team and should beat just about every non-Ohio State team in the B1G. But just like 2019, a random road game is going to get the Badgers.
Here’s why I think it will be Purdue. For one, the Badgers could get caught looking ahead to a West-deciding showdown with Iowa the following week. Purdue has also played Wisconsin pretty tough in recent years, losing only 47-44 in triple overtime in 2018 (after leading by 14 in the fourth quarter!) and falling 17-9 in 2017. The Boilermakers should have a very good offense, and if they get ahead by a couple scores at Ross-Ade, I’m not sure Wisconsin will be able to catch up.
Good teams lose games, it happens.
Week 9: vs. Iowa (W)
This is the game that will decide “how the West was won.” Iowa dominated last season, but Wisconsin was bitten hard by the injury bug and was just off after the first 2 games of the season. Iowa is going to be tough, as usual, but with the homefield advantage and the superior QB, I’ll take Wisconsin 27-24.
Week 10: at Rutgers (W)
Wisconsin has won all 3 meetings with Rutgers by an average of 30 points, and while Rutgers is vastly improved since joining the B1G, the Badgers shouldn’t need more than a few Graham Mertz TDs.
Week 11: vs. Northwestern (W)
These teams account for the last 5 West titles, and it always seems to be a decent game, despite one of them having a down year. This year that down year will be for Northwestern, and this year, I don’t think this game is particularly close.
Week 12: vs. Nebraska (W)
This hasn’t been the sort of heavyweight fight that we thought it would be when Nebraska joined the Big Ten, as Wisconsin has won 7 straight. Nebraska hasn’t won the West since the conference pivoted away from Legends and Leaders. Wisconsin won’t have too much trouble making it 8 straight.
Week 13: at Minnesota (W)
The battle for Paul Bunyan’s Axe returns to Minneapolis, and I’m wondering if it will be Minnesota trying to play spoiler this time around. In 2019, the Golden Gophers were ranked No. 9 and on the cusp of a West title. This year, I think the Badgers will be ranked in that range and on the cusp of a West title — and get it.
2021 projection: 11-1, 1st in B1G West
After a strange 2020, the Badgers are primed to return to normal, which for them means a 6th double-digit win season in 8 years. And for the fourth time in 8 years, Wisconsin will play Ohio State in the Big Ten Championship Game. I can see this being like 2017, when the Badgers were more on par with the Buckeyes, rather than the latter being heavily favored.
In the future, a season like this undoubtedly gets Wisconsin into the College Football Playoff, regardless of what happens in the conference title game. I’m sure the Badgers would love to make the 4-team field before it expands and become only the third B1G school to do so (remember when Michigan State made it that one time?). This is the year to do it, with 17 returning starters and a potential star at QB while Ohio State is in a transition year.
So, am I picking the Badgers to win the Big Ten? Yeah, I am. Wisconsin is going to finally beat Ohio State and go to the College Football Playoff.