Tradition Crystal Ball: Predicting every game for Wisconsin football in 2020
Editor’s note: Our annual Crystal Ball series continues with Wisconsin. Coming Tuesday: Minnesota.
A quick glance at Wisconsin in 2020 might fool the casual fan. The Badgers don’t have All-American Jonathan Taylor in the backfield anymore after he left early for the NFL. Their starting quarterback, Jack Coan, just suffered a foot injury and is out indefinitely. Wisconsin’s big-play receiver, Quintez Cephus, also bolted early for the NFL. Its two star linebackers who combined for 24 sacks, Chris Orr and Zack Baun, are gone too.
So, uh, is this really still the West favorite?
Until it goes several years in a row without winning the West, the Badgers are going to be the favorite. Wisconsin has won the West in 4 of 6 seasons since the B1G moved to this format. Even with Minnesota’s breakthrough last year, Wisconsin emphatically rejected the notion that it was relinquishing control with an impressive road victory. That’s just what Wisconsin does.
In 3 of the last 4 years, the Badgers have finished in the top 8 of the College Football Playoff rankings. In 4 straight years, they have been ranked in the top 6 of the AP poll. In 15 of the last 17 seasons, they have climbed into the top 15 of the AP poll at one point or another. In 10 of the last 15 seasons, they have won double-digit games.
Clearly, it’s been a remarkable run for Wisconsin. So while it looks like the Badgers will have some holes to plug, they always seem to find a way to do it, and who am I to doubt that they’ll figure it out?
2019 record: 10-4 (7-2)
The Graham Mertz era is here
Ever since Mertz became the highest-rated quarterback signee in Wisconsin history, there has been a tremendous amount of anticipation to see what he can do. With Coan out indefinitely, the time is here for the redshirt freshman to showcase the ability that made him the No. 3 pro-style QB in the 2019 class. He will likely be the starter in the season opener Oct. 24 and at least a few weeks beyond that.
Wisconsin is obviously not a quarterback factory a la Oklahoma or even Ohio State, so this is an interesting experiment if Mertz develops like his recruiting ranking suggests he should. The Badgers famously churn out NFL running backs such as Jonathan Taylor, Melvin Gordon, Montee Ball, James White and many more. But QB? Aside from Russell Wilson, who was with the Badgers for one season as a graduate transfer, can you name even one prominent Wisconsin quarterback? With all due respect to Scott Tolzein and Joel Stave, the Badgers have accomplished all that success without a difference-maker at QB. In fact, Coan’s 2,725 yards last season were the third-most in a season in Badgers history, and that was only enough put him at 52nd nationally.
The next few years are going to be interesting to see to what extent Mertz impacts the Badgers and how his skills are utilized. Wisconsin typically doesn’t ask its QBs to do too much other than be a game manager, which makes sense considering how much talent it always has in the backfield and on the offensive line. Considering how good Wisconsin usually is defensively and on the offensive line, would an elite QB elevate the Badgers into legitimate College Football Playoff contention? In Wilson’s lone season in Madison, he was 2nd nationally in yards per attempt and 1st in QB rating. Wisconsin won the Big Ten Championship Game that season and blew a 4th-quarter lead to Oregon in the Rose Bowl.
It’s also going to be fascinating to track Mertz’s development as a pro prospect. Will this open the door to more top quarterbacks choosing the Badgers? From a top quarterback’s perspective, you’ll surely get to play in your share of big games with the Badgers, but it’s uncertain how big of numbers you can put up. That will depend on how Wisconsin is able to cater to Mertz’s skill set. Wisconsin won’t suddenly morph into Texas Tech or Oklahoma State, but it would be nice to see Mertz take on a greater role.
At least at first, the Badgers will probably be careful with not asking Mertz to do too much, and that’s always a sensible move. But eventually, the training wheels should come off and the talent should take over.
Replacing Jonathan Taylor
In a normal season, this would be a prominent storyline. But due to an offseason filled with COVID-19 news and Big Ten drama, it hasn’t been extensively discussed outside of Madison. The backbone of Wisconsin’s offense, Taylor had the most rushing yards through 3 seasons in college football history.
But if I’m a Badgers fan, I’m not necessarily panicking. As illustrated above, Wisconsin regularly produces NFL running backs (it has had 8 running backs or fullbacks play in the NFL since 2009). Players like Taylor and Gordon are special, for sure, but as long as the Badgers keep accumulating talent on the offensive line, they will find a way to produce an above-average ground game, regardless of the back. Between Nakia Watson and Garrett Groshek (and maybe eventually highly touted true freshman Jalen Berger), the Badgers will be fine.
I’m more concerned about replacing Cephus, who caught 59 passes for 901 yards. That’s the 5th-most yards in a season for the Badgers since 2007. Can Danny Davis and Kedrick Pryor step up their games? They combined for 71 targets last season, well short of the 92 for Cephus. Their combined yardage of 528 yards was also well short of Cephus.
Badgers weren’t vocal in the offseason like others, but that’s not their style
Wisconsin was a notable absence among Big Ten teams pushing for the league to reconsider its decision to cancel its season. The heavy hitters in the B1G such as Ohio State, Penn State, Nebraska, Iowa and Michigan were the most vocal in trying to persuade commissioner Kevin Warren, partially because those are the league’s best teams and stand the most to gain by playing.
I don’t put much stock in the fact that Wisconsin, aside from a few frustrated players and parents, didn’t publicly admonish the Big Ten. Paul Chryst is notoriously stoic pretty much all the time, so I wasn’t expecting him to suddenly morph into Jim Harbaugh.
This is sort of Wisconsin’s identity — it works quietly behind the scenes and is ready to take advantage of the opportunity when the moment arrives. That’s probably why Taylor never seriously contended for the Heisman, despite his lofty numbers. If he played for Ohio State, Penn State or Michigan, I think he would’ve been in New York at least once as a finalist.
So make no mistake, Wisconsin will be ready to go this season, just as its more-outspoken peers will be.
Week 1: vs. Illinois (W)
This is an opportunity to exact some revenge on the Illini, who spoiled Wisconsin’s unbeaten season with a surprising upset in Champaign last year. While the Badgers went on to lose to Ohio State in the regular season and Big Ten Championship Game too, the loss to Illinois didn’t sit well with the Badgers. Wisconsin should win big.
Week 2: at Nebraska (W)
Nebraska will probably be as impacted as any team in the B1G by no fans in the stands this season, as their loyal fans turn out no matter how good or bad the Cornhuskers are. That gives Wisconsin yet another advantage in a game that it should be able to win handily. Nebraska just hasn’t figured it out yet under Scott Frost.
Week 3: vs. Purdue (W)
It’s going to be fun to see how defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard coaches up the Badgers defense against what should be a very good Purdue offense. Rondale Moore and David Bell are an elite receiving duo. Last year, it was tight end Brycen Hopkins who went off for 127 yards and 2 TDs against the Badgers.
Week 4: at Michigan (L)
This is the one game that I think the Badgers will stumble in during the regular season. And if you watched Wisconsin manhandle Michigan last season, you probably think I’m crazy. Let’s not forget that Michigan, for all its failings against ranked teams on the road, is pretty good at home. Wisconsin went to the Big House as a top-15 team in 2018 and 2016 and lost both times. Michigan has plenty of talent (43 4-star and 5-star players compared to 13 for Wisconsin), and I think new starting QB Joe Milton is going to be good; he should have enough experience by this point in the season. So, I’m picking Michigan in a close one.
Week 5: at Northwestern (W)
Northwestern’s offense was so frustrating to watch when these teams matched up last season, and the Wildcats should be a bit easier on the eyes with graduate transfer Peyton Ramsey at QB this season. But that’s not enough to tilt the scale in favor of the Wildcats.
Week 6: vs. Minnesota (W)
Minnesota was really good last year, just ask Penn State and Auburn. And yet Wisconsin dispatched the Golden Gophers with relative ease at Minnesota. The Golden Gophers may have an edge at quarterback and receiver, but I’ll take Wisconsin in virtually every other position.
Week 7: vs. Indiana (W)
This is another game in which Wisconsin will have to put up some points to win, as Indiana’s talented offense is bound to make a few explosive plays. But by this time, I’m betting Wisconsin will have established a solid identity on offense, either with Coan or Mertz at QB and Watson and Groshek in the backfield.
Week 8: at Iowa (W)
My prediction is that Wisconsin will enter this game tied with Minnesota in the West standings and will need a win in order to advance to the championship game. And going to Iowa City is normally no easy task — except for the Badgers, who have won 5 straight at Iowa dating to 2010. They have also won 7 of 8 in this series. I think they win a close one to reclaim the West title and edge Minnesota on the head-to-head tiebreaker.
2020 projection: 7-1 (7-1, 1st in B1G West)
Another Big Ten Championship Game appearance is on the horizon for the Badgers, who will once again fall to Ohio State in the title game. How’s that for a bold prediction?
It’s simply hard to honestly forecast anything else at this point, considering Wisconsin has 8 starters back on a defense that is always, always, always good (it has finished in the top 10 nationally of total defense in 10 of the last 11 years). And with Wisconsin finally having a talented player at the most important position in sports, how do you pick against that? There will be some shaky moments early on, probably, but this is a steady program that almost always gets it done.