Saturday Tradition’s annual Crystal Ball series continues today with Wisconsin. We’ll wrap up the B1G West tomorrow. Game-by-game breakdowns of the B1G East’s teams appeared last week.

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Last season, Georgia had one of the best defenses ever assembled on a college football roster. The Bulldogs won the national championship, and a record 5 defensive players from the same school were selected in the first round of the NFL Draft.

Which makes it completely bonkers to contemplate the fact that Wisconsin’s defense was somehow even better from a statistical perspective.

Georgia allowed the fewest points last year, but it was the Badgers who led the nation in total defense. Wisconsin allowed 4.10 yards per play and 235.3 yards per game compared to Georgia’s 4.15 ypp and 267.9 ypg.

Yet the Badgers couldn’t even win the measly Big Ten West.

Evidently hardcore Green Day fans, the Badgers did not awaken until September ended. Wisconsin’s front-loaded schedule — the Badgers faced Penn State, Notre Dame and Michigan in the opening month — resulted in a 1-3 start.

The ship was steadied in time to keep Wisconsin in contention for the Big Ten championship game, but on Thanksgiving weekend Minnesota chopped down those hopes and took Paul Bunyan’s Axe in the process.

This September is far more conducive to a quick start. Wisconsin hosts Illinois State, Washington State and New Mexico State before getting its biggest test of the season at Ohio State. And when the Badgers and Buckeyes meet on Sept. 24, we may learn whether to expect both teams to renew their acquaintances in Indianapolis this December.

From Ohio State’s end, all signs point to that being the case. It’s Wisconsin that has some serious questions to answer if a Big Ten title game appearance is in the cards.

Can Graham Mertz be trusted?

From Tomahawk to Oconomowoc, Pleasant Prairie to Prairie du Chien and all points in between, Wisconsin fans are asking the same question this offseason.

“Can we trust Graham Mertz to not mess this up?”

If the answer to that was a definitive yes, Paul Chryst wouldn’t have gone all-out trying to recruit Oklahoma quarterback Caleb Williams from the transfer portal. But Williams followed former Sooners coach Lincoln Riley to USC, and Wisconsin was stuck banking on a new and improved Mertz.

He’ll need to be, because a repeat of last season likely leaves Wisconsin watching the conference championship game on TV.

Mertz entered last year with considerable hype, even unveiling his own brand logo at the advent of the NIL era. Unfortunately, it went about as well as when they named a baseball stadium Enron Field.

Mertz had a fumble and 2 interceptions in the season-opening 16-10 loss to Penn State. Against Notre Dame, 4 interceptions and a fumble. By the end of the season, he had completed just 59.5% of his attempts for 150.6 yards per game with 10 touchdowns and 14 turnovers (11 INTs, 3 fumbles).

The only other B1G quarterbacks with 11 interceptions were Purdue’s Aidan O’Connell and Maryland’s Taulia Tagovailoa, who compensated by throwing for 300 yards a game. They also attempted 15 more passes per game than Mertz.

With backup Chase Wolf evidently unable to push him, this is still Mertz’s show. And the arrival of a former wide receiver may boost the ratings.

The Bobby Engram Effect

Borrowing liberally from Jim Harbaugh’s 2021 Big Ten-winning playbook, Chryst went out and hired a Baltimore Ravens assistant coach as a coordinator.

In this case it’s Bobby Engram, who jumped at the opportunity to move from tight ends coach to offensive coordinator. Engram was a standout receiver on Penn State’s first Big Ten teams, earning all-America honors 3 straight years before a long NFL career.

Now he’ll attempt to give the Badgers offense some NFL credibility.

But this isn’t just about what Engram has to offer — it allows Chryst to put more time into developing Mertz. Last year Chryst tried to juggle the roles of head coach, offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach, which proved a lot more than he could chew.

For many reasons, the addition of Engram could be the key to unlocking Wisconsin’s success. And it’s not like he’s working with an empty cupboard.

As is seemingly always the case, Wisconsin has the benefit of hitching its wagon to one of the nation’s top running backs. Braelon Allen took over the starting job midseason as a 17-year-old freshman and finished second in the B1G with 105.7 yards per game.

In another echo of Michigan from last year, backfield mate Chez Mellusi could provide the Badgers with a 1-2 punch like the Wolverines had with Hassan Haskins and Blake Corum.

Jim Leonhard’s toughest test

When you have the nation’s top defense statistically, odds are pretty good that you won’t have all the same pieces back the following season. Such is the case for Wisconsin, which loses stalwart defensive end Matt Henningsen, linebackers Leo Chenal, Jack Sanborn and Noah Burks and the entire starting secondary.

The good news: Outside linebacker Nick Herbig is a potential B1G defensive player of the year, and Keeanu Benton is the best nose tackle in the conference.

Oh, and Jim Leonhard is still the defensive coordinator. In Leonhard’s 5 previous years, the Badgers have never finished worse than 4th in the B1G in total defense or 5th in scoring defense.

A lot of unknowns will need to step up, but they have the right tutor to get there.

Game-by-game predictions

Week 1: vs. Illinois State (W)

The only drama here is whether the Redbirds will lose by a closer margin than Illinois has in its past 2 meetings against Wisconsin (38 and 24 points, respectively).

Week 2: vs. Washington State (W)

Bless whoever scheduled this matchup of two teams that could not be more different stylistically. Neither wants to get stuck playing at the other’s tempo. Expect a high-scoring game — Allen’s going to bust some big runs, but the Cougars will test Wisconsin’s new-look secondary.

Week 3: vs. New Mexico State (W)

Former Minnesota coach Jerry Kill returns to enemy territory in his first year with the Aggies. It won’t be to pick up his first-ever win against the Badgers.

Week 4: at Ohio State (L)

The Badgers have lost 8 straight against the Buckeyes, but that’s not the only issue here. Ohio State will be tested by Notre Dame in the season opener and fully prepared for an opponent of Wisconsin’s caliber. Wazzu won’t exactly give Wisconsin a leg up on prepping for Ohio State.

Week 5: vs. Illinois (W)

Fun fact: This is the first school Wisconsin plays that doesn’t have “State” in its name. But it’s the 4th of 5 schools Wisconsin plays without “The” in its name. Bret Bielema will have his boys ready to go in his return to Camp Randall, so the Badgers need to be careful to not let 1 loss turn into 2.

Week 6: at Northwestern (W)

A traditionally tricky matchup. Even though Wisconsin fans take over Ryan Field, the Wildcats have won 6 of the past 7 meetings in Evanston. But the Crystal Ball can’t figure out how a Northwestern run defense that allowed 5.3 yards per carry last year will have an answer for Allen.

Week 7: at Michigan State (L)

Former Badgers running back Jalen Berger will get his revenge on Chryst, who kicked him off the team last season. Berger then transferred to Michigan State. The Spartans run defense is also stout enough to slow down Allen and Mellusi.

Week 8: vs. Purdue (W)

The Crystal Ball can barely see the last time Purdue topped Wisconsin, because it wasn’t even broadcast in HD. The Badgers run the streak to 16 straight as Kyle Orton remains the last Boilermaker QB to beat Wisconsin.

Week 9: Bye

Week 10: vs. Maryland (W)

This is the game where that Washington State and Ohio State experience will come in handy. A now battle-tested secondary and pass rush will be ready for Taulia Tagovailoa. Look for Allen to eclipse 200 yards on the ground for the Badgers.

Week 11: at Iowa (L)

In one of last year’s weirdest twists, Mertz did not throw any of his Big Ten-leading 11 interceptions against the team that picked off the most passes in the country. That luck seems unlikely to hold this time around. A Jack Campbell pick-6 could be the difference in a 10-9 Iowa win.

Week 12: at Nebraska (L)

Your memory is likely strong enough to recall that Wisconsin led the nation in total defense last season. Which means you may have forgotten that Nebraska gained a season-high 452 yards against the Badgers … and somehow still lost. But Scott Frost has something here, and this time the hard-luck Huskers won’t mess it up.

Week 13: vs. Minnesota (W)

Despite 4 conference losses, Wisconsin heads into the season finale in the same position as last season — win, and finish atop the wacky Big Ten West. This time, Mertz is up to the task. Wisconsin wins back Paul Bunyan’s Axe and somehow makes its way to Indianapolis.

2022 Projection: 8-4 (5-4), 1st in B1G West


The Big Ten West is constantly teetering on the brink of madness. And in what is likely to be the division’s penultimate season, the Crystal Ball foresees the wackiest outcome of them all: a 4-way tie for first place.

Wisconsin, Purdue, Iowa and Minnesota will all finish 5-4 in the B1G, with Nebraska tailing at 4-5 after dropping the season finale to the Hawkeyes.

Based on the Big Ten tiebreaking procedure, the division champion would be determined by the team with the best record within the pool of tied teams.

  • Wisconsin (2-1): W vs. Purdue, W vs. Minnesota, L vs. Iowa
  • Purdue (2-1): W vs. Iowa, W vs. Minnesota, L vs. Wisconsin
  • Minnesota (1-2): W vs. Iowa, L vs. Purdue, L vs. Wisconsin
  • Iowa (1-2): W vs. Wisconsin, L vs. Purdue, L vs. Minnesota

Once you’ve done all that, it comes down to the head-to-head matchup between Wisconsin and Purdue. The Badgers have the edge there, and with that comes an appearance in the Big Ten championship game.

Is this a ridiculous scenario? Of course. But it’s also exactly what would have happened last year if Nebraska had held on to beat Iowa in the season finale. The Crystal Ball sees chaos reaching its zenith in 2022.