Tradition Crystal Ball: Predicting every Wisconsin football game in 2023
Editor’s note: Saturday Tradition’s annual Crystal Ball series concludes today with Wisconsin.
Two years ago, Tanner Mordecai was Sonny Dykes’ quarterback at SMU.
Dykes departed for TCU after the season. The Horned Frogs were coming off a rare down season that forced a midseason end to coach Gary Patterson’s long tenure. And by the end of Year 1, Dykes had TCU playing for a national championship.
This year, Mordecai is the one on the move, transferring to Wisconsin. Camp Randall Stadium has been a quarterback graveyard in recent years, but Mordecai was intrigued by the premise of closing out his career with new Wisconsin coach Luke Fickell.
Fickell is here because the Badgers are coming off a rare down season that forced a midseason end to Paul Chryst’s long tenure.
You can probably see where we’re going with this.
Could Mordecai become the second 2021 SMU Mustang to play for a national championship in his first season at a new stop?
Crazier things have happened. Like TCU playing for a national championship.
“For any team Coach Fickell coaches,” Mordecai declared at Big Ten Media Days, “the sky is the limit.”
And the Badgers might actually be able to touch the sky this year. Because thanks to the arrival of Fickell and Mordecai, Wisconsin can actually go airborne.
A passing fancy
Russell Wilson is the lone 3,000-yard passer in Wisconsin history.
Fittingly, Wilson was an outsider. His arrival in Madison was somewhat miraculous. Wilson would have been content finishing his career at NC State, but Wolfpack coach Tom O’Brien threw a stink when Wilson reported to spring training with the Colorado Rockies.
Then-Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema was happy to have him, and the rest is history. Wilson had the best season by a quarterback in Wisconsin history and led the Badgers to the Big Ten title. O’Brien was out of a job within 2 years.
The Badgers have had plenty of serviceable QBs in the decade since Wilson’s standout season, but never another star. Mordecai potentially represents the change Wisconsin fans have long waited for.
In his 2 seasons at SMU after transferring from Oklahoma, Mordecai threw for 3,628 yards and 3,524 yards with a combined 72 touchdown passes. And to make sure Mordecai isn’t a square peg in a round hole, Fickell hired North Carolina offensive coordinator Phil Longo. Longo’s up-tempo Tar Heels were 11th nationally in passing yards per game and 26th in scoring last year.
Mordecai is also working with a better group of receivers than some may realize.
Chimere Dike, who led the Badgers with 6 touchdown catches, is the real deal. Skyler Bell and Keontez Lewis both flashed breakout potential. Transfers Will Pauling (Cincinnati) and CJ Williams (USC) add to a surprisingly deep position.
Never stop running
Much of Longo’s offense will feel as out of place as a vegan looking for lunch at State Street Brats.
All the passing. The lack of a huddle. More than 2 snaps per minute. But don’t think for a second all of that means the Badgers are getting away from their bread and butter. Especially the butter.
With Braelon Allen and Chez Mellusi, Wisconsin still has one of the Big Ten’s premier backfields. And what’s the point in having a pair of Lamborghinis if you’re going to keep them in the garage?
By forcing opponents to respect the pass, Wisconsin is creating opportunities for Allen to put up the best numbers of his career. And he’s already rushed for better than 1,200 yards in each of his first 2 seasons.
“The only time you’ll see 8 or 9 men in the box is at the inch-yard line,” Mordecai said.
That will probably prove to be hyperbole. But Allen will surely see 8 men in the box a great deal less than last year, when opponents overloaded against the run 268 times. No Power 5 running back faced more 8-man fronts.
Allen’s career average of 6.1 yards per carry may be even higher by the end of this season.
The big question is … defense?
From Dave Doeren to Chris Ash to Dave Aranda to Jim Leonhard, it’s pretty much been a given that Wisconsin will field a rock-solid defense.
For the first time in a very long time, defense is Wisconsin’s most unknown quantity.
Coordinator Mike Tressel installed a 3-3-5 base defense this spring. It’s been a success elsewhere, but the most prominent example of the 3-3-5 in the B1G was with Rich Rodriguez at Michigan.
Coincidentally, both Wisconsin and Nebraska are making the shift this fall, so it will be interesting to see how those units compare this year and beyond.
Inside linebacker is an unquestioned position of strength with Naema Njongmeta and Jordan Turner leading the way.
However, Nick Herbig leaves impossible shoes to fill at outside linebacker. No other Badger came even halfway to his total of 11 sacks.
Wisconsin also has the difficult task of replacing all-B1G nose tackle Keeanu Benton. It’s no mistake that Herbig and Benton were both drafted by the Pittsburgh Steelers, who have known a thing or two about defense for a few generations now.
There is a possibility that Wisconsin struggles getting to the quarterback for the first time since 2018, when it finished 12th in the B1G with 19 sacks.
Week 1: Buffalo (W)
Provided Khalil Mack doesn’t show up in disguise, Wisconsin should be pretty safe here. But an obligatory word of warning: a MAC team has beaten a Big Ten team every year since 2006. It’ll probably happen again in 2023. Don’t let it be you.
Week 2: at Washington State (W)
Expect a nasty, nasty environment on The Palouse. Washington State is on the precipice of falling out of the Power 5, and the Big Ten is mostly to blame. Getting home without getting hit by a flying object might be a more important objective than winning.
Week 3: Georgia Southern (W)
The Eagles went to Nebraska a year ago and ended Scott Frost’s career. There will be plenty of “can they do it again?” talk this week. They won’t.
Week 4: at Purdue (W)
Provided Kyle Orton doesn’t show up in disguise, Wisconsin should be pretty safe here. Orton remains the most recent Boilermaker QB to beat the Badgers — in 2003. Back in 1997, sophomore Drew Brees was the last Purdue QB to beat the Badgers at Ross-Ade.
It’s a hex that makes little sense. But it will continue.
Week 5: Bye
Week 6: Rutgers (W)
Having an extra week to prepare for Rutgers should be illegal. So should the final score of this game.
Week 7: Iowa (W)
Phil Parker’s defense will provide the first true test for Wisconsin’s explosive new offense, and this will feel more like a traditional Iowa-Wisconsin battle. But the Badgers will edge out the Hawkeyes to get to 6-0.
Week 8: at Illinois (L)
With the potential for an undefeated showdown against Ohio State looming, Wisconsin gets a harsh dose of reality. Jim Leonhard, now an Illinois defensive analyst, will have a little something cooked up for his old team.
Week 9: Ohio State (W)
Halloween weekend in Madison is a double dose of crazy. And what would be crazier than beating the Buckeyes for the first time since 2010? This will be the Big Ten’s game of the year.
Week 10: at Indiana (W)
It’s a trap! Expect a classic Indiana football scenario to ensue. The Hoosiers will have the lead late in the third quarter, but Wisconsin will still find a way to cover the point spread by the end.
Week 11: Northwestern (W)
The Wildcats have been a frequent headache for the Badgers over the years, but Fitzy doesn’t live here anymore. Wisconsin blows out Northwestern for the third straight season.
Week 12: Nebraska (W)
Give the edge in this battle of first-year coaches to the one with the better roster. Matt Rhule will make this rivalry interesting in short order, but Wisconsin still has the edge right now.
Week 13: at Minnesota (L)
Wisconsin’s path to the Playoff is clear. Beat the Gophers, win the Big Ten championship game, and you’re good to go.
But in another of the season’s stunners, PJ Fleck and Minnesota keep Paul Bunyan’s Axe in Minneapolis for a third straight year for the first time since 1987. The win also gives Minnesota a 63-62-8 all-time edge in the Big Ten’s oldest rivalry, marking the first time since 2003 that the Gophers have held the lead.
2023 Projection: 10-2 (7-2), 1st in B1G West
Everything was pretty great until the M. Night Shyamalan ending. Sorry. The Crystal Ball can’t play favorites, only the truths it foresees.
That said, Fickell could prove more powerful than the Crystal Ball in his first season.
Wisconsin is set up in a manner where replicating TCU’s Year 1 run under Sonny Dykes is entirely possible. Talent wasn’t the issue for Wisconsin the past couple years. Poor quarterback play and the occasional Paul Chryst head-scratcher were the culprits. Those elements should no longer be issues in 2023.
However, Fickell’s first season is much more likely to replicate that of another first-year coach in 2022: Lincoln Riley of future Big Ten rival USC. (Yeah, I can’t get over how weird that sentence is either. Work with me.)
Riley took over a 4-8 team and had it in the thick of the Playoff hunt until a blowout loss to Utah in the Pac-12 championship game.
Likewise, this year’s Badgers will keep themselves in the middle of the CFP conversation until the end of November. Wisconsin misses both Michigan and Penn State in the regular season and gets Ohio State at Camp Randall. This is a pretty favorable schedule for a rebound and a dark horse Playoff run.
But are guys who were recruited to play defense for a team that formerly valued time of possession on offense going to be conditioned for what’s ahead of them? That’s a very big question. Even if the Crystal Ball doesn’t have the exact games right, there will be 2 times this season where the Badgers are outscored.