Wisconsin football: 5 dream and 5 disaster scenarios for 2022
Coming off a strong closing stretch in 2021, Wisconsin aims to ride its momentum into a trip to the Big Ten Championship Game for the first time since 2019.
After a 1-3 start last year, the Badgers rolled to 8 victories in 9 games, including a 20-13 win against Arizona State in the Las Vegas Bowl. Still, a loss to Minnesota to close the regular season left Wisconsin at 6-3 in the B1G, sending Iowa to Indianapolis and leaving the Badgers hungry for more. They enter 2022 at No. 20 in the preseason coaches poll.
Here are 5 dream and 5 disaster scenarios that could play out this season:
Bob Bostad’s return to O-line coach yields benefits
The veteran assistant, who oversaw the inside linebackers the past 5 seasons, is an offensive line coach at heart. Bostad coached the line from 2008-11, developing 8 first-team All-Americans and 9 NFL Draft picks.
Maximizing experience and depth factor into Bostad’s strategy of switching slots for a handful of players. Seniors Jack Nelson, Tyler Beach and Joe Tippmann are returning starters. Nelson switches from right guard to left tackle and Beach, who had 827 snaps at left tackle in 2021, moves inside to left guard. Junior Tanor Bortolini, likely the Badgers most versatile athlete on the O-line, is getting reps at center, with the likelihood that he’ll back up Tippmann at that spot.
Logan Brown shifts from reserve left tackle to starting right tackle, and senior Michael Furtney seems to have the inside track at right guard — though Bortolini could be in the mix there.
The dream: Bostad picks up where he left off with the O-line, and Wisconsin rumbles to the B1G West title.
Braelon Allen continues his A-1 running game
Allen, an All-Big Ten second team selection during his freshman campaign in 2021, led the Badgers with a team-best 1,109 yards in 11 regular-season games — 100.8 yards per game. He had 12 touchdowns and made 4 starts at running back. The standout, who celebrated his 18th birthday on Jan. 20, was 4th or 5th on the depth chart to begin last season, but is clearly No. 1 this time around. Now a sophomore, Allen ran for 100 or more yards in 8 games last season.
The dream: Allen dominates behind Bostad’s line, racking up more than 1,500 yards, maybe even 2,000.
Defensive line dominates
The experience the Badgers return on the defensive line is impressive and will wreak havoc on opponents. Senior Keeanu Benton has 24 starts at nose tackle in his career. He tallied 25 tackles, 5.0 tackles for loss, 2.5 sacks, 2 pass breakups and 4 quarterback hurries in 2021. Fellow senior Isaiah Mullins had 7 starts in 13 games (with 2.5 TFLs and 2 sacks) at defensive end during his junior campaign. He played 338 snaps and had 24 tackles last season.
Defensive ends Rodas Johnson and James Thompson Jr. made their marks in 12 and 13 games, respectively. Isaac Townsend, a 6-5, 283-pound athlete who transferred from Oregon to Wisconsin prior to the 2021 season, will vie for playing time.
The dream: Benton has a monster year, lifting those around him.
Greatness from Graham
Quarterback Graham Mertz needs to erase miscues and gain consistency for Wisconsin to have a great season. As a sophomore in 2021, Mertz had 11 interceptions and 10 touchdowns in 13 starts. The Badgers fan base has been relentless with critiques of QBs for many years on social media, and Mertz is no exception.
Fans likely dwell on Mertz’s electrifying debut in 2020, when he completed 20-of-21 passes for 248 yards and 5 touchdowns against Illinois. He has a fairly easygoing attitude and doesn’t dwell on poor performances, but the Kansan needs to seek out new targets, since the top 3 threats — tight end Jake Ferguson and wide receivers Danny Davis III and Kendric Pryor — are gone.
The dream: Mertz steps up as needed, becoming a stellar play-action passer and reducing the interception total substantially.
Andy Vujnovich averaged 46.4 yards on 49 punts last year, surpassing the previous school record by almost 2 yards per attempt (Ken Debauche, 44.8, 2005).
Vujnovich grew up in Columbus, which is 28 miles northeast of Madison. He spent 2 seasons competing with Division III Dubuque before transferring to Wisconsin in 2020. He’s one of Wisconsin’s most notable athletes, with a 4.6-second time in the 40-yard dash. He’s bench pressed 400 pounds, squatted almost 550 and done a power clean at 315 pounds. The 6-3, 230-pound senior has started the past 2 seasons for the Badgers and recently told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that he’s got an eye toward competing in the NFL.
The dream: Vujnovich thrives as a fan favorite, posts even better numbers than last year, helps the Badgers dominate in field position and cashes in on his NFL dream.
Crushed in Columbus
Wisconsin’s toughest game of the season will be its first Big Ten game, Sept. 24 at Ohio State. The teams last met in 2019 in Columbus, and the Buckeyes prevailed 34-21. The Badgers have lost 8 straight to the Buckeyes, last winning in 2010, 31-18 at home.
The disaster: The Buckeyes dominate, proving that Wisconsin’s old-school style won’t work against college football’s elite programs.
Tight end by committee
The combination of the graduation departure of Ferguson and a slew of time off for rehabilitation during the spring leaves question marks about the unit’s regular-season potential. Cam Large, a highly touted athlete who suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament late last season, didn’t participate in spring practice. Then he sustained a right leg injury in fall practice on Aug. 3 and is out indefinitely.
Since no single player will have the impact of Ferguson, many will have to step up. Pass catcher Clay Cundiff, who played in 5 games in 2021, will be expected to contribute. Cundiff has returned from a brutal injury in the Badgers’ 2021 loss to Iowa in October, resulting in right foot and ankle surgery. Jaylen Franklin, Jack Eschenbach and Cole Dakovich will also need to make impacts. Franklin, known for his blocking skills, has played in 29 games in 3 seasons. Eschenbach, a pass catcher, had 2 starts in 8 games in 2021. Dakovich, a redshirt sophomore, has no game experience.
The disaster: No one emerges as a solid blocker or pass-catcher.
Punished on punt returns
The Badgers averaged 4.84 yards per punt return in 2021, which ranked 112th among teams in the FBS. Wide receiver Dean Engram is expected to be the go-to player for punt returns, and posted a 5.1-yard average in 2021. Efficiency and more player options are critical for this unit. Chimere Dike and Skyler Bell could provide athleticism and speed in the role.
The disaster: It’ll be at least a minor disaster if the numbers don’t improve.
Where are the wide receivers?
One of the biggest unknowns on the entire roster is which players will rise to join junior Chimere Dike at wide receiver? Dike played in 13 games in 2021 and had 19 catches for 272 yards and 1 touchdown. Markus Allen and Skyler Bell seem to be the likely successors to Davis and Pryor. The pair had some solid catches in the Badgers’ bowl win to conclude their freshman seasons, but have little game experience besides that one game. Junior Dean Engram switched from cornerback to wide receiver and is determined to make his presence known.
The disaster: The receivers struggle to gain separation, run poor routes and drop passes. Mertz doesn’t have much to work with.
Will Badgers get road burn?
Wisconsin’s Big Ten road schedule is a tough one. Not only do the Badgers play at Ohio State, but they’ll travel for 2 of their final 3 regular-season games — at Nebraska (Nov. 12) and Iowa (Nov. 19). The team collected victories last season over the Cornhuskers (35-28 in Lincoln) and Hawkeyes (27-7 in Madison). The Badgers also have an October trip to East Lansing to face resurgent East power Michigan State.
The disaster: Conference road losses keep the Badgers from reaching Indianapolis for a third straight season.