Wisconsin has a ton of returning talent on both sides of the ball, and they should be among the most improved teams in the country in 2021. Wisconsin could break through and reach the next level as a program; if the Badgers play the same way they did last season, something went incredibly wrong.

Below we will take a look at the best- and worst-case scenarios for Wisconsin. Because we’re optimists here, we’ll start with the best.

Graham Mertz is as advertised

It’s not every year you’ll find an elite high school quarterback choose the Badgers despite being offered by every top college program in the country. He was thrown into the starting lineup last season as a redshirt freshman, and after a fantastic Week 1 performance, Graham Mertz struggled for key stretches. Excuses for this offense’s performance are valid with COVID-19 spreading through the roster and coaching staff, injuries to key players, including Mertz, and more.

There is no room for excuses this year, though, especially in the passing game. If Mertz develops a connection with top wide receivers Danny Davis and Kendric Pryor, both of whom missed most of last season, the Badgers would have an explosive offense all of a sudden. Wisconsin has been a solid program for the past few decades, but it has lacked a game-changing quarterback outside of one year with Russell Wilson. Mertz has the talent to carry the Badgers to new heights.

A star running back emerges

New running backs coach Gary Brown said he would prefer to have a workhorse running back but if not, a Batman and Robin scenario would suffice. As fall camp moves along, it appears Jalen Berger and Chez Mellusi are the top two options.

The Badgers have four true freshman running backs in this class, most notably Braelon Allen, who is a physical freak at just 17 years old. Additionally, Julius Davis and Isaac Guerendo figure to get some work during camp after previously struggling with injuries. The backfield is extremely crowded, but in the best-case scenario, one back will prove to be much more talented than the rest and become the next star running back for the Badgers.

Best-case scenario

At this point of the preseason, Wisconsin is the betting favorite to win all 12 games of the regular season, but the Badgers will find themselves in plenty of tight battles from Week 1 till the very end. For that reason, I don’t believe Wisconsin has what it takes to finish the regular season unbeaten, so we’ll set the ceiling at 11-1.

Wisconsin would certainly win the B1G West with an 11-1 record, and the Badgers’ postseason ceiling could be determined by their B1G title game opponent from the East. If the Badgers get Ohio State, it’s very unlikely they would come out on top against a Buckeyes team that is far more talented, so the ceiling is the Rose Bowl. However, if a Penn State or Michigan gets past Ohio State in the standings, the Badgers have a great shot at winning, especially considering they are favorites over both teams heading into the season. Being a 12-1 conference champ in the B1G would send Wisconsin to the College Football Playoff for the first time.

Graham Mertz regresses

The 2021 season is incredibly important for Mertz and what this program can be. He was not set up for success last season but at some point, Mertz will need to show he can produce at a high level and live up to the hype. There is an incredible amount of pressure on him heading into the year. If Mertz cannot handle it, there’s a chance at a repeat of last season when the Badgers really struggled offensively against the top defenses they played.

While this is an underrated passing game heading into the season and Mertz is getting plenty of buzz during fall camp, we still haven’t seen him prove he can get the job done consistently. In 2020, he had one nearly perfect game and the rest can be described as mediocre. If we leave this season with the same thoughts on him, that’s not a good sign.

Injuries to the defensive line

Wisconsin is set up for another fantastic season for its defense under coordinator Jim Leonhard, but if there is any question on that side of the ball, it is defensive line depth. The Badgers have a solid trio of starters with Keeanu Benton, Isaiah Mullens and Matt Henninsen, but the depth chart is not filled with players with much college experience if any.

Benton is likely the most valuable defensive linemen among the group, and he should see more snaps this season, even on passing downs. If he and/or the other starters have to miss an extended period of time with an injury, that would create quite a bit of pressure on players without much experience. The rush defense would struggle, and life would be harder for linebackers looking to get into the backfield.

Worst-case scenario record

Expectations for this program elevated to the point where a single-digit win total is considered a disappointment, which is a good spot to be in. We’ll set the floor at 8-4, and if that happens, something went very wrong. This would likely mean Wisconsin got off to a rough start early on as it plays Penn State, Notre Dame and Michigan in 3 of the first 4 games.

Wisconsin’s defense is in a spot where it expects to be among the best in the B1G, so I’d have a hard time thinking that’s going to be the main issue if the Badgers lose 4 games. It’s going to really come down to what Mertz and this passing game can do. If he gets injured again or simply does not look sharp, this could be an 8-4 team sitting out of the conference championship game.