Wisconsin football: The 10 most valuable players from the past decade
Though Wisconsin has not cleared the hump of a B1G title since 2012, the Badgers have been one of the most consistent programs of the past decade.
Over the past 10 seasons, Wisconsin has posted a winning record every year. The Badgers also have 7 bowl wins, including 6 under current head coach Paul Chryst. That includes 4 BCS/New Year’s Six bowl appearances over that stretch.
Along the way, Wisconsin has been led by a host of All-Americans. The Badgers had at least one All-America player each season from 2012-19, from the likes of TJ Watt, Jonathan Taylor, Montee Ball and Michael Deiter. Unfortunately, Wisconsin has failed to have an All-American each of the past 2 seasons.
With that in mind, here is a look at 10 of the most valuable players to come through Wisconsin over the past decade. (Players are presented in no specific order.)
RB Montee Ball (2009-12)
With the date range for this article, only Ball’s 2012 season qualifies as a performance from the past decade. That made the decision on whether or not to include Ball on this list more difficult, especially considering 2012 was not Ball’s best season in Madison. But a close look shows it is still deserving.
During his senior season, Ball rushed for 1,830 yards and 22 touchdowns as the Badgers went 8-6 with a B1G Championship and Rose Bowl appearance. (Consider that as a team, the Badgers had just 9 passing touchdowns.)
The 2012 numbers also cemented Ball’s status in Wisconsin history. He still holds the program record with 77 career rushing touchdowns and was No. 2 on the Badgers’ all-time rushing list (5,140) at the time of his departure.
DE/OLB TJ Watt (2013-16)
Originally a tight end with the Badgers, Watt’s career took a winding journey to success. He did not switch to defense until 2015 and had a limited impact that season. Fortunately, 2016 turned things around.
During 2016, Watt finished with 63 total tackles, 15.5 TFL and 11.5 sacks. He forced 2 fumbles, deflected 4 passes and had an interception that he returned for a touchdown against Purdue.
As a team, Wisconsin went 11-3 with a Cotton Bowl win and a loss in the B1G Championship Game. Watt was everywhere all season long for the defense, including putting up a season-high 11 tackles to go with 2 TFL and a sack in a tough loss to Michigan.
RB Jonathan Taylor (2017-19)
For all the running backs included on this list, Taylor stands as the best and most accomplished. Taylor posted 2,000+ yards from scrimmage every season in Madison and finished with a pair of 2,000-yard rushing seasons to his credit.
As a team, the Badgers won 31 games in 3 seasons with a pair of New Year’s Six appearances and an Orange Bowl win. Taylor also posted 12 200-yard rushing games and a 300-yard performance as a sophomore against Purdue.
In terms of career numbers, Taylor is 2nd on Wisconsin’s all-time rushing list (6,174 yards) and 3rd in rushing touchdowns (50). The real travesty of it all is that Taylor was never highly-regarded by Heisman voters and never finished higher than 5th for the award.
OG Beau Benzschawel (2014-18)
Any most valuable list for the Badgers is bound to include some offensive linemen, and Beau Benzschawel had an especially strong run at Wisconsin. Over his career, Benzschawel made 49 consecutive starts, including 43 straight starts at right guard from 2015-18. That stretch included back-to-back All-America nods for Benzschawel in 2017-18.
Benzschawel was a part of a particularly successful run for the Badgers from 2015-18. That stretch included a 13-win season and Orange Bowl win in 2017, a 4-0 bowl record and a pair of seasons with 2,000+ scrimmage yards for running back Jonathan Taylor.
Add in the fact that Benzschawel was an in-state prospect out of Grafton.
OT Michael Deiter (2014-18)
Any mention of Benzschawel’s run with the Badgers is sure to be included alongside Michael Deiter’s name. Classmates via Wisconsin’s 2014 recruiting class, Deiter and Benzschawel proved vital to the Badgers during their tenure.
Like Benzschawel, Deiter was an All-American from 2017-18 with Deiter setting the school record for starts with 54. That mark also ranked 2nd all-time for starts in B1G history at the time of Deiter’s departure.
Both Deiter and Benzschawel proved to be extremely durable and vital to the Badgers during their careers, with Wisconsin winning 42 games from 2015-18.
RB Melvin Gordon (2011-14)
Unlike Montee Ball and Jonathan Taylor listed above, Melvin Gordon holds the extra distinction as an in-state prospect out of Kenosha. After playing sparingly his first 2 seasons, Gordon produced one of the best 2-year stretches in Wisconsin history.
From 2013-14, Gordon rushed for 4,196 yards and 41 touchdowns. That stretch includes a single-season program-record of 2,587 rushing yards in 2014 while averaging 7.5 per carry.
That performance is made even more impressive by the fact the Badgers averaged less than 150 passing yards per game while going 11-3 with an Outback Bowl win. Gordon rushed for 251 yards and 3 touchdowns in that bowl win over Auburn.
RB Braelon Allen (2021-)
Listing Braelon Allen on this list might be premature, but his importance in salvaging the 2021 season cannot be overlooked. Allen rushed for over 1,200 yards and 12 touchdowns as a true freshman. Digging deeper into the numbers makes that even more impressive.
Allen did not get more than 7 touches in a game until he exploded for 131 rushing yards and a touchdown against Illinois in the 5th game of the season. But consider that even after 4 consecutive 100-yard games, Allen was splitting carries with Chez Mellusi.
It wasn’t until Mellusi’s torn ACL against Rutgers (Game 9) that Allen took over the feature role, rushing for 736 yards and 7 touchdowns over the final 5 games. Wisconsin went 4-1 with a bowl win over Arizona State in that stretch.
OT Ryan Ramczyk (2015-16)
Ryan Ramczyk’s collegiate journey is remarkable to say the last, but he found his way to the Badgers and shined as the team’s starting left tackle in 2016. After beginning his career at Division III UW-Stevens Point, Ramczyk redshirted in 2015.
Then, in his lone season on the field for the Badgers, Ramczyk started all 14 games and was a consensus All-American and first-team All-B1G pick as a left tackle. He helped pave the way for a rushing attack that included Corey Clement, Dare Ogunbowale and Bradrick Shaw as Wisconsin went 11-3 with a Cotton Bowl win.
LB TJ Edwards (2014-18)
After redshirting in 2014, Edwards went on to have one of the most productive careers ever for a Wisconsin linebacker. In 4 seasons, Edwards never had less than 81 tackles with a career-high 112 as a senior in 2018.
For his career, Edwards finished with 367 total tackles (9th all-time for the Badgers), 37.5 TFL, 8 sacks and 10 interceptions, the most ever for a linebacker at Wisconsin. He also made 52 starts, the 2nd-most for a player in program history.
OLB Zack Baun (2015-19)
Zack Baun had a solid career with the Badgers while appearing in 39 games (27 starts), but it was the 2019 season that drew his spot on this list. He became the first consensus first-team All-America linebacker for the Badgers after compiling 75 tackles, 19.5 TFL, 12.5 sacks and an interception returned for a touchdown.
Along the way, Baun had some pretty impressive individual games during the 2019 season. He capped the blowout win over Michigan State with a pick-6 and recorded multi-sack outings in wins over Minnesota and Nebraska.