The end of an era, the start of a promising future, and an early look at 2023? Make no mistake, the Guaranteed Rate Bowl has plenty of reasons for Wisconsin fans to be glued to their televisions on Tuesday night.

The Badgers will say goodbye to DC Jim Leonhard as he begins the next chapter in post-Madison life. Paul Chryst was fired for Leonhard, the pride of Badgers football, to be given a chance to earn the title of permanent head coach. But with a 4-3 finish, plus another loss to rival Minnesota in the season finale, AD Chris McIntosh sensed a change of direction for the program was warranted.

There’s upside for the Badgers in 2023. McIntosh swung big, making Cincinnati’s Luke Fickell an offer he couldn’t refuse. Experience in the B1G should benefit the former Bearcats coach as he looks to bring stability to a program fighting to remain relevant in the future of the conference, which adds USC and UCLA in 2024. Wins matter too, and Fickell has plenty of them under his belt.

Does anyone remember the 2021 College Football Playoff and the little Group of 5 team that faced Alabama in the Cotton Bowl? Yep, that was Fickell’s Bearcats.

Wisconsin and Oklahoma State both underwhelmed compared to preseason expectations. No one expected the Badgers to take down the giants of the B1G, but 6-6 won’t cut it. Oklahoma State was an inch away from representing the Big 12 in the CFP this time last year. The Pokes finished 2-5 following a 5-0 start, largely due to inept defensive play led by first-year coordinator Derek Mason.

The new Badgers staff won’t be calling plays Tuesday night from Chase Field, but Fickell will have a clear indication of the program’s direction when the clock strikes zero in Arizona. Here are several thoughts heading into the matchup against last year’s Big 12 runner-up.

A starting QB on hand?

Graham Mertz will try to resurrect his career in Florida after 3 less-than-ideal years commanding the Badgers’ offense. Change was needed for both sides. Mertz, the highest-rated quarterback recruit in program history, never looked consistent running the show regardless of his play-caller.

The good news? Wisconsin might have its starter already on campus with Myles Burkett expected to take over. Despite insufficient play from Mertz down the stretch, Leonhard steered into the skid rather than pulling over to switch drivers mid-year. Much of what the Franklin native can bring to the table remains a mystery not just to the Pokes, but also to the Wisconsin staff.

Burkett, an early enrollee last spring, completed 80% of his passes for 84 yards. Granted, every throw was made in Week 2 against New Mexico State, but the Aggies’ ranked 32nd nationally in total yards allowed. The Pokes enter Tuesday ranked 117th, and will be without star linebacker Mason Cobb, who elected to enter the transfer portal.

Say Burkett shows potential. Fickell then will have an internal option for new OC Phil Longo to mold into a more dynamic passer next season in an RPO system that features plenty of looks from a spread formation. And with the return of receivers Chimere Dike, Skyler Bell, and Keontez Lewis, chemistry could be brewing heading into the offseason.

But say Burkett struggles. No harm, no foul. The Badgers recently added former 4-star Oklahoma quarterback Nick Evers, whose dual-threat mobility might be a better fit for Longo’s offense after Evers spent a year in a similar system under Sooners OC Jeff Lebby.

It’s a win-win situation for Fickell in terms of the search for his next quarterback. Senior Chase Wolf could also see action.

Who’s the next big defensive name?

Both outside linebacker Nick Herbig and defensive tackle Keeanu Benton opted out to prepare for the NFL Draft. They were Wisconsin’s top 2 pass-rushers, combining for 15.5 of the Badgers’ 31 sacks.

Much like Wisconsin, Oklahoma State will be starting fresh at quarterback now that Spencer Sanders is in the transfer portal. Garrett Rangel and Gunnar Gundy have done little to give hope to the Big 12 program entering 2023, as both finished the regular season with a completion rate under 54% and more interceptions than touchdowns.

This will be a chance for new Wisconsin DC Mike Tressel to scout the talent coming off the edge entering the spring. Maema Njongmeta finished third in sacks (3.5) and led the Badgers in tackles for losses (10.5), but he’s a staple inside rather than on the edge. Gio Paez (11 tackles) and Kaden Johnson (19 tackles) are expected to fill in for Benton and Herbig, respectively, but the duo combined for zero sacks and just a handful of pressures in limited reps.

Making the Oklahoma State offense one-dimensional might be the key to a win. Leading running back Dominic Richardson also opted out before the bowl game, leaving freshman Ollie Gordon as the leading man in the Pokes’ backfield. Gordon amassed 253 yards on 50 carries, averaging 5.3 yards per run.

Someone will need to step up and become the next breakout player for Wisconsin opposite Njongmeta.

Braelon Allen’s future

The run game has always been the Badgers’ identity. Ron Dayne set the tone in the 1990s en route to a Heisman. Anthony Davis took over with back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons at the start of the new century. Monte Ball, James White, Melvin Gordon and Jonathan Taylor all made their mark at Camp Randall before going pro, and Allen certainly looks to be the next in line.

Will that change in Longo’s offense?

Rumors circulated that Allen could be transferring following the 2022 campaign prior to the season finale. Since then, Allen made it clear that he intends to be on the Badgers’ sidelines despite the change of staff. While the Air Raid style offense usually predicates most of its snaps to the passing attack, Longo has bucked that trend at times, including this past year.

Longo made sure to get North Carolina involved in the run game. The Tar Heels attempted 482 passes compared to 474 rush attempts for a near-even 50/50 split. Quarterback Drake Maye was the leading rusher with 653 yards on 174 carries. Allen totaled 1,126 yards on 208 attempts for the Badgers, the 2nd straight 1,000-yard season for the true sophomore.

Depending on how much of Longo’s offense has been implemented in the game script, fans could see how Allen’s usage might be impacted next season. According to PFF, the Pokes finished with the worst tackling grade in the Big 12 (51.0) and averaged 13.8 missed tackles per game. Combine that with a raw quarterback under center for the Badgers, and Allen is likely to see his normal workload.

Allen is driving the bus in Madison until further notice, but Wisconsin wants to be more versatile with its personnel. Relying on their best player’s legs for ample yards will be key Tuesday night, but it will also provide context for the run game’s outlook for next season.

Prediction

There are plenty of out-opts and transfers from both sides.

But the Badgers have Allen, who is capable of taking over games. Look back at Week 11, when Allen turned on the jets for 119 yards and a touchdown in a 23-10 win over Maryland. Or how about in Week 9 when his 14-yard touchdown run extended Wisconsin’s lead to 24 over Purdue in an eventual 35-24 victory?

Leonhard, who certainly will be a top candidate for various coaching jobs this off-season, would like to end his Badgers’ career with a win. The Pokes’ run defense struggled even with their best starters, and 3 have already left the program. The sun sets on Leonhard’s time as interim coach with a win.

The former walk-on safety walks off with a 5-3 record as interim coach.

Wisconsin 24, Oklahoma State 13