Left for dead before the 2016 season started by a brutal schedule, Wisconsin responded by going 11-3 and falling a touchdown short of winning the Big Ten. With 15 starters returning, more of the same seems in store.
Wisconsin has taken to more passes well under Coach Paul Chryst, but 2017 could feel a little like a return to classic Badger form. Running back Bradrick Shaw showed promise with limited touches as a freshman last season and Pittsburgh transfer Chris James joins the party. Troy Fumagalli is one of the best tight ends in the country and he’s joined by leading receiver Jazz Peavy to give the Badgers options in the passing game. The only question on offense might be quarterback. Alex Hornibrook appeared in 12 of 14 games as a freshman, but Bart Houston, now graduated, took most of the snaps late in the season.
Wisconsin is on its third defensive coordinator in three years. No problem? If it’s not, again, the Badgers probably fulfill their preseason-division-favorite prognostications. Wisconsin had lights-out defenses in Chryst’s two years and has plenty of pieces back to do it again under new defensive coordinator (and former Badger) Jim Leonhard. Two starters are gone at linebacker, but Wisconsin never seems to have a problem finding linebackers and the defensive line returns intact. Still, that’s a lot of turnover in a short amount of time and if the Badgers defense doesn’t look quite like it has, that could be enough for some team to sneak in and knock the Badgers off the top of the West Division.
Right now Wisconsin looks like it will be favored in all 12 games on the schedule. A trip to BYU in week three is worth keeping a close eye on and then Badgers open Big Ten play with Northwestern and Nebraska. Those two games will tell us a lot about the West race. The middle of Wisconsin’s schedule is cushy, but November brings games against Iowa, Michigan and Minnesota.
Is Wisconsin going to be better than the teams that went 11-3, 10-3 and 11-3 the past three years? That’s hard to project, but the Badgers could be as good as those teams and that’s a pretty big edge in a division that includes two new head coaches, a second-year coach and new coordinators at Iowa and Nebraska. We can say Wisconsin’s trend is FLAT, but it’s the kind of flat every team aspires to.