A 10-win season at Wisconsin rarely goes unnoticed, but that was kind of the theme of Paul Chryst’s first year as Head Coach in Madison in 2015. The Badgers lost the season opener to the eventual National Champion Alabama and fell out of the Big Ten West race with an early-season loss to Iowa. Wisconsin lost its perch atop the Division, and a 13-7 loss to Northwestern proved to be the low point.
Still, Wisconsin did hit double-digit wins and beat USC in the Holiday Bowl. It wasn’t a disappointing season by any means, but for a program that made three Big Ten Championship Game appearances in five years, it also didn’t live up to the standard.
The biggest offseason change is the loss of the renowned defensive coordinator Dave Aranda, who left for LSU (UW’s season opening opponent). That’s significant because the Badgers led the Nation in scoring defense at 13.7 points per game.
The main task now for Coach Paul Chryst is finding a quarterback. The competition figures to be between fifth-year senior Bart Houston and redshirt freshman Alex Hornibrook. Houston has the experience and will be the favorite to win the job entering fall camp. In 2015, UW quarterbacks combined for 14 touchdowns and 13 interceptions and a 60.1 completion percentage. The Badgers and Chryst need more out of that position.
The return of Corey Clement will boost the running game after missing 9 games in 2015. Without Clement last season the running game struggled while averaging 3.8 yards per rushing attempt, their lowest since 2004. The Badgers averaged 6.9 yards per carry in 2014 with Melvin Gordon and Clement.
The Badgers will have to find a go-to receiver with the departure of Alex Erickson. Robert Wheelwright is the top returning receiver and Troy Fumagalli is a big target at Tight End.
The offensive line doesn’t have the same question marks it did last season, which is great news for UW. Four starters return and the anchor of the unit, Dan Voltz, is an All-American candidate. They’re a beefy group and will look to improve on the disappointing 2015 rushing totals.
The secondary has some holes to fill after losing three starters, including Michael Caputo. Sojourn Shelton is the lone returning starter. The Badgers had the best statistical defense in the Big Ten in 2015 allowing 268.5 yards per game. The challenge will be keeping it that way with a transition to new defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox.
Wisconsin’s schedule is truly brutal, particularly the first two months. The opener is against LSU at Lambeau Field and that’s just the start of it. That’s a big test for two teams that played a tight game in 2014 in Houston.
Take a look at the Badgers’ first four Big Ten games. It starts with road games at Michigan State and Michigan before a bye week. Wisconsin then hosts Ohio State at Camp Randall before playing in Iowa City against Iowa and then host Nebraska. That’s all before November and it’s the toughest road to the Big Ten West Division title, which makes a quick start vital to have a chance at a spot in the Big Ten Title game. That makes it difficult for most to pick Wisconsin to win the West Division even though it’s a proven commodity capable of making it back to Indianapolis. The road back to 10+ wins is simply a little more difficult in 2016.
If the Badgers shore up the secondary and turn the new starting quarterback into a competent passer, this team will be a really tough team to beat. This team is better than last seasons team, but as stated earlier the schedule is just flat out brutal.
If Wisconsin can stay healthy, I’m predicting the Badgers will go 10-2 during the regular season and heading back to Indy for the Big Ten Title game with the two losses coming to Michigan State and Michigan.