The No. 12 Wisconsin Badgers football program opens up the 2021 season tomorrow morning at 11:00 AM (Central Time) against the No. 19 Penn State Nittany Lions at Camp Randall Stadium. It will be nationally televised on Fox. UW currently is a 5 1/2 point favorite, per Bovada.
Head Coach: Paul Chryst
7th Season at Wisconsin: 56-19 (.747), 5-1 (.833) in Bowl Games.
10th Season Overall: 75-38 (.664), 6-2 (.750) in Bowl Games.
The Badgers need consistency from quarterback Graham Mertz. The first season with Mertz under center could not have been more chaotic and it is difficult to know what to take away from the 2020 version of UW’s quarterback of the future and Wisconsin’s offense as a whole.
Expectations for the 2020 team were certainly raised after Mertz’s first start as a college football quarterback, but it was a major struggle offensively afterward. With the defense expected to be a strong unit once again, this Wisconsin offense needs to hold up its end of the bargain for a return to Indianapolis.
Mertz did not make any last year, but let’s point out the long list of excuses for him. Many quarterbacks would have struggled with what Mertz had to deal with in 2020, especially in their first season as a starter (and a redshirt Freshman might I add).
Mertz was one of the most hyped recruits for sure in recent Wisconsin history, and maybe ever, Mertz was expected to be the backup behind Jack Coan heading into the season, until Coan broke his foot in early October (weeks before the season started). Mertz put on a show against Illinois in the season opener.
Later that same weekend, Mertz tested positive for the coronavirus, and the season was never the same after that. Wisconsin had 21 days off in between games and with three games canceled, they never found a rhythm offensively. Wisconsin’s two best wide receivers missed nearly the entire season, their best running back played just four games and the quarterbacks coach was out during a key stretch due to a positive coronavirus test.
One of Chryst’s biggest strengths is his play-calling ability, and he gave up that role in 2020 as he dealt with the chaos around the season. Finally, it was revealed after the season that Mertz was playing with an injured throwing shoulder.
When you add all of that together, it makes sense why Mertz’s numbers were, let’s just say unspectacular. In seven starts, Mertz completed 61.1 percent of his passes, threw for 1,238 yards with nine touchdowns and five interceptions.
While plenty of players and teams throughout the country can be given a pass for 2020 with the stop-and-start nature of the season, there are no excuses for Mertz or the UW offense in 2021. If we have the same feeling at the end of this season as we do right now, something went terribly wrong.
With quarterbacks coach Jon Budmayr gone to be offensive coordinator at Colorado State, Chryst has taken over that role (along with still be head coach obviously) and Chryst will also regain control of the play calling duties. He knows the position well, so this is great news for the development of Mertz in Year Two as the starter with a full offseason to work.
The pressure on Mertz to be great will be high, and he has the talent to do it. Mertz is as advertised. He’ll need to be sharp early with the toughest tests on the schedule coming early with three of the first four games consisting of Penn State, Notre Dame and Michigan.
It’s time for Mertz to show why the top programs in the country wanted him as a recruit because excuses cannot continue into 2021.
The Badgers have a ton of talent returning on both sides of the ball, and they should be among the most improved teams in the country after going 4-3 in 2020.
Wisconsin has a great chance to break through as a program and reach that next level as a program. If UW plays the same way they did in 2020, something went incredibly wrong.
Currently, Wisconsin is the betting favorite to win all 12 of their regular season games, but the Badgers will find themselves in plenty of tight battles from tomorrow morning till the very end of the season.
I’ll be giving my best-case and worst-case scenarios and then will be giving my prediction.
The best case is Badgers go 12-0 and make whoever bets them in Vegas wealthy.
At 12-0, Wisconsin would obviously win the Big Ten West and would play the winner of the Big Ten East in the championship game with a shot at the College Football Playoff and/or the Rose Bowl.
Expectations for this program over the last seven years have been elevated to the point where single-digit win total is considered a disappointment, which is a good spot to be in. I’ll set the “worst-case” floor at 8-4, and if that happens, something went very very wrong. That would likely mean that Wisconsin got off to an ugly start to the season against Penn State, Notre Dame and Michigan as three of the first four opponents.
Wisconsin’s defense is in a spot where it expects to be among the best in the Big Ten, so I have a hard time thinking that’s going to be the main issue if the Badgers lose four (or more) games. It’s ultimately going to come down to what Mertz and the passing game can do. If he gets hurt again or simply does not look sharp, this could be an 8-4 team sitting out of the conference championship game.
The Wisconsin Badgers go 11-1.
Wisconsin’s 2021 Schedule (All Times Are Central Time Zone):
September 4, vs Penn State, 11:00 AM, Fox
September 11, vs Eastern Michigan, 6:00 PM, FS1
September 25, at Notre Dame (Soldier Field), 11:00 AM, Fox
October 2, vs Michigan, TBA, TBA
October 9, at Illinois, 2:30 or 3:00 PM, TBA
October 16, vs Army, TBA, TBA
October 23, at Purdue, TBA, TBA
October 30, vs Iowa, 11:00 AM, TBA
November 6, at Rutgers, TBA, TBA
November 13, vs Northwestern, TBA, TBA
November 20, vs Nebraska, TBA, TBA
November 27, at Minnesota, TBA, TBA
December 4, Big Ten Championship, 7:00 PM, Fox