Reassessing Wisconsin’s 1-1 Start

We’re three weeks into the College Football season (four weeks if you include Week 0) and most teams have played 25 percent of their schedule, but that isn’t the case for the Wisconsin Badgers. Nebraska and Illinois both have played four games to this point, but UW got a bye after two games. Now the Badgers need to prepare for a stretch that includes 10 games over the next 10 Saturday’s, and if all goes well, an 11th consecutive game.

It’s never too early to reassess what we’ve seen from Wisconsin through two games, who head into a really difficult two-game stretch against Notre Dame and Michigan.

We will learn a lot about what this team can do and the direction it’s headed over the next two games after UW went 1-1 in the first two games.

Wisconsin easily handled Eastern Michigan and suffered a brutal loss to Penn State in a game they should have won. How do you lose a game when you have a 29-11 first down edge, dominate the time of possession and outgain …. you know what, it’s in the past.

It’s time to move forward, but before we do, let’s evaluate what we’ve seen.

Chez Mellusi has emerged as the No. 1 running back and will likely lead the team in carries if he can stay healthy enough through the regular season. He left Clemson to go to a program that provides running backs a larger workload, and so far things are going according to plan.

Mellusi never had more than eight carries in a game with the Clemson Tigers, so far through two games in Madison he has 51 carries. This is likely a three-man backfield that includes Jalen Berger and Isaac Guerendo, but Mellusi is the lead dog right now.

The entire front seven on defense has been really good through the first two games. Teams are not going to be able to run on the Badgers with any sort of efficiency. UW is allowing 1.8 yards per carry, and more than half of the yards they’ve given up on the ground came on a 34-yard run from Penn State running back Noah Cain.

Inside Linebacker Leo Chenal will be back in the lineup for the Notre Dame game after missing the first two contests due to a positive coronavirus test.

We need Graham Mertz to emerge. Whether it’s fair or not, the ceiling of the Wisconsin football program can reach new heights if he plays to his potential both in 2021 and over the next few years.

Mertz had every reason under the sun to not perform well in 2020, but all the excuses are gone now. If not for some unforced errors against Penn State, like bad handoff exchanges in the red zone and some crucial missed throws, Wisconsin would be 2-0 right now.

Paul Chryst and the staff didn’t ask Mertz to do a whole lot against Eastern Michigan. Whether the staff should have tried to make more of an effort to get the passing attack going in a game situation is up for debate. Mertz has two huge games coming up and if he comes up big in crucial spots, many of his previous blunders will be forgiven.

Mertz has a few talented and experienced pass catchers on this team, and he has every opportunity to show he is the guy who can elevate this program to a College Football Playoff program.

It’s way too early on in the season to say whether we should revise the preseason expectations. Wisconsin entered Week 1 as the favorites to win the Big Ten West and many of the magazines and websites had Wisconsin representing the Big Ten in the Rose Bowl.

Wisconsin and Iowa were the clear cut top two teams to contend for the Big Ten West Division title in the preseason. At this point of the season, the teams that are expected to contend for the West Division title are, well, Wisconsin and Iowa.

The Hawkeyes are probably projected to win the West after a 3-0 start with a few impressive victories, though they seem limited offensively.

The Badgers host the Hawkeyes on October 30th in a game that could very well determine who goes to Indianapolis.

The Wisconsin program is expected to have 10-plus wins every year now. With the schedule they have remaining after a 1-1 start, they’ll need to finish the season 9-1 to hit the 10-win mark. If Wisconsin finds a way to get there with this schedule, this is an incredibly good football team.

As for a spot in the Rose Bowl, that becomes a whole lot more challenging. The most likely and easiest path entering the season was for Ohio State to reach the College Football Playoff and to beat the Badgers in the Big Ten Title game. But given the way the Buckeyes have played this season, there is a higher chance the Big Ten won’t make it to the College Football Playoff. Ohio State and Penn State are probably the favorites to win the Big Ten Conference and that B1G champion will likely get a berth to the Rose Bowl at this point. But there’s still plenty of season to be played.

Three of the next six games that’ll take us through October will be challenging. UW has Notre Dame, Michigan and Iowa before we hit November. Fortunately for the Badgers, two of them are at Camp Randall Stadium and the Notre Dame game is a neutral site game at Soldier Field. If UW goes 2-1 or 3-0 in those three games, then they’ll set themselves up well for the rest of the season. If the Badgers lose to Illinois, Army or Purdue in the month of October, then there’s a much bigger issue.

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