Although it was hard to see following a 7-6 season and a blowout bowl loss to Tennessee, Iowa may be on the verge of a third wave of big success under longtime coach Kirk Ferentz. Heading to Madison at 4-0 this weekend, the Hawkeyes are likely playing for a national ranking as well as the inside track for the Big Ten West title this season.
To be the best in a conference or division, eventually you have to beat the best. Since divisional play began in 2011, Wisconsin is simply the best in their division (Leaders previously, West now), having won two division titles and having made three conference championship games in four seasons. Thus, the target is on the Badgers as the de facto favorite until proven otherwise.
This could be the opportunity to knock the defending champion off the top perch right away, and Iowa could be the major beneficiary of such a changing of the guard.
One good analogy for the ongoing struggle for relevance in the Big Ten has been provided a few times by Scott Dochterman of the On Iowa Live podcast and Cedar Rapids Gazette: Wisconsin, Michigan State, and Iowa are like three polar bears fighting and scrapping to stay on top a small piece of ice.
Given the style of play these teams usually employ, the analogy is not much of a stretch.
Right now, Wisconsin and Michigan State have taken a long hold on that patch of ice at the top of the conference (alongside blue bloods like Michigan, Ohio State, and Penn State, who generally don’t have to scrap and claw as much to stay at the top over time). Minnesota and Nebraska have tried the past couple seasons to knock these teams off, but the Badgers and Spartans keep pushing those teams back into the proverbial cold water.
For programs like Iowa, sometimes this leads to an extended period where the football team is fighting over a smaller patch of ice with lesser programs like Minnesota, Illinois, Northwestern, etc. After all, proud programs like Iowa don’t want to go back to the end of the line with the usual likes of Purdue, Indiana, and Rutgers.
But the place these programs really want to be is at the top, fighting with the best of the blue-bloods every season for conference championships and big bowl game stakes. Since 2010, the only two “outsiders” able to compete have been Wisconsin and Michigan State.
In those past five years, Wisconsin has 30 conference wins and MSU has 32 (Ohio State is the only program with more at 34 wins). Not surprisingly, these are the only three teams with a conference championship in this span.
No other team has more than 22 wins in the past five seasons, which means Iowa’s 19-21 mark puts it firmly in the mix with lesser teams like Northwestern and Minnesota (15 wins apiece). But go back to 2008 and 2009, and you’ll see Iowa right in the mix with 9-4 and 11-2 seasons. And a few years before that in 2002, only a loss to Iowa State kept an 11-1 Iowa team from possibly claiming a spot in the BCS Championship instead of Ohio State.
So Kirk Ferentz has been at the pinnacle, twice. He’s had to change some members of his staff and revitalize his coaching strategy to become more aggressive, but these changes are working. Iowa is scoring nearly 38 points per game against decent competition, not counting the North Texas team played last weekend.
Meanwhile, Wisconsin lost a head coach for the second time in three years following a 59-0 drubbing at the hands of Ohio State in the Big Ten Championship. Although Paul Chryst returns from the staff of Bret Bielema three seasons ago, the continuity loss is significant. Add to that some injuries to key players like Corey Clement, and the Badgers don’t look anything like the team that normally pummels lesser competition and midrange Big Ten foes with running game and defensive toughness.
Iowa nearly stopped Wisconsin a season ago, falling just short 26-24. That type of competitive play has been more typical than not in this rivalry, and Iowa is very motivated to go win that Heartland Trophy for the first time since 2009.
Iowa also appears to be a program back on the rise, thanks to those changes in Kirk Ferentz and the best quarterback play this program has seen since Ricky Stanzi. Iowa runs into this game with a ton of momentum, ramping up the good results over the month of September. Wisconsin, on the other hand, has not looked dominant in the past couple weeks against lesser competition.
Add it all together, and this looks like the perfect opportunity for Wisconsin to possibly be knocked off that small patch of ice for the first time in the past half decade. Even with the game in the friendly home confines of Camp Randall Stadium.
It could be a changing of the guard this weekend in the West Division. That would be a huge change, and certainly a welcome one in Iowa City.
Best, worst case scenarios for Badgers ILB’s in 2019
We hope you enjoyed the Independence Day holiday, but it is time to get back to some business and that means continuing our series looking in to every position group for the 2019 Wisconsin Badgers.
Since we went outside the last time around, today we will focus on a position that has long been a strength of the Badgers program — inside linebacker.
What could happen with this group in 2019? Let’s find out.
Best Case Scenario
Yes, the Badgers face life without an All-American and a steady veteran thanks to the graduations of T.J. Edwards and Ryan Connelly. But, the good news is that this group was one of the deepest and most productive overall last season.
Veteran Chris Orr will get one starting spot and former 4-star recruit Jack Sanborn will step in to the other starting role. So, the best case scenario for this group is that Orr, who started as a freshman, gets back to that kind of form, and we see quality play from a combination of younger players like Sanborn and freshman Leo Chenal.
No one had a bigger breakout this spring than Chenal did. He came in as an early enrollee, but well under the radar. By the end of spring ball, it looked very much like he won’t be redshirting and will be challenging for a lot of snaps in the fall.
It would be great to see that happen, because Orr has just one year left in the Cardinal and White.
Worst Case Scenario
What would really hurt this group is if Orr or Sanborn were to go down with an injury here. Yes, Chenal looked good in spring ball like I mentioned before and yes Mike Maskalunas has shown flashes of ability, but are they really ready to be thrust in to the majority of snaps at inside linebacker together?
Experience is an issue for this group and I could see an injury exposing that lack of experience in a big way. Even if the Badgers wanted to go with an older player, the only other option would be Seth Currens and he just converted from safety in the spring himself.
Other than that it would be Hunter Johnson or two walk-ons that were here in the spring.
The Badgers only inside linebacker recruit in the 2019 class was Chenal too, so there will be no more help coming in to fall camp.
Most Likely to Happen
The good news is that I don’t see the worst case scenario actually happening, at least not in a major way. Orr’s medical history suggests he could be prone to missing a game or two with a nagging injury, but don’t expect anything crazy to happen.
I also believe we will see the emergence of Sanborn and Chenal as the future of this position for the Badgers. In fact, Sanborn has looked so good in spring and in his limited playing time last season, that I suspect he could be a darkhorse for All-Big Ten honors at season’s end.
Look for this group to be a downhill, hard-hitting and more athletic group than we saw last season and that could make a major difference for those playing behind them.
Defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard and his staff have a lot to figure out, but they should feel safe with the talent that is available to them at inside linebacker.
Best, worst case scenarios for Badgers OLB’s in 2019
This time next month, the pads may be popping and the 2019 Wisconsin Badgers fall practices will be under way. It’s so close we all can almost taste it.
But, as we look forward to the 2019 season we’re going to try something a bit different. Gone are the usual ways of looking position groups and giving you a fall preview that last’s a week.
Well, that’s because this season is vital to the Paul Chryst era. There’s a changing of the guard going on. After a disappointing 2018 season that saw UW drop Paul Bunyan’s Axe for the first time in 15 years and not win the Big Ten West, the question is if that’s a sign of decline or a blip on the radar.
In order to best answer that question, we’re actually going to start with a look at what needs to happen, what the Badgers need to avoid and what is really likely at every position.
Up today is a look at the outside linebacker position.
Best Case Scenario:
Last year, the outside linebackers contributed just 8 total sacks to a team total of 19. That’s a lot of contribution to the effort, but the effort was far below expectations set by previous groups. Additionally, the graduation of Andrew Van Ginkel means just 2.5 sacks return from the outside linebacker position in 2019.
Those sacks belong to Zack Baun, who got his feet wet as a starter last season and is looking for big things to happen in 2019. The good news is that Baun was one of Wisconsin’s best run-stoppers on the edge.
Ideally, Baun not only is a leader of this defensive group in 2019, but becomes much more disruptive behind the line of scrimmage too.
Wisconsin has a lot of potential that could start opposite of him. Former Alabama transfer Christian Bell, former 4-star recruit Noah Burks and former inside linebacker Griffin Grady all had their moments of shine in spring ball.
In a best case scenario, the Badgers have more than one of that group step up as contributors to an overall group of outside linebackers that don’t have a lot of in-game experience or depth.
Getting this group to contribute double-digit sacks as a whole would be a great step forward.
Worst Case Scenario:
Noah Burks or Christian Bell don’t live up to their enormous potential. It’s as plain and simple as that.
Wisconsin needs them to become pass-rushing specialists in a big way if this defense is going to be as aggressive as it is designed to be. Often times last season, the inability of the front seven to get pressure really hung an inexperienced secondary out to dry.
If UW experiences more of that, it could really be trouble in 2019. The Badgers need this defense to step up its game, and having both of the expected top contenders in replacing Van Ginkel flame out would be a disaster all the way around.
Most Likely to Happen:
Given all the unknowns surrounding the outside linebacker position, this is a difficult position to predict. However, I will say this — Zack Baun will end up as an All-Big Ten performer.
I believe he just scratched the surface of his potential last year, especially since he was just coming off an awful injury history prior to it. If he stays healthy in 2019, I predict he becomes a surprise player to many outside observers in the Big Ten.
That said, I also believe we will see Christian Bell and Noah Burks become a handful for opposing offensive coordinators to deal with. Both have been patient with the talent that was in front of them, but they are bursting with potential when they have seen the field.
So, to answer the question most want to know…I believe this all signals a position group ready to be a major force once again after that down year in 2018.
Best, Worst case scenarios for Badgers Wide Receivers in 2019
The heat of summer is upon us and the recruiting trail has been even hotter for the Wisconsin Badgers. However, that heat also indicates that the long offseason nightmare is about to be over.
With that in mind, we’re taking a summer-long look at each position group heading in to the 2019 season.
Today, we flip back to the offensive side of the ball and look at a second skill position — wide receiver.
After what was supposed to be a breakout year for the group in 2018, what will this group have in store for 2019? Let’s look at the best and worst case scenarios at play.
Best Case Scenario
If the Badgers want to get going in the pass game, the wide receiver group needs to step up the deep game in a big way. While A.J. Taylor, Danny Davis and Kendric Pryor have proven to be reliable assets, 2018 felt much like they all barely scratched the surface of their potential.
The trio combined for 95 receptions (which was 53 percent of all receptions as a team), 1,212 yards and 11 of 19 touchdown receptions on the year.
For this season, the best case scenario actually involves the quarterback position almost more-so than anything this group can do. The receivers could benefit from a consistently good passer at quarterback and a more open playbook as well.
Whether it is Jack Coan or wonderkid recruit, Graham Mertz, the consistency and trust to open up the playbook needs to be there.
Additionally, an increased role for speedster Aaron Cruickshank would be the best case scenario.
Worst Case Scenario
Danny Davis emerged as the most targeted receiver last season, catching 40 passes to lead all wide receivers on the team. He will enter his junior season with an increase in expectations and no off-field distractions like he had to deal with last season thanks to his stupid decision-making.
That aside, Davis is the most well-rounded receiver in this group and the one that could wind up be the deep threat that has been missing for awhile now. So, any injury to Davis would be bad news.
In fact, any sustained injuries to the likes of Davis, Pryor and Taylor would not be good. UW is very inexperienced behind this trio, and inexperience at QB and WR may not be a fun combination.
Dare I say, it would lead to UW not being back on top of the West division mountain?
Most Likely to Happen
I fully believe that the coaching staff will go in to the season knowing which quarterback they’ll go with and stick with. Confidence is key to helping this wide receiver group and I expect the Badgers offense to be much more balanced in 2019 than it was over the past two seasons.
Look for Davis, Pryor and Taylor to all increase their overall numbers and likely go over the 15 touchdown mark as a group. More importantly, I expect much more play-action and much more from the deep passing game too. That should be music to a talented, but under used group’s ears.
Don’t be surprised to see one of the Badgers wide receivers make a run at All-Big Ten honors as a result of that shift back to balance.
Hill is Badgers QB in 2021 class
With all the flurry of activity around the 2020 class, apparently someone wanted to bring the 2021 class some attention on Tuesday as well.
Following back-to-back linebacker commitments in the 2020 class, Wisconsin picked up a verbal commitment from 2021 quarterback Deacon Hill.
The 3-star player out of Santa Barbara, Calif. went with his gut despite the potential to earn offers from the likes of USC, Oregon and Oregon State — all much closer to home.
Instead, Hill chose the Badgers over official offers from Kansas State and Nevada to date.
The 6-3, 225-pound quarterback was first offered by Wisconsin quarterback coach Jon Budmayr in May. It was the first overall offer Hill received in the 2021 class.
Wisconsin was able to get out in front of the 2021 quarterback class after a pair of big targets in 2020 passed on offers from the Badgers. Once that happened, the focus turned to the next class and it paid off in building a quick and solid relationship with Hill.
It may not be a big home run get like Graham Mertz was, but then again the Badgers were hip to Mertz before most of the country was and that paid off as he developed.
Hill is much more physically imposing than most quarterbacks entering their junior season would be, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t have mobility either.
Nevada’s more spread-orientated offense and Kansas State’s quarterbacks are certainly going to be mobile ones in the new offense that is being installed.
As for Hill, the 247Sports composite rankings have him as the No. 30 ranked pro-style quarterback in the 2021 class. But, given the small amount of attention paid to that class so far we’ll see where that ends up should Hill hit the QB camp circuit in the coming months and year.
UW will only be taking one quarterback in this class, so they certainly trusted their early evaluation of the tool set that Hill possesses and could posses by the time he is finished at Wisconsin.
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