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Wisconsin Badgers Football: Managing expectations for the 2016 season

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Here we are, only a month remains before college football Saturdays are back in our lives. The national championship game between Alabama and Clemson will be seven months old in a week. It’s August, which means that season predictions are coming from every news outlet that wants to buy some attention from anxious college football fans who will read anything and everything that contains information about their favorite team.

Now, let’s take a look at some of these predictions and go from there:

Big Ten Media days were held a few weeks ago, and Cleveland.com (which conducts the most official preseason Big Ten poll) released its sixth annual Big Ten preseason football poll. In a survey of 39 writers who cover Big Ten football conducted by Cleveland.com, 27 predicted Ohio State as the Big Ten champ.

Here are the overall predicted rankings in the divisions, with point totals and first-place votes:

East Division:

1. Ohio State 260.5 (31)

2. Michigan 241 (14)

3. Michigan State 195.5 (1)

4. Penn State 155.5

5. Indiana 110

6. Maryland 81.5

7. Rutgers 52

West Division:

1. Iowa 265 (33)

2. Nebraska 206 (3)

3. Wisconsin 194.5 (2)

4. Northwestern 171.5 (1)

5. Minnesota 132 (1)

6. Illinois 76.5

7. Purdue 46.5

Big Ten Champion:

Ohio State (27)

Michigan (11)

Iowa (1)

Now, it’s worth noting that this poll has never correctly picked the Big Ten champion in its five previous tries. The Buckeyes got all 40 votes to win the league last year before Michigan State beat Iowa in the Big Ten Championship. The Iowa Hawkeyes, who went undefeated during the regular season, were picked fourth in the West in this poll a year ago.

With that being said, it certainly appears that the Badgers aren’t expected to do much this season. Finishing third in the B1G West behind Iowa and Nebraska, but ahead of Minnesota (who the Badgers have defeated 12 consecutive times), Northwestern, Illinois and Purdue? Bottom line: it’s the weakest endorsement of the Badgers in at least five years.

Dating back to 2011, when Cleveland.com began conducting their preseason B1G football polls, the Badgers were picked to win their division four times (2011, 2012, 2014, & 2015), and in 2011, 2012 and 2014 the Badgers proved the writers right by winning the Leaders division twice (2011 & 2012) as well as the B1G West division in 2014.

So why have the Badgers become somewhat of an afterthought this season? The schedule might have something to do with it. The Badgers are set to face Amway Coaches Poll No. 5 Ohio State, No. 6 LSU, No. 8 Michigan, No. 11 Michigan State and No. 15 Iowa. Wisconsin does not appear in the preseason top 25 poll, making them probable underdogs in all five of these games.

Expectations have always been a combination of a team’s talent alongside a navigable schedule.  In 2016, the Badgers, facing one of the most difficult schedules in the country, have to figure out a way to bounce back from losses, because no team in the nation would go unblemished against what the Badgers have in store for them.

Pick Six Previews, which has a reputation of being the most accurate BCS/Power 5 preview website in America since its launch in 2012, has the Badgers slated as #35 in the country as well as finishing third in the B1G West behind #24 Iowa and #23 Nebraska.

What should fan expectations be for Wisconsin in 2016? I’ll try to be as realistic as possible here.

A successful season for Wisconsin in 2016 would look like:

Finishing with a winning record in conference play.

This would mean that Wisconsin would need to defeat five of Ohio State, Michigan, Michigan State, Iowa, Nebraska, Illinois, Purdue, Minnesota and Northwestern. Getting wins on the road against Michigan and Michigan State in back-to-back games is going to be tough and that means the margin for error is small.

Winning two out of three games against B1g West “rival schools.”

The three rivals I am referring to are Minnesota, Iowa and Nebraska.  If Wisconsin drops two out of three against these opponents the season will be very forgettable for Badger fans.

Competing against more talented opponents (aka not getting blown out)

Wisconsin will face opponents with more talent (based on the past four years of recruiting rankings) five times in 2016 when they match up against LSU, Ohio State, Michigan, Michigan State and Nebraska. Wisconsin will likely only be favored in one of those games (Nebraska at home).

Before getting annihilated 59-0 by eventual national champion Ohio State in the 2014 B1G championship game, the Badgers had developed a reputation as a team that was very difficult to defeat by more than a single score.

59-0 was obviously an anomaly for UW (more on how impressive of a performance that was by OSU here). This season will be a big opportunity for Wisconsin to gain respect among national pundits who don’t watch Wisconsin as often as B1G fans do.

Development of the running game

We all know that Wisconsin isn’t going to finish with the 95th best rushing attack for the second year in a row. That will improve. The question is, by how much? In order for Paul Chryst’s pro-style offense to operate the way that he likes, the running game needs to be able to be productive enough to set up the play-action passing attack.  Whether Bart Houston or Alex Hornibrook is at quarterback for the Badgers this fall, the running game needs to be rolling in order for the offense to reach its potential.

Overall Analysis:

If Wisconsin can accomplish a winning record in conference play, win at least two out of three against B1G West rivals, compete in games against more talented opponents and develop the running game over the course of the season, I see no reason why the season shouldn’t be labeled as a “success” despite a record that will most likely be worse than last season’s 10-3 mark (against a laughably easy schedule).

My prediction for the Badgers this season remains 8-4. Whether that will be good enough to win the division remains to be seen.  Either way, it should be fun to watch unfold in the coming months.

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Chryst excited by Graham Mertz’s future with Badgers

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No recruit has ever been as hyped as quarterback Graham Mertz has been in Wisconsin Badgers history.

Normally that would lead to coaches tempering their words and expectations. Given head coach Paul Chryst’s history of exactly that, it was a bit surprising to hear him speak with excitement about what Mertz may bring to the table in Madison.

So far, Chryst has been very impressed with how Mertz is handling everything on and off the field.

“Yeah, Graham has got a great personality,” said Chryst at Big Ten media day on Friday. “I think he’s done a nice job of — he came in the spring, and getting to know our teammates, and I think he’s handling — there’s a lot of buzz and talk about him, and I think he’s handled it well, and I think the team has handled it, as well.”

What has impressed the head coach most about his freshman quarterback? Chryst says it is how he is handling everything that has been thrown at him since he entered school in January.

“They’re experiencing a lot for the first time, going to school and being away from home, and there’s obviously a ton of football with it, and I think all three have handled it, and Graham has handled it well, and I’m excited for those three, Graham in particular, that went through spring and then you have summer and now they’ll be able to go into fall camp and it’s not all new to them,” said Chryst.

“But I’ve been impressed with how Graham has handled himself, and I think he’s — again, cares a lot about teammates and is a good teammate himself, a good person, and I think that’s a great place to start.”

Perhaps the most telling statement from Chryst during his time at the podium on Friday, was the one where he actually used the words “excitement” and “Graham” in the same sentence.

“And certainly we’re excited, really excited about Graham,” Chryst said to the media. “He’s early in on the process, and so I like the group that we have. I’m thankful that we’ve got Jack coming back that’s played in games, and certainly looking forward to fall camp and seeing the growth and development of all of them.”

Does that mean Mertz is the immediate savior of the Badgers offense? No.

But, unlike years past, Chryst is at least willing to go out on a limb and live in the excitement of what could happen in the future.

This type of talk should only serve to continue to spark the speculation and the spotlight on the quarterback position in Madison in the next few weeks.

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Best, worst case scenarios for Badgers quarterbacks in 2019

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Believe it or not, the start of the Wisconsin Badgers fall camp is right around the corner and we’re hitting the home stretch of our preview season as well.

Previous Positions:Running Back | Defensive Line | Wide Receiver | Outside Linebacker | Inside Linebacker |

No position has had more of the spotlight and taken up more of our conversation than what is happening at quarterback. After watching the QB play go from ok to disaster in 2018, it is back to the drawing board in many ways.

With Alex Hornibrook off to Florida State for his final season and the highest rated quarterback recruit in Badgers history on campus, this offseason has been full of intrigue.

But, what will the 2019 season look like for the most critical position on this offense? Let’s take a look at exactly that.

Best Case Scenario

The Badgers find out they hit the jackpot with Graham Mertz and he’s spent the time between spring and fall ball getting up to speed on the offense. Mertz immediately shows this is his job and the coaching staff sees it quickly as well.

Either that or Jack Coan comes in and commands the position and the offense with accuracy and an ability to hit the deep ball. The offense gels around him and heading in to the opener at South Florida, Coan is the man behind center by a wide margin.

Yes, there are two best-case scenarios at play. But, that’s because Wisconsin’s coaching staff would really love for someone to flat-out win the starting job early on in fall camp. Will that happen? That’s the million dollar question and don’t count out Chase Wolf from this competition either. He came on strong as spring went along and his abilities give the Badgers offense some different wrinkles that could be intriguing.

No matter whom wins the battle in fall camp, the best case scenario is that that person wins the battle early, the offense can focus on installing around that quarterback and said quarterback shows why he won the job with quality play during the season.

Worst Case Scenario

If we go in to week three of fall camp and there is no winner to the quarterback job, I’m not so confident in this group. Yes, it’s the job of everyone to compete at a high level, but the coaching staff not being able to separate between the bunch isn’t good news.

My worst-case scenario would be no winner coming out of fall camp, we see quarterbacks splitting time in the fall and this offense stalling out in the pass game once again.

Musical chairs at quarterback never seems to work at Wisconsin and that especially played out last season with Coan clearly thrown to the wolves before he was ready to make a full impact after Hornibrook’s injury.

As long as the Badgers can avoid having to play multiple quarterbacks because none of them have wrestled the position for themselves, UW’s offense should be in a better position in 2019 than it was in 2018.

Most Likely to Happen

As much as the fans want to see Graham Mertz come in and be this game-changing quarterback out of the gate, the most likely scenario is that Mertz gets some game action in the non-conference games and Jack Coan is your regular starter.

I can foresee the scenario playing out much like Coan’s true freshman season. The only difference being that Mertz won’t have to give up his redshirt to play in a single game.

It seems like the most likely to happen scenario is that Coan is your starter for the year with Mertz as the man getting the early season reps behind him and then Chase Wolf being the other option to get reps during conference play.

Let’s not forget that Coan is the only quarterback on this roster that has seen more than a complete mop-up duty. Danny Vanden Boom could be an option too, but it seems like Wolf and Mertz passed him up in the spring competition.

As much as Mertz is the future, coaches are paid to win games now and that likely means playing it safe with Coan.

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Best, worst case scenarios for Badgers ILB’s in 2019

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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.

Previous Positions: Running Back | Defensive Line | Wide Receiver | Outside Linebacker |

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.

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Best, worst case scenarios for Badgers OLB’s in 2019

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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.

Previous Positions: Running Back | Defensive Line | Wide Receiver

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.

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