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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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Wisconsin Badgers vs. Michigan Wolverines: Preview, Predictions and Prognostications

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After a week without a game, it’s back to the turf at Camp Randall for the Wisconsin Badgers. It’s also time for Big Ten play, as the Badgers welcome the No. 11 ranked Michigan Wolverines to town.

Much has been made of this matchup in the national media, but it’s time to finally put our money where our mouth is and give you all you need to or want to know about the Badgers and Wolverines on Saturday.

Kick is scheduled for 11am CT on Fox, so tune in with us.

Don’t forget, Andrew is 2-0 so far on the season in his predictions and both have been close to the final score as well. Also don’t forget to hit that Subscribe button on the YouTube page while watching this video!

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Wisconsin Badgers vs. Michigan Wolverines: 5 Things to Know

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It feels like forever since the Wisconsin Badgers took to the field for their Camp Randall home opener. That’s probably because it has been a whirlwind start to the year.

Zero points given up, two blowout wins and all seems good. But, now the season gets real as the Michigan Wolverines visit Camp Randall.

The opponents come to Madison off their own bye week, but have largely failed to impress in their first two games of the season, narrowly escaping with an overtime 24-21 win over Army two weeks ago.

So, what should you know about the series, the matchup and these two teams ahead of the big top 15 clash?

Let’s take a look.

5: Wisconsin is looking for win No. 5 in a row at home over Michigan

Few teams have given the Badgers fits more than the Wolverines have historically. But, in the recent past it has been all UW at home to say the least.

Wisconsin has won the last four games played inside Camp Randall, having last lost at home to Michigan in 2001. The winning streak started in 2005, making this winning streak span over the course of multiple classes of UW football.

Things have been much more even overall in the series though, because of the lack of matchups with the two teams on opposite sides of the divisions since the original split in 2011.

The Badgers and Wolverines have split their last 10 meetings, dating to 2002. Over the last 10 years (since 2009), Wisconsin owns a 3-2 record in the series as well.

4: Wisconsin has won 4 straight games with Jack Coan as the starter

Personally, I’ve always been skeptical of these stats thrown around regarding the record of starting quarterbacks. After all, this is a team game and the quarterback can’t win or lose a game on his own.

However, there is little denying just how much Coan has grown and transformed the Badgers offense either. To that end, the Badgers have won four straight games and have scored a ton of points in the process.

During that 4-game winning streak, UW is averaging 48 points per game.

That’s far from a coincidence, as Coan has set his career high for passing yards in three of those four games and has thrown for 8 touchdowns with just 1 interception in those four starts.

As for this season, Coan is currently the best quarterback in the Big Ten. He leads the league in completion percentage (76.3), QB rating (184.5) and yards per game (282). He is averaging nearly 20 yards more per game than the No. 2 ranked QB in the Big Ten — MSU’s Brian Lewerke.

All of that is happening while he is attempting just the 5th most passes in the league (29.5).

Will he be able to keep himself near the top with the Wolverines in town?

3: Michigan has lost just 3 Big Ten openers since 1968

As if you needed any more proof of just how long-term dominant Michigan has been in the Big Ten, try on the fact that they have gone 48-3 over the last 51 seasons in their conference opener.

In fact, in the 113 previous conference openers, the Wolverines are an impressive 86-25-2. That’s to say, history suggests this is going to be a difficult task.

That said, Wisconsin owns two of those 3 wins in Big Ten openers over Michigan. The first came way back in 1981 and the second in 2005 — both of them coming inside Camp Randall no less.

2: UW has only 2 wins in Top 25 matchups between these two teams

As we’ve previously highlighted, success in this series has been fleeting for the Badgers. That has historically been true in matchups between these two schools when they both were ranked in the top 25.

Michigan leads that part of the series 7-2. However, the good news for Wisconsin is that both of those wins have come inside Camp Randall and they are 2-2 in these types of matchups at home.

Those wins came in 1993 and in 2017, which was the last win in the series for the Badgers. Interestingly, those two wins also came as the Badgers were the better ranked team.

On Saturday, the Wolverines come in ranked No. 11 and the Badgers are ranked No. 13 for what it is worth.

1: Wisconsin has the No. 1 defense in the country

Okay, so I’m readily admitting that this number comes with a rather large asterisk to date given the competition level of the teams played to date. But, all you can do is play the opponents in front of you and the Badgers defense has bene utterly dominant in those two contests.

Just how dominant? Well, Wisconsin has allowed just 107.5 yards per game to lead the nation. That number is over 100 yards better than the No. 2 team (102 yards better to be exact).

In comparison, Michigan comes in to this one giving up 272 yards per game as a team — a mark that is fifth in the Big Ten to date.

Additionally, UW has outscored opponents 110-0 and became the first team to score 100 or more points and not give up any in the first two games of the season since South Carolina did it in 1980.

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Can Benton step up to big challenge against Michigan?

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Through two games, the Wisconsin Badgers defense has been the talk of the town. Pitching back-to-back shutouts and doing so with a lot of new players in the mix was equally impressive.

Maybe the competition wasn’t the best, but a young group of players stepped up and the result has been zero points on the board and a 2-0 record.

One name has played above the rest in the group of freshman and sophomores in the mix — true freshman nose guard Keeanu Benton.

He had no choice but to play last week, as regular starting nose guard Bryson Williams went down with an injury late in the week and there isn’t much depth at the position.

If you pay attention to the analytical side of the game, Benton took his opportunity and ran with it though.

You may not see it on the stat sheet (1 tackle, 1 tackle for loss), but Pro Football Focus named Benton the best of all the Badgers in the win over Central Michigan two weeks ago.

He was in the top 10 players in the win over USF in the opener as well. That’s about as good a start as you could have hoped for for the young man.

Benton played 19 of the 45 plays that the Chippewas had last week, accounting for just over 42 percent of all snaps. His grade of 89.1 edged out Jack Coan’s grade of 86.9 for the top spot in that game.

Most importantly, Benton graded out well against the run, with an 89.6 rating in that category alone.

Given that Michigan has tried hard to establish the run early on in the season, having Benton play so well with his limited snaps is going to be huge come game day against the No. 10 Wolverines.

The hope for the Badgers was that Benton could use that experience and build off of it as starter Bryson Williams returned from an injury sustained in the build up to the CMU game.

Unfortunately, as the Badgers get ready for the Wolverines we already know that Williams will be out. He was listed as such on UW’s first injury report for this week.

While we’ve seen great work overall from Benton in the first two weeks of the season, and the Badgers defense has produced great things on paper, this is going to be a much bigger challenge.

Michigan comes in to this game ranked 45th in the country in rushing, having gone for 341 yards in just two games. Admittedly, most of that work was done in the opener against Middle Tennessee, where they ate up 234 yards.

Against a much more stout Army defense, Michigan’s ground game stumbled to just 108 yards on the same 45 carries it had in the opener.

Michigan has punched the ball in to the end zone five times already, including the critical scoring in the 24-21 win over Army in Week 2.

On the other hand, Wisconsin’s run defense has been its bread and butter. UW leads the nation in rush defense, giving up just 41 total yards on 44 carries over the course of the first two games of action. There hasn’t been any touchdowns given up since the Minnesota game to end the regular season last year too.

Benton has been a big help in that effort over the course of his first two games in action and his fellow players are quick to take notice of his efforts early on in his career at Wisconsin.

“Coming in, Keeanu was raw. He still is kind of raw. But he’s a big body, he’s fast, he’s strong, but what we’ve seen from him so far in camp and in the first two games, he’s definitely a playmaker,” defensive end Isaaiah Loudermilk said Monday, according to the Wisconsin State Journal.

Senior captain Chris Orr has also been impressed with what Benton brings to the game.

“He’s big. Big,” Orr said to the Wisconsin State Journal. “When I first saw him, I was like, ‘Oh yeah, put him right there in the middle in front of all of us. Let him eat up them blocks.’ But I think what I’m most impressed about is that he doesn’t just stay on blocks. When he gets double-teamed, he’ll eat the double then split it and go make a play.”

Doing that on Saturday against better overall competition will be a telling sign of where Benton is and where his potential lies.

If he can step up on the big stage against the biggest opponent to date, the sky may just be the limit for him and this Badgers defense.

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What the Badgers need to work on in the bye week

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Two games, two victories, two shutouts and two record-setting performance. It would be easy to think the 2-0 Wisconsin Badgers football team is riding high in to its early bye week.

But, with the challenge of the Michigan Wolverines just around the corner things are not exactly going to go as planned.

So, with a week off to prepare what are some of the areas of concentration and concern heading in to the matchup with the Wolverines?

Get Healthy

I feel like this is a mantra of any team on a bye week, but after only two games it shouldn’t be that bad. But, guess what, Wisconsin is two games in to the season and the injury gods have not been kind to this team.

On Sunday, we learned that starting safety Scott Nelson will miss the rest of the season with a leg injury.

Late last week we knew that five other players were going to miss the Central Michigan game, with two of those being starters on defense in Bryson Williams and Izayah Green-May.

Now luckily, the depth of this team showed up as true freshman Keeanu Benton (1 TFL) played well in place of Williams and Noah Burks (2 tackles, 1 TFL and 1 pass break up) made it seem like there was nothing missing at outside linebacker.

But, there’s no question that playing with a full group of players against Michigan will be advantageous. Let’s see if the Badgers can get Williams and Green-May healthy and my guess is that they will be able to do just that with nearly three weeks of treatment and testing.

Stay Hungry

One of the things that has been clear so far about this team is that they have been playing with a lot of emotion and edge to them. It’s almost as if they spent an entire offseason stewing over a less-than-stellar performance in 2018 and are bound and determined to not let that happen again.

Whatever was bottled up in the offseason was certainly unleashed in the first two weeks of the season. Can UW find a way to continue to play with that edge and fire now that they have no game this week?

Sometimes the bye week can mess with a team, especially one that is rolling like the Badgers are. But, I have a distinct feeling that motivation and focus are not going to waver at all with this coaching staff in place.

Wisconsin also has the advantage of being the underdog in the matchup with Michigan (at least on paper it will) and has a ton of hungry young players looking to make a name for themselves.

What better way to do that than against Michigan with the whole college football world watching you?

This idea of staying hungry doesn’t worry me in the least, but it would be something to watch coming out of the gate against Michigan. If the Badgers look flat or out of sorts, I’d be worried. If not, then look for Michigan to be in some serious trouble on Sept. 21.

New Wrinkles?

Early on this season, we’ve already seen a lot of Jonathan Taylor the running back, but we’ve also seen a lot of JT23 the receiving back and it has produced glorious results.

Even better is the fact that the Badgers coaching staff hasn’t had to get exotic with the play calling early on this season either. There’s been few sightings of Aron Cruickshank end arounds or double running back sets or anything crazy.

Wisconsin has lined up, punched the opposing defense in the mouth up front and done the basics needed to put points on the board.

It will be interesting to see what wrinkles will be added with the extra time and the opponent at hand. Will the Badgers break out a few things that Michigan won’t be ready for or will they stick to the tried and true and just see what happens?

Pass Protection

If there’s one thing we know about Michigan’s defense is that it is nearly the Badgers equal in aggressiveness. Through two games the Badgers have allowed four sacks on the quarterback.

It may not seem alarming, but last season, UW allowed a total of 24 through 13 games for an average of 1.85 per game and that was a bit of a problem in bigger games. Furthermore, 12 of the 24 sacks came in Wisconsin’s five losses last year.

The good news seems to be that UW is going to get some help for the quarterback spot in avoiding some of those sacks this year. Jack Coan may not be a world-record sprinter, but he has shown to be more comfortable stepping up in the pocket and taking off if needed.

But, the Badgers were not really tested so far in terms of overall talent and did give up three sacks against USF in the opener. On the flip side, the offensive line looked much better against CMU and only one sack happened on the day.

Does that indicate improvement or just how bad the Chippewas were? With an extra week to work on things, lets see how the Badgers offensive line works through any potential issues and any adjustments that may be needed.

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