Breaking down any given team’s strengths and weaknesses doesn’t paint a complete picture. To truly gauge a team’s win-loss potential in the preseason, analyzing the schedule is arguably just as important. We will have detailed, timely, matchup-based write-ups on each opponent in the week leading up. In the interim, we present to you our Northwestern opponent summer look-ahead. It’s a little thing called “Know Your Opponent.” The title describes itself: take a peek at the schedule, read up and head into the fall having already completed part of your weekly opponent studying diet.
Returning starters: Offense – 8, Defense – 7
2012 record: 8-6 (4-4 Big Ten)
Coach: Gary Andersen, 1st year
In most seasons, a 4-4 conference record doesn’t grant you anything more than a mid-tier bowl game and a swath of frustrated fans. In most seasons, a division isn’t populated by a group of eligible teams ranging from mediocre to morbid and two squads ruled ineligible for postseason play, one of which won all of its games and might well have gone on to play for the national championship. Wisconsin won the Leaders last season under those favorable conditions, and it would have been easy to write off a team with a mediocre conference record playing under quirky one-year circumstances. Instead, the Badgers erased any and all doubts with a 39-point obliteration of Nebraska in the Big Ten championship game. It was a fittingly unsavory finish for a generally dismal year of Big Ten football. Wisconsin will take its third consecutive league championship no matter what fluky divisional advantages it had leading up, and will gladly enter 2013 trying to defend a Big Ten championship for the fourth consecutive season.
A three-man quarterback battle featuring junior college transfer Tanner McEvoy, senior Curt Phillips and sophomore Joel Stave will rage on into fall camp. Whoever wins the job will have an unproven receiving corps at his disposal, save one Jared Abbrederis, an All-Big Ten candidate and dangerous deep target. Junior Kenzel Doe could morph into the second wideout Wisconsin needs, while tight end Jacob Pederson returns after an All-Big Ten season. The Badgers also, true to their recent league championship-winning identity, will have a stable of running backs to power a strong ground attack, including James White and Melvin Gordon. Wisconsin customarily breeds mammoth offensive linemen, and they should be stout up front once more in 2013, though there are some concerns about depth behind the starting four. New offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig has some talent at key spots, but there are a few weaknesses he’ll need to address to keep the Badgers offensive machine humming.
At Utah State, where he led a long-dormant program to a 26-24 record in four seasons, Andersen’s calling card – and quite possibly the biggest reason behind his success – was his defense. You can expect the Badgers to be more aggressive in the way they attack opponents on that side of the ball this season, starting with a deep defensive line and a group of linebackers featuring All-conference recipient Chris Borland. The secondary is the Badgers’ biggest question mark, with everyone but safety Dezmen Southward leaving in the offseason. Darius Hillary and Peniel Jean are expected to fill in at corner; projected starting safety Reggie Mitchell was released from his scholarship this offseason, meaning the Badgers will need someone else to step up to replace the graduated Shelton Johnson. Like the offense, there are positives and negatives, but Wisconsin – being, you know, Wisconsin – should field an effective unit under Andersen and new coordinator Dave Aranda.
Three players to know
Chris Borland, Senior LB – Every coaching change comes with a certain measure of uncertainty. Borland is as certain as they come at the middle linebacker position. Expect another 100 + tackle season from the Badgers’ defensive lynchpin.
Jared Abbrederis, Senior WR – Few truly reliable pass-catching options, and an unsettled quarterback situation, makes one think Wisconsin will stick to what’s worked over the past couple seasons. In the case of the passing game, that means more touches for Abbrederis, who returns for one final season after registering 49 catches for 837 yards in 2012.
Beau Allen, Senior DT – Collapsing the pocket on opposing quarterbacks and stopping the run will be pivotal for a Wisconsin defense whose secondary is, as detailed above, short on experience and proven talent. Allen will be central to both efforts, a ruthless, trench-stomping, 333-pound behemoth fresh off his best season to date.
Behind enemy lines: Wisconsin SB Nation Blog Bucky’s 5th Quarter managing editor Mike Fiammetta (@mikefiametta), on what to expect from the Badgers this season:
“Given the presence of two brand-new coaching staffs on both sides of the ball, the possibility a significant letdown looms for Wisconsin 2013. That "letdown" won't necessarily be win a nightmare 5five-win season; rather, the Badgers very well could gel on both sides of the ball and take advantage of a soft schedule, but still fall short of a fourth straight Big Ten championship and Rose Bowl appearance due to Ohio State once again becoming postseason-eligible. Gary Andersen & co. have to settle on a starting quarterback, develop one more wide receiver (at least) and shore up a secondary that lost three players to graduation and two more players this spring to transfers.
All this considered, a basic win-loss projection is 9-3 as a worst-case scenario -- a loss to Ohio State, plus two more to Arizona State and Northwestern. 12-0 is the best-case, considering Wisconsin's own soft schedule and the possibility of upsetting Ohio State.”
The most surprising high-profile college coaching move of the summer outside of Brad Stevens to the Boston Celtics saw longtime head man Bret Bielema take his keen talent evaluation skills, rugged run-first philosophy and sterling win-loss record in Madison (68-24) to Arkansas. Gary Andersen appears to be an excellent replacement after revitalizing an Aggies program that’s long lived in the little brother shadow of state co-habitant Utah. The Badgers lose some key pieces from last season, but with 15 returning starters, and a schedule featuring just one eminently challenging road game (at Ohio State, Sept. 28), Wisconsin is in position to carry on unabated, regroup from Bielema’s departure in swift and convincing fashion and challenge the Buckeyes for a division title. That is the standard Wisconsin has set in recent seasons; Bielema or no, the Badgers have the momentum and recent consistency to reach it again. The wins should, like most recent seasons, continue to pile up in 2013.