With the Most Important Players and Position Previews sections of our Summer Guide having wrapped up, we now move on to our Know Your Opponent series, in which we preview every team Northwestern will face this season. When we hit game week, we will have more in-depth and comprehensive coverage, but for now we give you a general overview of the team so you know what to expect in general.
Wisconsin had three touchdowns called back against Northwestern last year. It was fun.
Returning starters: 13 (6 offense, 7 defense)
Returning experience: 44%
2015 record: 10-3 (6-2, Big Ten)
Coach: Paul Chryst, 2nd year (10-3)
The following metrics are courtesy of Bill Connelly of SB Nation and Football Outsiders. You can read more about the rankings and theory behind them here.
2015 S&P+ Overall: 31st
2015 S&P+ Offense: 83rd
2015 S&P+ Defense: 8th
2016 S&P+ Projection: 37th (nine spots above Northwestern)
Wisconsin began its 2015 slate with a double-digit loss to the eventual-champion Alabama Crimson Tide at AT&T Stadium, home of the Dallas Cowboys. But in his first year at the helm, Paul Chryst and his Badgers rebounded nicely, giving up just three points in its next three games, finishing the non-conference schedule 3-1. The Badgers then lost at home to Iowa, 10-6, due mainly to quarterback Joel Stave’s four turnovers. Stave’s final turnover, a fumble at the Iowa one yardline halfway through the fourth quarter, proved to be fatal. The Badgers then reeled off five straight before falling to the Wildcats at Camp Randall. It was a doozy of a game that won’t soon be forgotten by fans of either team. Chryst’s bunch responded nicely once again, though, and beat Minnesota to close out the regular season and win Paul Bunyan’s Axe for the 12th year in a row. The Badgers then beat USC in the Holiday Bowl to finish with double-digit wins.
Joel Stave is gone after
23789147 four years as the Wisconsin signal caller, and thus Chryst’s biggest offseason to-do list item is to name a replacement. Senior Bart Houston has more experience and played decently in the action he saw last season, but sophomore lefty Alex Hornibrook has impressed this offseason.
In a shocking development, Wisconsin will rely on the run game in 2016. Corey Clement is back for his senior season, and he is one of the nation’s best when healthy. Taiwan Deal and Dare Ogunbowale also return. Clement should see the bulk of the carries, but Deal showed promise last year as a freshman, and Ogunbowale racked up 819 yards and seven touchdowns as the main guy in Clement’s absence.
Top receiver Alex Erickson is gone, but the Badgers return a host of other pass catchers, including wide receiver Robert Wheelwright, tight end Troy Fumagalli and Jazz "I Say I Caught It When I Didn’t Actually Catch It" Peavy.
Up front, the Badgers lose second-team All-Big Ten left tackle Tyler Marz, but return five guys that started at least three games last year. Four of those guys are just sophomores, so the line should be improved from last season. Senior Dan Voltz is the oldest player of the group. In an interesting development, Marz’s replacement might very well be Division III transfer Ryan Ramczyk. Ramczyk dominated at Wisconsin- Stevens Point for a couple of seasons before transferring to Madison.
Wisconsin had one of the best defenses in the nation last year no matter how you look at it. The Badgers led the nation in scoring defense and came in second in yards per game allowed. The unit was equally adept at defending the run (fourth-fewest yards allowed) and the pass (second-lowest opponent passing efficiency). However, Wisconsin loses defensive coordinator Dave Aranda, who was scooped up by LSU.
What Wisconsin doesn’t lose, though, is a ton of players in its front seven. The three top defensive linemen from last year — junior ends Chikwe Obasih, Conor Sheehy and Alec James — are all back, as is sophomore nose tackle Olive Sagapolu. Obasih is a solid candidate for a breakout season after recording 30 tackles, five tackles for loss and a sack as a sophomore last year. The Badgers are well stocked for the future with none of these guys even being seniors yet.
The biggest loss is outstanding outside linebacker Joe Schobert. The first-team All-American had 79 tackles — 19.5 for loss — and 9.5 sacks last year. He’s now with the Cleveland Browns. Additionally, last year’s leading tackler, sophomore T.J. Edwards, is out indefinitely with a foot injury.
The good news for the Badgers is that this position is well-stocked with talent. Holiday Bowl MVP Jack Cichy and sophomore Chris Orr will make up the interior of the linebacking position with Edwards out, while star Vince Biegel returns on the outside. Biegel is an absolute terror, having accounted for 14.0 tackles for loss and eight sacks last year. It will be interesting to see who steps up in Schobert’s spot, though, so teams don’t double-team Biegel. That’s where T.J. Watt (J.J.’s brother) comes in. Watt didn’t play a ton last year, but given his older brother’s stardom, it’s hard to imagine that he won’t be able to contribute, and he impressed in spring practices.
In the secondary, though, the Badgers lose both safeties and their top corner. The safeties — Michael Caputo and Tanner McEvoy — combined for over 80 tackles and eight interceptions last year. There are eight guys who played at least some last year returning, led by corners Derrick Tindal and Sojourn Shelton. The safeties, though, remain a big question mark. D’Cota Dixon, who switched from cornerback to linebacker to safety, is expected to step up.
Three Player to Know
OLB Vince Biegel — You’re going to hear Biegel’s name called a lot in 2016. He’s on all the preseason watch lists Anthony Walker is on, and he’s the top returning outside linebacker per Pro Football Focus. Biegel is extremely active and a very good pass rusher. He had 14 tackles, 1.5 TFL and a sack last season against the Wildcats.
OLB T.J. Watt — Watt and Biegel make for two very good outside linebackers. And while Joe Schobert will be hard to replace, it’s not unreasonable to think Watt will be able to fill the role without much of a dropoff. The Watt family just doesn’t stop.
RB Corey Clement — Behind a bunch of road graders up front, Clement should have a very good 2016. His combination of speed, agility and strength is extremely impressive; there aren’t a lot of 5-foot-11, 214-pound backs that move as well as he does. He just needs to be healthy.
Behind Enemy Lines
We talk with Andrew Rosin of Wisconsin’s SB Nation site, Bucky’s 5th Quarter, to help preview the Badgers’ season.
Best case scenario
The best case scenario for Wisconsin's season is that they find themselves a quarterback that makes fans ask the question just what the hell they were thinking with letting Joel Stave start all last year. If that happens, then they'd be able to use their multiple options in the passing game to take pressure off the running game and bring back the offense to something that is more akin to their standards. The defense is still rather talented, and I think people will be surprised with the lack of a dropoff in the secondary. Even in the best case I'm somewhat realistic. The Badgers end the regular season winning all the toss-up games and getting one signature major win to go 10-2 and win the Western Division.
Worst case scenario
The Badgers never truly get that answer at quarterback, and while the running game is good, it's not good enough to keep up with some of the higher powered offenses they will face. Even in the best case scenario, there's going to be a clear overall regression on defense, and a loss to Northwestern drops Wisconsin to 3-6 and needing to hustle or get the APR not enough teams are eligible so congratulations on going 5-7 luck on their side to get bowl eligible.
Wisconsin at Northwestern prediction
History tells Badger fans to not get too overly full of beans when talking about a road game at Northwestern. The Badgers tend not to bring their best selves to Ryan Field. But the on paper matchup does have things that bode well for Wisconsin right now. Northwestern loses two major pieces of the defensive line that helped key them to win nine games and get an official-aided tenth. (Jazz caught it and you know it.) Northwestern's offense should mature, but the exact level of how much is an open question. This is a game where the Badgers can find success in the running game. And if they don't get cursed by turnovers, bad officiating, or six inches of snow that just makes everything a mess, I've got to say the Badgers score last and win a hotly contested battle.
Despite the fact the Badgers know what's coming on LSU's defense, it has a real good chance not to matter. Michigan on the road is going to be tough. Those two I expect to be losses. History's been relatively good for Wisconsin against Ohio State in Madison and Michigan State will have inexperience on both lines. They might be able to take one out of those two. Though they could very easily start the year 2-4, it's not an unreasonable expectation that they finish the year 8-4, though it's more likely a 7-5 season as they get tripped up once more after the murder portion of the schedule moves toward something less punishing.
As Rosin mentioned, Wisconsin faces a beast of a schedule in 2016 that features crossover games with both Michigan schools and Ohio State. The Badgers also start the season against LSU. Yikes. The Wildcats have won two in a row against the Badgers, but making that three will be one of the tougher tasks of the season. This is the final game of Northwestern’s toughest stretch of the season: Nebraska, Iowa, Michigan St., Indiana, Ohio State, Wisconsin. The Wildcats will be coming off what could be an emotionally-draining game in Columbus. This will be one of the many toss-ups the Wildcats play in 2016.
Date: Nov. 5