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2023 Know Your Opponent: Wisconsin Badgers

A new coaching regime brings in sky-high expectations for the Badgers.

Big Ten Football Media Days Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

Each day, we are getting closer to Northwestern Wildcats football, and this comes with evaluating the ‘Cats opponents this season. Next up is the “new and improved” Wisconsin Badgers.

The Basics

Returning Production: 72% overall (75% offense, 68% defense)

2022 Record: 7-6 (4-5 B1G)

Head Coach: Luke Fickell (1st season)

The Stats

2023 SP+ Overall: 19th

2023 SP+ Offense: 41st

2023 SP+ Defense: 7th

2022 Capsule

After putting on a defensive clinic in their opening matchup against Illinois State, Wisconsin laid an egg in their first real matchup of the 2022 season, losing to Washington State in Madison.

After rebounding against inferior New Mexico State, the Badgers got battered by Ohio State and Illinois; a defense that was one of the best in the country gave up 86 points in two games. Following its loss to the Fighting Illini, Wisconsin relieved head coach Paul Chryst of his duties and named Defensive Coordinator Jim Leonhard as interim head coach for the remainder of the 2022 campaign.

Though the Badgers responded to some extent, the rest of the season was filled with ups and downs. They were able to beat Purdue and Maryland, two high-scoring offenses, but lost Paul Bunyan’s axe to Minnesota. Wisconsin finished the regular season with a record of 7-6 and 4-5 in the Big Ten.

The major problem with this team was that quarterback Graham Mertz was never able to turn into the quarterback many thought he could be, especially after he threw five touchdowns in 2020 in his collegiate debut.

Prior to facing off against Oklahoma State in the Guaranteed Rate Bowl, Luke Fickell was hired as the next head coach in Madison. In the final game of the 2022 season, Braelon Allen, who was the Badgers’ marquee player all season, ran for 116 yards and a touchdown to beat the Cowboys. Moreover, Wisconsin’s defense was able to stop Oklahoma State all game, as OSU did not score over double digits until the fourth quarter, but the game was already out of reach.

To put it all in one graph: the Badgers had high expectations and never reached them. They want changes and so they made it. The bowl game was a glimpse of what Wisconsin CAN be in 2023.

Offensive Overview

It was pretty clear that quarterback was the problem for Wisconsin in 2022. Graham Mertz had another below-average season, throwing for 2,136 yards and 19 touchdowns, along with 10 interceptions. As a team, the Badgers scored 26.31 points per game, going along with 363.6 yards per game. Though they were ranked in the upper half of the Big Ten in total offense, their numbers were no match for the conference’s marquee offenses, such as Ohio State and Michigan.

Rushing is a slightly different story: Braelon Allen is not only one of the top running backs in the conference, but the country. In a conference that featured many marquee backs — Blake Corum, Donovan Edwards, Nick Singleton, Chase Brown, Evan Hull and Mo Ibrahim — Allen might have been one of the best, rushing for 1,242 yards. It was the second straight 1,200+ yard season for the junior.

Yet again, the Big Ten will have big-name running backs, and Allen will be at the top of the list. Wisconsin should have one of the top offensive lines in the conference, and maybe the country as well. However, the biggest change for the Badgers came with the staff and quarterback.

It starts with Luke Fickell, who comes over to Madison after six years at Cincinnati. Fickell turned the Bearcats into a better program, posting a 57-18 record over his time there, including a College Football Playoff appearance. This changes Wisconsin from the jump.

Moreover, the Badgers brought in Phil Longo to be their offensive coordinator. Longo, formerly at North Carolina, coached some of the top college football quarterbacks in Sam Howell and Drake Maye during his time in Chapel Hill, and he brings his extensive resume to the Badgers.

Now, let’s talk about Wisconsin’s starting quarterback, Tanner Mordecai. Mordecai comes over from SMU after throwing for 3,524 yards, 33 touchdowns and posting a 151.9 passing rating last season. He will be at the center of the offense and hopes he can lead a high-scoring group in a Big Ten full of them.

If Mordecai can click with Fickell and Longo’s offensive scheme and Braelon Allen is Braelon Allen, sheesh. Watch out for the Badgers.

Defensive Overview

In 2021, Wisconsin had one of the best defenses in the nation, falling just short of top-ranked Georgia. In 2022, this unit took a step back, ranking sixth in the Big Ten in yards per game. The highlight was their rushing defense, which was third in the conference — behind Michigan and Illinois — allowing just over 100 yards per game.

In ESPN’s rankings of the best college football defenses ahead of the season, Wisconsin ranked 10th. Key returners include linebackers Maema Njongmeta and Jordan Turner, the two leading tacklers last season. Furthermore, Fickell was able to bring in transfers on the defensive side of the ball, such as CB Jason Maitre, DL Darian Varner, DE Jeff Pietrowski, and CB Nyzier Fourqurean.

The defense will be a mix of some old and new concepts; however, Wisconsin’s defense should be better than last year.

Three Players to Watch

QB Tanner Mordecai

As mentioned, quarterback has been the problem of the Wisconsin offense for the past few years, but Mordecai can change that from day one. With his arm talent, mobility and ability to see the field, he is already the best quarterback the Badgers have had in a while; however, the key here is whether he will fit into Fickell and Longo’s Cincinnati/UNC style offense.

Mordecai has the chance to be one of the best quarterbacks in the Big Ten, with a talented skill position group around him and a strong offensive line. Don’t be surprised if he becomes a big name early on.

LB Maema Njongmeta

Njongmeta was Wisconsin’s leading tackler last season, and if this defense wants to take a leap from a poor season for Wisconsin standards, it starts with him. He will be the captain of the defense and is capable in both the rush and pass.

WRs Chimere Dike and C.J. Williams

It’s hard to pick just one of the two, but the Wisconsin receivers have not gotten enough attention. Dike is going into his fourth year and should start as the Badgers’ top wideout in 2023, racking in 689 yards and six touchdowns last season. With Mordecai at the helm, these numbers should rise.

Williams is the key here: he was a highlight at spring practice after transferring from Southern Cal, making leaping catches over defenders day in and out. He provides natural talent on the outside. He can be a main feature in this wide receiver corps that should be better than last year.