BY DAN GARCIA
Despite a 10-win season and an exciting bowl victory against USC to bring their 2015 to a close, the Wisconsin Badgers certainly could have hoped for better luck last year. All season the Badgers fell victim to their injuries and costly mistakes, that without could have easily led to an undefeated season after their opening loss to Alabama.
Starting tailback and the Badgers’ most valuable player, Corey Clement, only logged 4 games played and just above 200 yards rushing for the season due to a sports hernia injury and a suspension from an off-field incident. As a result, the Badgers and their massive front line only averaged 150 rushing yards per game in 2015, which is more than disappointing by the team’s standards. And although QB Joel Stave was one of the rare consistencies for the team last year, it is hard to imagine if his few but notable mistakes at crucial moments, would have been avoided if he had Clement to relieve him of some of the offensive burden.
But even with their injuries, the Badgers still put up 10 wins last season and had a stellar defense that surprised many. The Badgers were just a couple scores away from an undefeated conference record and without the Iowa Hawkeye’s remarkable and surprising season last year, the Badgers would have won the Big Ten West and would have been playing for much more than the National Funding Holiday Bowl title.
So how about this season? Although the Badgers lost Joel Stave and their leading receiver, Alex Erickson, (to name a few) they are no better or worse off than most Big 10 programs this year. And where they lose their starting quarterback, they gain with a fresh Corey Clement, who many wondered would even see a 2016 season with the Badgers. With Clement back, hoping to make up for last year and increase his draft stock for next year, and of course that classic Grade A offensive line that has become a staple in Wisconsin football, you can expect big things for Wisconsin’s rushing game this year. Not only can you expect much more from Clement this year, but he should be a statistical dream for the Badgers this season.
Running game alone won’t win the Big Ten West for Wisconsin however, and with Stave gone, the QB battle between Bart Houston and Alex Hornibrook will be interesting. Head Coach Paul Chryst hasn’t picked his man yet, but Wisconsin fans should keep their fingers crossed that he gets it right the first time around, because their is no time to waste, as the Badgers open their season against LSU at the historic Lambeau Field on September 3rd, which should be an easier opening opponent than Alabama, but still no walk in the park either.
Houston and/or Hornibrook shouldn’t feel pressured into greatness though, because with the Badgers’ running game and the O-line providing great protection, the key for Wisconsin’s future starter should be not making big mistakes and providing Clement an occasional breather.
And now for the other side of the ball, the defense. After their loss to Alabama last year, Wisconsin’s defense gave up only 13 points in its next four games. Even in its heartbreaking loss at home to Iowa, the defense only gave up 10 points in a game where the offensive gave up 4 turnovers. The 2nd-ranked defense far exceeded anyone’s expectations and despite losing three starters in the secondary, the defense is definitely in a position to have another great year, even if not a 2nd-ranked year. Their 3-4 defense isn’t full of future NFL stars, but collectively they are a solid bunch that should get the job done and put the offense in a great position to get some major wins.
Overall, while you can’t predict just what may go wrong in terms of injuries/bad luck/crucial mistakes, Wisconsin should be in a great position this year to make noise in the Big Ten. Iowa won’t be the team they were last year and assuming Clement comes back as motivated as we expect him to be (and stays healthy of course), the Badgers will be the rushing machine that they once were and the favorite in the Big Ten West. Mix an unstoppable rushing program with the Badgers’ new stellar defense that they found in 2015, and you have one great football team. Replacing starters and finding answers at quarterback should all be questions that Wisconsin can answer before conference play begins, but a big win against LSU is crucial to get the season started on the right foot.
Their first big test: September 3rd vs. LSU @Lambeau Field
While the Badgers have struggled opening their season against SEC opponents in the past two years, things look to be different in 2016. Not only are they playing close to home in Green Bay, WI, at an historic stadium where most Badger players have dreamed of playing since they were kids, but they look better off this time around. In 2014 they suffered a disappointing comeback to the evenly matched LSU, but still a game they could have easily won. In 2015, they lost another virtual Away game in Texas, this time to Alabama, who at that point was clearly the better team. Fast forward to 2016 and the Badgers are practically playing a home game against an evenly matched team, who may not be able to pull the same comeback in front of a sold-out Green Bay crowd, if given the opportunity like they were two years ago.
Will they win the Big Ten West? Yes.
With Iowa expected to fall short of their season last year, Wisconsin is our favorite to win the Big Ten West this year. The East winner (whoever that may be this season) is likely to come ahead in the Big Ten Championship, but if Wisconsin makes it that far, they will definitely be in a good position to steal the conference championship and much more.
The difficulty of their conference schedule comes in its first three games (at Michigan St., at Michigan, home against Ohio St.). If they can win at least 2 of the 3, they will be in a great spot before they face Iowa on October 22nd, otherwise you can expect the winner of that game to eventually represent the West in the conference championship.
The 2 keys to success: Corey Clement and the Defense picking up where they left off.
Even with uncertainties at quarterback, Wisconsin’s offense will be just find if Corey Clement does as well as we expect him to. He will make Houston and Hornibrook’s job much easier if he stays healthy and dominates like he should. And if Clement keeps the Wisconsin defense off the field and well rested, the D can continue to build off their dominance in 2015. Again, don’t expect another 2nd-ranked defense (especially with the changes in their secondary), but with Clement making their job easier, they can have another outstanding year.