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Behind Enemy Lines Previews: The Wisconsin Badgers

Drew Hamm of B5Q weighs in on the Badgers’ outlook this season.

NCAA Football: Wisconsin at Michigan Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

As we get closer to the 2021 football season, we decided to poll the other sites in the SB Nation family to get a sense on where their programs are at. Today’s edition welcomes Drew Hamm of Bucky’s Fifth Quarter to discuss the Wisconsin Badgers, who Michigan will see on Oct. 2 in Madison.

Here is the full rundown from Hamm on what the Badgers bring back and how the fanbase feels about their outlook moving forward.

Wisconsin’s key departures

  • Garrett Groshek, RB, third-down back, graduated
  • Mason Stokke, FB, starter, graduated
  • Cole Van Lanen, OT, starter, drafted
  • Jon Dietzen, IOL, started, graduated
  • Isaiahh Loudermilk, DE, starter, drafted
  • Garrett Rand, DE, starter, graduated
  • Rachad Wildgoose, CB, starter, drafted
  • Eric Burrell, S, starter, graduated
  • Jack Coan, QB, a former starter, transfer to Notre Dame

Key returnees

  • Graham Mertz, QB, NIL champion and potentially the most talented quarterback the Badgers have had since Russell Wilson
  • Jalen Berger, RB, from New Jersey so you know he’s going to be good
  • Jake Ferguson, TE, Barry Alvarez’s grandson and preseason all-American
  • Kayden Lyles, IOL, anchor of the offensive line
  • Keeanu Benton, NT, has NFL scouts salivating
  • Leo Chenal and Jack Sanborn, ILBs, the next in a long line of hard-hitting, field-covering LBs for Jim Leonhard’s defense
  • The secondary has, no joke, about 10 guys that have played serious snaps. None of them will be first-team all-B1G, but as a group, they may be the best in the conference.

True freshmen or transfers that will make an instant impact

  • Chez Mellusi, RB, transfer (three yrs. of eligibility remaining) from Clemson where he backed up Travis Etienne
  • Braelon Allen, 4-star ATH, reclassified from 2022 class, started his recruitment as a safety, then was potentially a linebacker and finally settled on running back; freak in the weight room
  • Hunter Wohler, 4-star S, one of the hardest-hitting kids I’ve seen come into Wisconsin in my almost decade of covering the team
  • TJ Bollers, 4-star LB, could work himself into the pass rush rotation as a freshman

A brief overview of the 2021 team

The 2020 season was a strange one for Wisconsin. They got off to a rip-roaring start by waxing Illinois and Michigan...and then the whole team, basically, got COVID. They ended the year 4-3 with a victory over Wake Forest in the Duke’s Mayo Bowl. It was nice to end the year on a high note, but there were only so many positives you could take from the 2020 season as a whole.

There is optimism heading into 2021. A lot of the rough stretches of play in 2020 were due to young players being thrown into the deep end. Now those players will have game experience, spring football, and a full fall camp under their belts when the ball is kicked on Sept. 4 against Penn State.

The Badgers offense had one of the most precipitous drops in the country from 2019 to 2020 and it is pretty safe to expect things to go back up in 2021. The running game will be better, the offensive line will be better, and the passing game will be better too. Honestly, they all kind of have to be better by default because of how dreadful they were in 2020. Wisconsin’s defense was still solid as a rock but just didn’t get a lot of pressure on the quarterback. If they can rush the passer and maybe force a few more turnovers, this could be one of Jim Leonhard’s best units yet.

All of Wisconsin’s toughest games (PSU, Michigan, Iowa, Northwestern) are at home (except for the Notre Dame game which is at a neutral site in Chicago) and early looks at the schedule have some pundits saying Wisconsin could be favored in every regular-season game they play. The Badgers should win the Big Ten West, but going undefeated seems a bit optimistic.

What’s your team’s biggest strength?

Talented depth. In three of the past five years, the Badgers have played in the Big Ten Title game (twice against Ohio State and once against Penn State). Against PSU they lost by a touchdown despite having a large lead, in the first game against Ohio State they lost by six points, and in the most recent loss to Ohio State, they were up 21-7 at halftime and then lost 34-21.

While not everything in those losses can be attributed to having inferior second-string players, it definitely was a part of the reason Wisconsin lost. The Badgers starting 22 can stack up with almost any team in the country, but in years’ past if they suffered even one injury they often had to put in a player that had once been a walk-on or who was lightly recruited. After back-to-back “best recruiting classes ever” for Wisconsin, there is talented depth in Madison.

Will that mean Wisconsin beats Ohio State in the Big Ten title game this year? Well, I wouldn’t predict that right now, but it should make the Badgers' regular season more manageable once the inevitable injuries start popping up on the depth chart. Wisconsin also had a handful of important, contributing seniors (for instance WRs Kendric Pryor and Danny Davis) decide to return for their COVID year which will help bolster depth even more.

What’s your team’s biggest weakness?

The kicking game. I’m more worried about the placekicking than I am the punting, however. Collin Larsh is Wisconsin’s presumed starter at kicker and he was 5-of-7 last year with a long of 31 yards. In 2019, his long was 44 yards but he also missed six of his 18 attempts that year. He doesn’t have a particularly strong leg nor is he any better than kinda above average in terms of accuracy.

Punter Andy Vujnovich had an up and down first year in Madison but has at least shown the potential to be a top-three or four punter in the conference. The return game isn’t great, but it’s pretty good. Wisconsin also has to replace their long snapper, Adam Bay, who started for four straight years and was excellent. A drop-off there is to be expected.

How does your fanbase feel about your coach and his staff?

Everything is about as positive as can be when you look at Wisconsin’s coaching staff. Defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard turned down some serious overtures from the Green Bay Packers and other NFL teams to stay in Madison. He should have another top-15 unit nationally. Head coach Paul Chryst is back to calling plays and coaching the quarterbacks himself, both new responsibilities for him this year.

This solves one of the major concerns that Wisconsin fans had with the coaching staff: Joe Rudolph’s play calling. Rudolph will now focus mainly on the offensive line, an area in which he excels, and Chryst, who has basically turned the entire defensive unit over to Leonhard, adds a little more to his plate.

The team has been recruiting at their highest level ever over the past three seasons and this year we should all see a bunch of that talent out on the field in larger roles.

Who is your team’s MVP this season and why?

I’ll give you one on offense and one on defense. On offense, this team will go as far as QB Graham Mertz takes them. The Badgers are talented enough elsewhere to still win eight or nine games if Mertz is just your Average Wisconsin Quarterback, but if he plays as he did against Illinois and Michigan last year (32-of-43, 375 yards, seven TDs, zero INTs) then running the table in the regular season isn’t out of the question.

On defense, I think the most valuable player is NT Keeanu Benton. He is a mammoth man in the middle of the defensive line who can not only eat up blocks to free linebackers to make plays but can also put pressure on the quarterback himself. UW struggled with their pass rush all of last season and anywhere they can get a little extra juice in that regard is a bonus. I think Benton is the most talented defender on Wisconsin’s team and could seriously consider going pro after the season. He won’t have the counting stats, because nose tackles rarely do, but he will be the most valuable defender on the Badgers team.

Predict your team’s record, its best win, and a potential surprise loss

11-1; beating Notre Dame in Chicago would be the best win of the season, if not the most important one; even though Michigan is at Camp Randall, there is strong “let down game” potential for that one coming off the Notre Dame game...I also always worry about the Iowa game, but that loss wouldn’t be surprising to me.