For some time now, the Wisconsin Badgers have been college football’s version of Groundhog’s Day. Similar expectations of the type of product on the field each August and end results nearly mimicking that of the season prior have bogged down the program from the casual fan’s perspective. The Badgers’ ripest chance at national title contention in 2011 was derailed by not one, but two Hail Mary’s, rendering the perfect storm Russell Wilson offered a waste. That season was sandwiched by a pair of Rose Bowl losses. As Kurt Vonnegut so ardently proclaims: so it goes, Wisconsin. The post-Rose Bowl trifecta era of Wisconsin football brings us to present-day, and following a season noted by the program’s worst rushing attack in decades, one would figure things would continue to look south. However, year two of Paul Chryst may rather be one of excelsior, as there’s plenty fresh and engaging to look forward to in 2016.
Badger fans should savor this season’s early spotlight. For the third consecutive year, Wisconsin will initiate its campaign with a bang with tomorrow’s 2:30 kickoff at Lambeau Field, the final marquee Badger non-conference game for the foreseeable future. #5 LSU now enters the state of Wisconsin two years after being on the ropes in Tiger Country against the Badgers. That collapse in Houston in 2014 will surely be in the back of the minds of the Cardinal and White in Green Bay. Yet, tomorrow’s colossal matchup is simply a fraction of the behemoth Wisconsin will face in 2016. An SEC-like 5 matchups with preseason top 15 teams forms perhaps the most difficult schedule in the program’s history and a plethora of opportunities to make statements and be heard. Largely saddled with bland conference slates since the inception of the Big Ten’s East/West format, Wisconsin fans will finally be able to see their team be subject to a national barometer on a weekly basis. While luck of the draw may prevent the Badgers from winning the Big Ten West at the end of the day, the gauntlet from September 24 through November 5, highlighted by a pair of home primetime games, will undoubtedly maintain anticipation and optimism.
The 2016 edition of Wisconsin football still contains plenty of carryover. After a tumultuous and injury-plagued 2015, Corey Clement appears healthy and primed to finally seize the role of feature back. Judging from his spring game performance, Clement’s groin issues give the impression of being a thing of the past, as he showed great burst and quickness. His partners in crime, change-of-pace man Dare Ogunbowale and Taiwan Deal, combine to compose one of the nation’s better backfields. The absence of Clement for much of 2015 certainly contributed to a dip in the production of the ground game, but a youthful and inexperienced offensive line was also to blame. As a combination was settled on in the latter half of the season, one could see the running game methodically improve, culminating in terrific performances against Minnesota and USC. While the loss of Dan Voltz is certainly a blow, continuity is key, and the sophomore quartet of Micah Kapoi, Michael Deiter, Beau Benzschawel, and Jacob Maxwell has had an opportunity to grow together for an entire year and will be a major factor in the Wisconsin run game returning to its formidable self. Several returnees in the front seven defensively should be able to account for the departure of one of the nation’s premier pass rushers last season in Joe Schobert. High-profile NFL prospect and team captain Vince Biegel is the cream of the crop and could enjoy a season similar to Schobert’s 2015. Wisconsin’s playmaker up the middle and most reliable tackler in T.J. Edwards will surely be missed Week 1 against Leonard Fournette and the Tigers, but the sophomore has a bright future. Three-Sack Jack Cichy, Chris Orr, and T.J. Watt complete the five-linebacker rotation for new defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox, probably the Badgers’ best single position group. On the contrary, much turnover exists in the Wisconsin secondary, but the scrappy Sojourn Shelton returns for his fourth season as a starter to lead the way.
The winningest quarterback in Wisconsin football history truly owns one of the most curious legacies in sports today. The reality concerning the much-maligned, and apparent threat to make the Minnesota Vikings’ 53-man cut, Joel Stave is the post-Rose Bowl rut is indubitably on his behalf. After only improving marginally, if anything, over his four seasons as a starting quarterback in school, his college career arc, or lack thereof, is one that would even make Wayne Blackshear cringe. The reality of 2016, however, is that Wisconsin fans no longer have to endure Stave being under center. Bart Houston isn’t exactly a new face, but the fifth year senior will, at last, be making his first career start tomorrow afternoon. The “newness,” so to speak, surrounding the California native and former 5-star recruit is not necessarily simply his presence, but Houston brings something entirely different to the table than most of his predecessors. Equipped with a cannon of an arm and a fearless gunslinger’s mentality, Houston will be able to make throws and squeeze through windows that rival Russell Wilson’s dazzling lone season in Madison. Houston, in the end, makes the Badger offense far more dynamic while not exactly conforming to the Jim Sorgi/John Stocco/Scott Tolzien mold. Look for him to hit on a few deep balls with speedster George Rushing, whose first true chance at being a pass-catcher arrives this season after a sensational fall camp. A pair of true freshman, while they may not appear on Wisconsin’s two-deep, are also threatening to see snaps at wide receiver as early as tomorrow. A Quintez Cephus YouTube search would be littered with videos of the high-flying high school dunks of the former Furman basketball commit, and an A.J. Taylor YouTube search would warrant highlight videos of him as a high school running back. Yet, undeniable athleticism and quick playbook comprehension have both in position to play a significant role in their first year on campus.
The three-year run of kicking off the season pitted against an SEC power concludes with tomorrow’s get-together in Titletown. Dave Aranda on the opposing sideline may grant the Badgers a tactical advantage. Bart Houston, Corey Clement, and co. will be staring across at 10 returning starters on an LSU defense. Without hesitation, this game will be won at the line of scrimmage, and Wisconsin’s continuity on the line combined with a stellar, but still under-the-radar, front seven power the Badgers to grinding victory in front of a de facto home crowd. Saturday, along with the remainder of the schedule, will be difficult to navigate, as aforementioned. My 2016 prediction:
9-3, (6-3 B1G), with losses coming in East Lansing, at Michigan, and at Ryan Field against Northwestern, a place where the Badgers never seem to win. I may be a bit overzealous. The presence of a home night game against Ohio State may deceive me into believing David Gilreath will return the opening kickoff. But if the first 1000+ words weren’t an indication, I’m optimistic. On, Wisconsin.