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Previewing the 2016 Wisconsin Badgers

NCAA Football: Wisconsin at Michigan State Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

Going into this season, people wondered whether Wisconsin could even have a winning season with their meat grinder of a schedule. A season opener with LSU, then opening conference play with Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State, Iowa and Nebraska led a lot of people to think that the Badgers would be entering November with a sub-.500 record. Well, that didn’t happen. The Badgers beat LSU, Michigan State and Iowa, kept it within one score at the Big House against Michigan and took Ohio State to overtime. That start to the season has many considering Wisconsin the most likely team to win the Big Ten’s west division this season.

Senior Bart Houston started the season as the Badgers’ quarterback, but by game four, redshirt freshman Alex Hornibrook had taken over the starting job. Last week against Iowa, Houston got two series as Wisconsin seems to be embracing a two quarterback system. Hornibrook has the stronger arm; he’s thrown for 877 yards and five touchdowns in six games. But Houston’s accuracy is better than Hornibrook’s. Houston has completed 62% of his passes with two interceptions; Hornibrook just 56% with six interceptions. Houston is the more mobile of the quarterbacks, rushing for a net of 15 yards while Hornibrook has lost 76 yards on the ground thanks to sacks.

Corey Clement leads the Badgers as expected in rushing, averaging 103 yards and a touchdown per game. Dare Ogunbowale backs him up, with 222 yards rushing on the season. Clement’s average of 4.3 yards per carry and Ogunbowale’s average of 4.1 yards per carry aren’t anything too exciting. Redshirt freshman Bradrick Shaw is averaging 5.8 yards per carry, which is moving him up the depth chart; Paul Chryst says that Shaw has earned a chance for more carries.

Jazz Peavy leads the Wisconsin receivers with 24 catches for 383 yards and three touchdowns this season. Robert Wheelwright is second with 20 catches for 310 yards, while tight end Troy Fumagalli has 25 catches for 303 yards and a touchdown. Freshman backup tight end Kyle Penniston reeled in a 54 yard catch last week against Iowa.

Injuries on the offensive line have forced the Badgers to play a game of musical chairs in recent weeks, and Paul Chryst actually likes the results so much, he’s planning to keep on rotating guys up front. Last week against Iowa, six different combinations took the field on Wisconsin’s 12 series. Right tackle Jacob Maxwell is officially questionable this week with a shoulder injury. Redshirt freshman Jon Dietzen has missed four games this season with an ankle injury, but is considered the Badgers’ strongest lineman. That depth is impressive considering that senior Dan Voltz retired in August due to injuries. Junior left tackle Ryan Ramczyk has taken over as the leader on the defensive line.

Injuries have also been an issue on Wisconsin’s defense this season, not that it shows in their results. Linebacker Jack Cichy, Wisconsin’s leading tackler this season, is the latest loss; he tore his pectoral muscle last week against Iowa and is out for the rest of the season. Fellow linebacker Chris Orr was lost in the season opener for the season, and nose tackle Olive Sagapolu will be out this week with an arm injury.

The Badgers rank in the top ten nationally in scoring defense (14.3 points per game, 4th nationally), total defense (300 yards per game, 9th) and rushing defense (103 yards per game, 10th). Their "weakness" (note the quotes) is pass defense, ranking 7th in the Big Ten at 198 yards per game. Inside linebacker T.J. Edwards now becomes the leading tackler with 44 on the season. Outside linebacker T.J. Watt (brother of you-know-who) is second with 39 tackles; his 7 sacks leads the Badgers and ranks second in the Big Ten. Cornerback Derrick Tindal leads the Badgers with three interceptions; he’s questionable for this week’s game with a leg injury.

Looking at Wisconsin, it’s clear to me that for Nebraska will have to play their best game of the season in order to keep this winning streak alive. The trick will be to keep the game within reach early to give the Huskers a chance to win it in the fourth quarter. Below, you’ll find our preseason preview of the Wisconsin Badgers.

After Mike Riley left Oregon State for Nebraska, the Beavers chose Wisconsin's Gary Andersen to replace Riley, which in turn resulted in Wisconsin hiring Paul Chryst as the third in that series of dominoes. And of the three, Chryst had the most success in 2015 as the Badgers went 10-3, but did it in atypical Wisconsin fashion. It wasn't out of ignorance of Wisconsin tradition; Chryst was born in Madison and not only played for the Badgers, but also was the offensive coordinator from 2005 through 2011. No, it was out of necessity as injuries limited top running backs Corey Clement and Taiwan Deal. Suddenly the Badgers had to become a passing team as they were down to former walk-on Dare Ogunbowale, who started ten games.

Clement (5'11" 214 lbs.) only rushed for 221 yards and five scores in his injury-shortened season. Considering that he rushed for 949 yards in 2014 as a backup to Melvin Gordon, you have to expect that a healthy Clement could easily rush for 1,500 or more yards in 2016. Deal (6'1" 216 lbs.) rushed for 503 yards, with most of it in the first five games of the season.Ogunbowale (5'11" 217 lbs.) rushed for 819 in a role few would have expected a year ago. This trio will be joined by redshirt freshman Bradrick Shaw (6'1" 210 lbs.) who should give the Badgers one of the most potent backfields in the nation.

Last year it was former walk-on Joel Stave coming to the rescue of the Wisconsin offense, completing over 60% of his passes for 2,687 yards in his senior season. Senior Bart Houston (64" 228 lbs.) would seem to be the heir apparent. Houston completed 57% of his passes last season for 281 yards and got valuable experience coming off the bench against Illinois, completing 22 of 33 passes. Redshirt freshman Alex Hornibrook (6'4" 216 lbs.) was very impressive in spring practice and could be a candidate to take over at some point in the season. Maybe even to start the season, though that could be impacted by Wisconsin's loaded schedule; prior to facing the Huskers, Wisconsin playes LSU, Michigan State, Michigan, Ohio State and Iowa.

Not only do the Badgers need to replace a four year starter at quarterback, Wisconsin also needs to replace Alex Erickson, their leading receiver who had double the catches of anybody else. Senior Robert Wheelwright (6'3" 202 lbs.) looks like he's up for a big season; he caught 32 passes for 416 yards and four touchdowns last season despite missing four games. Junior Jazz Peavy (6'0" 182 lbs.) looks to be the other starter at wide receiver; he caught 20 passes for 268 yards last season. Junior tight end Troy Fumagalli (6'6" 251 lbs.) played with a cast last season and still caught 28 passes for 313 yards.

Last season, Wisconsin's offensive line had to deal with inexperience issues magnified by injuries so that four redshirt freshman had to start the Holiday Bowl against Southern Cal. Senior Dan Voltz (6'3" 301 lbs.) was a second team all Big Ten center in 2014, but was limited to seven starts due to injury; he's forecast to slide over to left guard. Sophomore Michael Deiter (6'6" 317 lbs.) started last season at right tackle, but slid over to center after Voltz went down. Sophomore Beau Benzchawel (6'6" 309 lbs.) then slid from the starter at right tackle to right guard. The Badgers will miss second-team all-Big Ten left tackle Tyler Marz, but junior Ryan Ramczyk(6'6" 308 lbs.) was a two-time all-conference honoree in junior college who redshirted last season. This line should be improved in 2016, and should be absolutely fierce the season after.

Wisconsin's defense has been pretty stout ever since Dava Aranda arrived in 2012, but Aranda will jump around the field this season. He'll be the defensive coordinator for LSU, who opens the season against Wisconsin at Lambeau Field. His replacement is Justin Wilcox, who watched the Badgers in the Holiday Bowl from the Southern Cal perspective. He should keep Wisconsin's 3-4 philosophy that Aranda implemented, which should ease the transition. On the line, the Badgers should be set with juniors Connor Sheehy (6'4" 290 lbs.) and Chikwe Obash (6'3" 268 lbs.) at defensive end. Sheehy played both end and nose tackle last year, but end seems to be his role for 2016 with the emergence of sophomore Olive Sagapolu (6'2'"332 lbs.) last year. Junior Alec James (6'3" 267 lbs.) might rotate in on rushing downs; this should be a fairly solid defensive line. In a 3-4, defensive linemen won't put up gaudy stats; their role is to occupy blockers to allow the linebackers to make plays.

And with three of four starters returning in the linebacking corps, the Badgers look pretty solid, starting with senior outside linebacker Vince Biegel (6'4" 244 lbs.). Biegel earned second-team all-Big Ten honors last year with 66 tackles (14 for a loss). Sophomore inside linebackerT.J. Edwards (6'1" 238 lbs.) led the Badgers with 84 tackles last season, earning him FWAA freshman all-American honors. Even bigger things were expected of him this season until he broke his foot last month in summer conditioning. Edwards is hoping to be back on the field against LSU in the season opener. The Badgers will sorely miss second-team all-American linebacker Joe Schobert (4th round draft pick of the Cleveland Browns), but junior T.J. Watt(6'5" 247 lbs.) impressed this spring on the outside. Even if he's only half as good as his all-Pro big brother J.J., he'll be a major contributor on defense.

Wisconsin's pass defense has been outstanding in recent seasons, but 2016 sets up to be a rebuilding year with only one starter returning in the secondary. Senior cornerback Sojourn Shelton (5'9" 173 lbs.) has started 37 of 40 games in his Wisconsin career; he's broken up 20 passes thus far in his Wisconsin career. Junior safety D'Cota Dixon (5'10" 206 lbs.) only recorded 16 tackles last season, but nine of them came in the season opener against Alabama when he came in to relieve an injured Michael Caputo. Needless to say, Wisconsin's secondary looks to be the biggest question mark on the depth chart going into the 2016 season.

The biggest question mark for Wisconsin this season is actually the schedule they face in 2016. The rotation of Wisconsin opponents since the Big Ten split into divisions has given the Badgers some favorable schedules -€” until now. Wisconsin hasn't played Michigan since 2010 and Michigan State since 2012. Both reappear on the Wisconsin schedule along with Ohio State in their first three conference games of the season. With a season opener against LSU, it's not inconceivable that Wisconsin could have a losing record when the Huskers come calling at the end of October. And that won't be because the Badgers will be worse; it's just the natural effect of swapping Rutgers and Maryland on the schedule for Michigan, Michigan State and Ohio State.