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The wait is nearly over as Penn State prepares for its much-anticipated 2021 season debut this weekend. The Nittany Lions are on the road against the Wisconsin Badgers, which figures to be a worthy challenge that could indicate where the fate of the 2021 Nittany Lions will fall. A win on the road against the supposed favorite in the Big Ten West would set quite the tone and set Penn State up for the possibility of an undefeated September that sends Penn State into the thick of early Big Ten title and potential College Football Playoff talk. A loss, and it’s back to the drawing board.
Head coach James Franklin has stressed the value of playing a team like Wisconsin at the start of the season and knows the importance of having everything in sync when the game kicks off. There will be precious little time to make adjustments against a team of this caliber.
But what should fans know about the Wisconsin Badgers before Penn State’s Week 1 matchup?
Wisconsin is getting a bargain with Paul Chryst
Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports
Wisconsin isn't a school that is about to shell out Texas A&M money for their head coach (then again, not many are), but it is fair to suggest the Badgers are getting an absolute bargain with Paul Chryst. According to the USA TODAY Sports directory of coaching salaries (using last season's data), Chryst, a two-time Big Ten coach of the year, is the ninth highest-paid head coach in the Big Ten. Ninth! Chryst has a record of 56-19 at Wisconsin with victories in the Cotton Bowl and Orange Bowl on top of three Big Ten West Division championships. Coaches paid more than Chryst include Mel Tucker of Michigan State and Scott Frost of Nebraska. Just think about that for a moment. Chryst also has the fourth-most wins in his first five seasons as a head coach in the Big Ten (52). He trails only Urban Meyer (61, Ohio State), Fielding Yost (55, Michigan), and Henry Williams (55, Minnesota).
Wisconsin's defense returns eigtht starters
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel via Imagn Content Services
Wisconsin has put together a pretty good track record of having a solid defense, and this appears to be no different in 2021. The Badgers return eight starters from a defense that ranked No. 5 nationally in total defense a season ago and allowed just 17.4 points per game. This is a defense that will be led by one of the top linebackers in the Big Ten, Jack Sanborn. Like Penn State, Wisconsin's secondary should be a strength. Cornerbacks Faion Hicks and Caesar Williams will be difficult to throw against, and the entire secondary unit has a combined 82 games of starting experience under its collective belt.
Graham Mertz enters Year 2 as Wisconsin's QB
Mark Hoffman / Milwaukee Journal Sentinel via Imagn Content Services
Wisconsin scored a huge recruiting victory with the addition of Graham Mertz, and his early flashes as a freshman last season showed the Badgers could have a solid passing game to add to their traditionally strong running game. But Mertz hit some freshman stumbles as the season played out and it cost Wisconsin along the way. But big things are still on the horizon for Mertz, which is why Wisconsin believes it has as good a chance as any to do some big things in 2021. And with three super seniors at wide receiver, the Badgers have a good foundation for a passing offense that can cause some problems.
Wisconsin has won 25 consecutive home openers in Camp Randall Stadium
Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports
You have to go all the way back to 1995 to find the last time Wisconsin lost a home opener in Camp Randall Stadium. Wisconsin lost their 1995 season opener at home to No. 14 Colorado by a lopsided 43-7 result. Wisconsin would make up for it a few weeks later by snapping Penn State's 20-game winning streak in the first Big Ten meeting between the two schools. Wisconsin's 25-game home opener winning streak is tied with Oklahoma State for the second-longest in the nation, trailing only the Florida Gators (31). Wisconsin is also 4-5 all-time in season openers at home against a Big Ten opponent.
Wisconsin's turnover margin since 2018 is +1
David Banks-USA TODAY Sports
Wisconsin's defense receives plenty of deserved praise, and its ability to force turnovers is a big reason why. Wisconsin forced 12 turnovers in 12 games in 2020 and 22 in 2019. The biggest problem for Wisconsin that has held it back has been its inability to protect the football as well as it takes it away. Despite solid turnovers gained numbers the past two seasons, Wisconsin has given the ball back just as many times. Wisconsin having a turnover margin of zero over the course of the past two seasons is remarkable, and it is just +1 if you throw in the 2018 season too. The lesson here? If Wisconsin takes the ball away from Penn State, there is still a chance the Nittany Lions will manage to get the ball back (then again, Penn State has had its own turnover issues to worry about too). Follow Nittany Lions Wire on Twitter and like us on Facebook for continuing Penn State coverage and discussion.