What ESPN’s Bill Connelly learned about Wisconsin football in 2020

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ESPN’s Bill Connelly is the creator of SP+, a ranking used to grade teams based on their returning production, recent recruiting and recent history.

Since Barry Alvarez took over as Wisconsin head football coach, the Badgers have consistently resided near the top of the SP+ ranking. The program has won consistently, improved its recruiting profile and consistently reached the Big Ten Championship game.

Related: ESPN’s SP+ for every opponent on Wisconsin’s 2021 football schedule

Connelly previewed the Big Ten West this morning, outlining each team’s ranking and explaining what we learned from them last season.

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For Wisconsin, the ESPN college football writer learned a few significant things last season:

Jim Leonhard is fantastic. When head coach Paul Chryst promoted the former Wisconsin safety to defensive coordinator in 2017, Leonhard had just one official year of coaching to his name. He’s proved the move astute. The Badgers have ranked in the defensive SP+ top 15 in three of four seasons and climbed to fourth last year.

The Badgers stuff the run on early downs and dominate the pass on passing downs. They blitz well — especially with inside linebackers Jack Sanborn and Leo Chenal — and corners Faion Hicks and Caesar Williams can handle the man coverage Leonhard asks of them. Leonhard does have to replace two of four primary linemen, but he could start as many as 10 juniors and seniors overall.

Graham Mertzcould be, too (with help). Talk about all-or-nothing: In four wins, the Badgers averaged 39 points per game, and Mertz, a blue-chip redshirt freshman, produced a raw QBR of 79.6. He completed 20 of 21 passes in his debut against Illinois.

In three losses, however, the Badgers averaged 6.7 points. Mertz’s QBR: 24.6. He got less help than expected from a rotating RB corps, and leading receivers Danny Davis III and Kendric Pryor barely saw the field. Wisconsin was entirely overmatched against good Iowa, Northwestern and Indiana defenses.

Davis and Pryor return, along with sophomore Chimere Dike and tight end Jake Ferguson. Mertz should have fewer bad moments, but the run game has a lot to prove.

The Badgers are projected to finish at the top of the Big Ten West in nearly every available projection. As Connelly outlines, a lot of that will come down to whether Graham Mertz can lead the offense to more of the “all” piece of “all-or-nothing.”

Related

Analyzing Graham Mertz's performance in wins vs. his performance in losses last season

Stay tuned for updates on Connelly’s SP+ rankings throughout the 2021 college football season.

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ESPN FPI predicts Wisconsin's entire football season

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