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After a 307-day hiatus, I’m back with our annual edition of bold predictions for Wisconsin’s football season.
We were correct on three of our nine predictions before last season, clicking on Jake Ferguson’s rise, a few true freshmen having a big impact and more.
This year, the story surrounding the team is set to be extremely different after 2020 was a year filled with adversity, up-and-down play and in-conference losses.
I’m optimistic about how the team will rebound, about whether quarterback Graham Mertz can take a giant leap forward and how the schedule lines up in the team’s favor.
So, if everything falls into place perfectly, here’s what the season could look like for some stars on Wisconsin’s roster:
1. WR Kendric Pryor has an 1000-yard, 7-touchdown season
Credit - Kelli Steffes, UW Athletics
Why 900 yards and 7 touchdowns? That's what Quinez Cephus did in 2019. Well, Cephus is the best wide receiver the Badgers have had in years and with Jack Coan, he was a force on the outside. If the Graham Mertz---Kendric Pryor duo stays healthy all season, that benchmark is in reach. We saw the two combine for 8 receptions and 119 yards in only a few games last season, though we saw against Illinois what the duo has the potential to do on the football field. The wide receiver unit as a whole has a chance to be really good, again if they stay healthy. But Pryor figures to be that No. 1 for Mertz, and a Cephus-like season would provide a massive boost for the offense.
2. Chez Mellusi and Jalen Berger combine for 550 receiving yards
CHARLOTTE, NORTH CAROLINA - DECEMBER 30: Quarterback Graham Mertz #5 of the Wisconsin Badgers looks to hand the ball to teammate running back Jalen Berger #8 against the Wake Forest Demon Deacons during the first half of the Duke's Mayo Bowl at Bank of America Stadium on December 30, 2020 in Charlotte, North Carolina. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)
Garrett Groshek and Jalen Berger combined for 24 catches and 132 receiving yards last season, again in extremely limited action. Now add Mellusi to the backfield with Berger figuring to be the other feature back, and the receiving output is only set to increase. Both Berger and Mellusi have the athleticism to become good receiving backs, Mellusi coming to Madison with 5 career catches and 38 career receiving yards. But here it's about the potential more than what's happened in the past, as Paul Chryst will find a way to get the ball in the two backs' hands however he can. After Groshek and his receiving skills left to the NFL, it's time for Berger and Mellusi to recreate what the current Oakland Raider was able to combine with Jonathan Taylor to do in 2019.
3. TE Jake Ferguson leads the Big Ten in receiving touchdowns
Dec 5, 2020; Madison, Wisconsin, USA; Wisconsin Badgers tight end Jake Ferguson (84) rushes with the football after catching a pass as Indiana Hoosiers linebacker James Miller (8) defends during the second quarter at Camp Randall Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports
Last year I predicted Jake Ferguson would lead the team in receptions and receiving yards. I was spot on, though some of it was due to the health of the guys on the outside. Regardless, throughout last season we saw the dynamic potential a Mertz---Ferguson connection has in the red zone. How bold can their season get? Ferguson notches 10+ receiving touchdowns and finishes at the top of the Big Ten in the category.
4. Wisconsin leads the conference in turnovers forced
Credit: Wisconsin athletics
Here you have two dynamic inside linebackers that fly around the football, a steady and deep force of outside linebackers that have shown an ability to get in the backfield and a few ballhawks in the secondary. https://twitter.com/LockedOnBig10/status/1430608756942020614 Last year's turnover output from Jim Leonhard's defense was pretty good, recording a total of 12 takeaways in only 7 games. Add a year of experience for each player and an offense that will put them in better positions to succeed, and you have a recipe for a disruptive and turnover-filled season for the Badger defense.
Graham Mertz finishes top 5 in Heisman voting
Kelli Steffes, UW Athletics
One of the bold predictions had to be about Graham Mertz and a second-year jump the Badgers so desperately need. Last year's struggles and inconsistencies are well-documented, struggles which were due in part to inexperience, the health of the offense, a shoulder injury and more. If Mertz is able to take that jump and return to some form in the middle of what we saw against Illinois and against Michigan, he has a chance for a really good season. How good exactly? Well after what we saw against Illinois, there is potential there of more than just rising near the top of the Big Ten in statistical categories. This is probably the prediction with the lowest likelihood of actually happening, but there is an out-there chance for an end-of-year Heisman race between Oklahoma's Spencer Rattler, Indiana's Michael Penix Jr., UNC's Sam Howell, Georgia's J.T. Daniels and Wisconsin's Graham Mertz.
Honorable mention: Devin Chandler takes a kickoff to the house
Credit - Kelli Steffes, UW Athletics
This is an honorable mention because my colleague Asher Low mentioned it on our latest episode of Locked On Badgers. With Chandler set to be the kickoff return man for Chryst's team and with what we saw from him in the role last season, the explosiveness is there for a possible house call at some point during the year.