Wisconsin Badgers: CFN College Football Preview 2021

·11 min read

College Football News Preview 2021: Previewing, predicting, and looking ahead to the Wisconsin season with what you need to know.

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– What You Need To Know: Offense | Defense
Top Players | Keys To The Season
What Will Happen, Win Total Prediction
Wisconsin Badgers Schedule Analysis
– Wisconsin Badgers Previews
2020 | 2019 | 2018 | 2017 | 2016 | 2015

2020 Record: 4-3 overall, 3-3 in Big Ten
Head Coach: Paul Chryst, 7th year, 56-19
2020 CFN Final Ranking: 25
2020 CFN Preview Ranking: 11
2019 CFN Final Ranking: 11

Wisconsin Badgers College Football Preview 2021: Offense

Was it 2020, the departure of Jonathan Taylor, or both? That was very much not the Wisconsin offense we know and love.

It’s supposed to be about the running game, dominating the time of possession, limiting the mistakes, and more of the above. Instead, the Badgers finished 12th in the Big Ten in total offense, couldn’t convert on third downs, and the ground attack finished 62nd in the nation.

However, Wisconsin was No. 1 in time of possession, it found a quarterback who could grow into a star in Graham Mertz, and there was a problem with receiver injuries, massive disruptions due to the global pandemic, and …

The ground game just wasn’t very good. It all tied together. The Badgers didn’t have any receivers – really, there were moments when they were without almost all of their main guys – and defenses teed off against the run, but the O line didn’t generate enough push and there wasn’t a Jonathan Taylor-talent in the backfield.

However, the Badger O line is still the Badger O line. It’s getting back three starters around Logan Bruss – a guard who’ll likely kick out to tackle – and Jalen Berger has the talent to be terrific. The star running back recruit led the team with just 301 yards and two touchdowns in his four games, but he’s got the skills to be a statistical monster if the line does its job.

It all started well for Graham Mertz. With the college football world watching, he started out the 2020 season with a 20-of-21, five-touchdown day in the win over Illinois. And then he came down with Covid, the receiving corps got hurt, and the passing game was never the same.

However, he’s the most talented quarterback in Madison since Russell Wilson came in from NC State with the upside to transform what the UW offense does.

And he has the receivers now to help.

On the plus side after all of last year’s problems, all the good guys to throw to are back. Jake Ferguson is one of the nation’s better tight ends, and the combination of Danny Davis, Kendric Pryor, Chimere Dike, and Jack Dunn is among the best in the Big Ten.

– What You Need To Know: Defense
Top Players | Keys To The Season
What Will Happen, Win Total Prediction
Wisconsin Badgers Schedule Analysis

NEXT: Wisconsin Badgers College Football Preview 2021: Defense

4. Wisconsin Badgers College Football Preview 2021: Defense

The 2020 Wisconsin season might have been a dud by the program’s standards, but 1) the defense was among the best in the nation against the run, 2) it led the Big Ten and was fifth in the nation overall allowing just under 300 yards per game, 3) it led the Big Ten and was fifth in the nation overall in third down stops, and 4) it gets back eight starters – and more depending on the alignment – including somehow not losing defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard.

Somewhat quietly, Wisconsin is bringing back a loaded linebacking corps. Jack Sanborn and Leo Chenal are big tacklers on the inside, and Nick Herbig and Noah Burks are about to become bigger pass rushers on the outside.

The line loses Isaiahh Loudermik and Garrett Rand off of the front three, but 6-4, 313-pound junior Keeanu Benton is a big veteran on the nose and landing Oregon transfer Isaac Townsend for one end is a big deal.

The secondary didn’t have as many problems as the receiving corps, but the issues gave a slew of young players time to emerge. Top corner Rachad Wildgoose got hurt early and now he’s a Buffalo Bill. Losing safety Eric Burrell hurts, but all the other main defensive backs return.

Scott Nelson is a good all-around safety who can pop, and the corners have the experience now – seniors Faion Hicks and Caesar Williams each earned All-Big Ten honors.

– What You Need To Know: Offense
Top Players | Keys To The Season
What Will Happen, Win Total Prediction
Wisconsin Badgers Schedule Analysis

NEXT: Wisconsin Badgers College Football Preview 2021: Top Players

Wisconsin Badgers College Football Preview 2021: Top Players

Best Wisconsin Badgers Offensive Player

QB Graham Mertz, Soph.
The hope is for Jalen Berger to rise up and be the next great Wisconsin superstar, and it would be nice if one or three of the O linemen show off next-level talent, but the program is about the quarterback right now.

Mertz was a special get for the Badgers. He’s not just the fits-the-type passer with decent skills and the ego to work within the system – he could’ve gone to Alabama. He could’ve gone to Clemson. Ohio State, Georgia, Notre Dame, LSU – he could’ve gone anywhere he wanted.

He showed of that upside early last year against Illinois, was solid in the bowl win against Wake Forest, and in between he was simply trying to get through the season after getting Covid and losing his star receivers. It’s Wisconsin and it’s going to run the ball, but Mertz is the franchise.

2. OT Logan Bruss, Sr.
3. TE Jake Ferguson, Sr.
4. OT Tyler Beach, Sr.
5. RB Jalen Berger, RFr.


Wisconsin Football Schedule 2021: Analysis, Best and Worst Case Scenarios

Best Wisconsin Badgers Defensive Player

LB Jack Sanborn, Sr.
He’s not all that big, but the 6-2, 235-pounder has hit everything over the last two seasons, making 132 tackles and 6.5 sacks with 13 tackles for loss in his last two seasons. There’s not a lot of flash and he’ll be more about holding firm agains the run on the inside, but he and fellow linebacker Leo Chenal will make a whole lot of plays.

2. LB Leo Chenal, Jr.
3. CB Caesar Williams, Sr.
4. S Scott Nelson, Sr.
5. CB Faion Hicks, Sr.

Top Incoming Wisconsin Badgers Transfer

DE Isaac Townsend, Soph.
The Badgers have defensive ends. They lose a few stars, but Matt Henningsen is back after only playing two games last season, and they’re getting in a true pass rushing prospect from Oregon.

The 6-6, 235-pound Townsend blew off Notre Dame, Nebraska and Washington for the Ducks, didn’t play for them, and now is stepping in for the Wisconsin defensive front where he should be an instant factor.

– What You Need To Know: Offense | Defense
Keys To The Season
What Will Happen, Win Total Prediction
Wisconsin Badgers Schedule Analysis

NEXT: Wisconsin Badgers College Football Preview 2021: Keys To The Season

Wisconsin Badgers College Football Preview 2021: Keys To The Season

Wisconsin Badgers Biggest Key: Offense

Easy answer … stop turning the ball over (but it’s more than that). Wisconsin’s defense stopped Northwestern dead cold, but five giveaways from the offense screwed that up. The team turned it over two times or more in three games, and those were the three losses. It went 4-0 when giving it away fewer than twice.

But it’s more than that. Part of the turnover problem – especially against Northwestern – was the offense’s need to press. Wisconsin has the passer in Graham Mertz, but everything works better when the ground game rolls.

Wisconsin ran for 341 yards against Michigan – with almost all of it seemingly happening on jet sweeps – but that was the only time the team ran for over 200 yards. The Badgers ran for 199 yards or more in nine of the 14 games in 1999 and in ten of the 13 games in 2018.

Wisconsin Badgers Biggest Key: Defense

Where’s the pass rush? The program of Watt, and the other Watt, and 51 sacks in 2019, and 42 in 2017, and constant pressure year after year generated just 11 sacks.

Of course, it was 2020 and the Badgers only played in seven games, but stretch that out over a 13-game season – 12 regular season and a bowl – and it’s still just over 20 sacks.

The D had no problems on third downs, it was great overall, and the success was there even without the pressure behind the line, but it came up with three sacks against Illinois and didn’t get more than two against anyone else.

By the way, the D made two or more sacks in 12 of the 14 games in 2019.

Wisconsin Badgers Key Player To A Successful Season

RB Jalen Berger, Soph.
Really? 301 yards and two scores for the Wisconsin leading rusher? Melvin Gordon got that without breathing hard against Nebraska.

Wisconsin sets a ridiculously unfair standard for running backs.

How does anyone – even someone as highly recruited as Berger – follow up what Jonathan Taylor did? The Indianapolis Colt star was on track to break Ron Dayne’s record and be the NCAA’s all-time leading rusher – even if that would’ve been derailed by 2020 being 2020 had he returned – coming off a 2,003-yard, 21-touchdown season.

Berger? He was fine. He averaged over five yards per carry, but he he only scored twice and didn’t hit the 100-yard mark in his four games of work.

Wisconsin Badgers Key Game To The 2021 Season

Penn State, Sept. 4
It’s not against a West team, and it’s not the showdown against Notre Dame at Soldier Field, but it’s a massive national thing of a season opener for two programs coming off wildly disappointing campaigns.

This is about as tone-setter as an opener gets. The Badgers can show they’re back to being the star of the West – or close to it – with a big performance, but if they lose, the home date with Michigan a few weeks later becomes a season-maker a week after dealing with the Irish in Chicago.

Wisconsin Badgers Schedule Analysis

2020 Wisconsin Badgers Fun Stats

– 4th Down Conversions: Wisconsin 5-of-12 (42%) – Opponents 2-of-11 (18%)
– Time of Possession: Wisconsin 36:20 – Opponents 23:40
– Rushing TDs: Wisconsin 13 – Opponents 2

NEXT: Wisconsin Badgers College Football Preview 2021: What Will Happen, Season Prediction

Wisconsin Badgers College Football Preview 2021: What Will Happen, Season Prediction

Just how much was the 2020 season an outlier and how much was an indication of where the program is at going forward?

Wisconsin might be known for its brutish consistency with its style, running game, and defense that has led the way to year after year after year of success over the last three decades.

However, the Big Ten Championship wins have stopped, there haven’t been any trips to the College Football Playoff – it’s the best Power Five program in the CFP to not yet be in the CFP – and there appeared to be a hard-ceiling on just how good it could be.

There had to be a tweak of some sort, and that’s where QB Graham Mertz and the passing game come in.

The defense can still be the defense – and it was really, really good last year – and the running game can still be effective, but to take that big step forward, the explosion and the production from under center has to be far better.

Or, Mertz is just okay and the running game lost its mojo.

Set The Wisconsin Badgers Regular Season Win Total At … 9.5

It might be a little bit of all the above.

The Badgers will get back to blasting away, the defense should be among the best in the nation statistically, and now that he’s healthy again and has his receivers back, Mertz might really be that one missing piece.

It’s Wisconsin, so it should be good enough to win at least three of the four massive games against Penn State, Michigan, Iowa and Notre Dame – the first three are at home and the last is in Chicago.

At Illinois, at Purdue, at Rutgers, at Minnesota. That’s about as soft a road run as any big-time program could ask for, but it’s Wisconsin – it’ll blow it in one of those, and be very, very, very afraid of that date with Army.

Wisconsin has no excuses. Along with Iowa coming to Camp Randall, Northwestern and Nebraska are home games, too. There’s no Ohio State, around 16 starters are back, the kicking game might be the best in the Big Ten, and then …

It’ll probably run into the Buckeyes in the Big Ten Championship.

– What You Need To Know: Offense | Defense
Top Players | Keys To The Season
Wisconsin Badgers Schedule Analysis