Welcome to Yahoo Sports’ 2019 preseason Top 25. Like all preseason Top 25 polls, this one will undoubtedly be wrong in some shape or fashion. But that’s not stopping us from doing one anyway.
We’ll be featuring a new team in our Top 25 every day until Miami and Florida start the 2019 season on Aug. 24. In each preview we’ll have an NFL draft prospect analysis by Yahoo Sports’ Eric Edholm and additional insight from Rivals writers who know the teams the best.
Let’s get started with a team that disappointed in 2018 but could bounce back in 2019.
No. 25 Wisconsin
2018 record: 8-5 (5-4 Big Ten)
Returning starters: 6 offense, 6 defense
A Heisman hopeful
You’re going to hear a lot about Clemson QB Trevor Lawrence and Alabama QB Tua Tagovailoa as the two favorites for the 2019 Heisman Trophy. Jonathan Taylor should be in that conversation, too.
This is very likely Taylor’s last season of college football before he heads to the NFL. Running backs have a short shelf life. And Taylor has been the most productive back in college football over the past two seasons.
The junior-to-be rushed for nearly 2,200 yards in 2018 after rushing for 1,977 yards as a freshman in 2017. With another 300 carries or so in 2019 and some continued good health, Taylor will challenge the 2,000-yard mark again in 2019. And if Wisconsin finishes in the Top 25, he should be a contender — at the very least — to go to New York for the ceremony.
Who’s starting at quarterback?
Alex Hornibrook is now at Florida State. That leaves the quarterback job to either Jack Coan or freshman Graham Mertz.
Hornibrook was Wisconsin’s starter to open the 2018 season and entered the season with increased expectations after a sterling performance in the Orange Bowl win over Miami to conclude the 2017 season.
Plagued by injuries last season, Hornibrook struggled. He completed fewer than 60 percent of his passes and threw just 13 touchdowns to 11 interceptions. Coan played in five of Wisconsin’s final six games of the season and wasn’t much more efficient. Though he didn’t need to be in that bowl rematch with Miami as the Hurricanes were flat-out awful.
Mertz is one of the most highly regarded quarterback recruits Wisconsin has ever landed. The Kansas City-area native was named the best player in the city in 2018. Given Wisconsin’s Taylor-dominant offense, Paul Chryst doesn’t ask his quarterback to carry the team. Whoever simply makes the fewest mistakes in fall camp could end up the winner.
We’ll know a lot about Wisconsin in the second half
With games against Michigan, Northwestern and Michigan State in the span of four weeks, Wisconsin’s first-half schedule is no cake walk. But all of those games are at home. Things really get fun over the final six games.
The Badgers travel to Ohio State on Oct. 26 and then face Iowa at home two weeks later. Then two of the final three games are on the road. The Badgers travel to Nebraska and Minnesota — who won back Paul Bunyan’s axe in 2018 — over the last three weeks of the season.
Picking the Badgers at No. 25 isn’t without risk. There’s a conceivable way that this team could finish 6-6. But eight or nine wins isn’t out of the question either. And if Wisconsin does that by upsetting a team from the Big Ten East or beating both Nebraska and Iowa, the Badgers could find themselves in the Big Ten title game again.
Biggest game: Iowa (Nov. 9)
It’s hard to decide between the games on Nov. 9 and Nov. 16. Even if Wisconsin loses to Michigan and Ohio State in the weeks before, it could still be in a position to control its own Big Ten West destiny heading into matchups with Iowa and Nebraska. A sweep of those two teams in back-to-back weeks could be massive. But you have to win the first one to have a chance for a sweep, so we’re picking the game against Iowa ahead of the game against Nebraska.
FS Scott Nelson
Nelson came to Wisconsin as a three-star athlete in the class of 2017. After redshirting that season, Nelson emerged as one of the best players on the Badgers’ defense.
He was seventh on the team with 41 tackles despite missing four games because of injury and was second on the team with six pass breakups. Oh, he also had 3.5 tackles for loss. Under the tutelage of defensive coordinator and former safety Jim Leonhard, Nelson has emerged as a do-it-all player. And that success in the secondary is important, because the Badgers have some talent to replace up front.
From Jake Kocorowski, senior writer at Badger Blitz: While all the talk will likely center around the starting quarterback competition, the biggest question mark for Wisconsin this season lies on the other side of the ball at the outside linebacker and defensive line positions. Gone to the NFL is Andrew Van Ginkel, and the Badgers need to replace his production and playmaking ability opposite redshirt senior Zack Baun.
Could that come from Noah Burks, Izayah Green-May, Tyler Johnson or Christian Bell? The defensive line suffered in 2018 with a season-ending injury to Garrett Rand, and Isaiahh Loudermilk playing in just nine games. Those two project as starters at the end positions and, if healthy, could give a hearty boost to Leonhard’s defense.
Badger Blitz’s breakout player
DE Garrett Rand
Rand missed all of the 2018 season due to injury and received some limited work during spring practices in April. Known for his strength, the 279-pound redshirt junior end could solidify the defensive line if he stays healthy in 2019.
Top 2020 NFL draft prospect
C Tyler Biadasz
From Yahoo Sports NFL draft analyst Eric Edholm: The Badgers could have one of the most decorated runners in recent college football history with Jonathan Taylor, who is a candidate to leave early next year. But we view Biadasz as the program’s highest-rated NFL prospect next spring, even with some obstacles to overcome.
First, the line loses its other four starters — three going to the NFL and a fourth, left tackle Jon Dietzen, giving up football. Biadasz also had hip surgery this winter but told Yahoo Sports at Big Ten Media Days that he expects to be a full go when camp starts.
Biadasz considered entering the 2019 NFL draft before receiving a third-round grade from the notoriously conservative NFL college advisory committee. We expect that projection to raise considerably this season. The 6-foot-3, 318-pound redshirt junior is one of the best athletes among college football’s interior linemen — and he’s also one of the smartest.
“One of the things that makes Tyler different is, when he’s pulling or getting out [into space], he’s very smooth in his movements but he’s also very quick,” Taylor said. “He’s great at getting to his assignment and making sure everyone else gets to their assignment.”
WR AJ Taylor
This Taylor averaged over 16 yards a catch in 2018 and scored just three touchdowns on 32 receptions. If his YPC stays the same in 2019, that touchdown number could double even if Taylor only finishes with 40 catches.
There are too many toss-up games on the schedule to bet on a 9-3 season or better from the Badgers. But 8-4 feels right with the opportunity to get to nine wins in a bowl game.
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Nick Bromberg is a writer for Yahoo Sports
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