Big Ten

COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2014 PRESEASON TOP 25

#15 Wisconsin Badgers

NATIONAL FORECAST

#15

Big Ten West PREDICTION

#1

HEAD COACH: Gary Andersen, 9-4 (1 year) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Andy Ludwig | DEF. COORDINATOR: Dave Aranda

The Badgers return only eight starters, but the expectations remain high in Madison. And even with the personnel losses, Wisconsin is still positioned for a run at the Big Ten title. Running back Melvin Gordon headlines an offense that should be one of the best in the nation on the ground. Four starters return on the line, including tackles Rob Havenstein and Tyler Marz. The receiving corps needs to be revamped, and quarterback play is a concern. However, a rebuilt defense and solid rushing attack should be enough to remain a top 25 team in 2014.

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Previewing Wisconsin’s Offense for 2014:

Tanner McEvoy still gets questions about a contingency plan if he isn’t the Wisconsin starting quarterback. Blame that on the junior playing so well at safety last season after getting thrown into the position after the season started. Make no mistake, it’s quarterback or bust for McEvoy, who will compete for the starting job in camp with junior Joel Stave, the returning starter. Stave is 13–6 as a starter, but a costly decision not to slide on a scramble in the Capital One Bowl led to an AC joint injury in his throwing shoulder. That limited him in the spring, opening the door for McEvoy.

Second-year coach Gary Andersen prefers dual-threat quarterbacks, and McEvoy brings the read option to an already potent running game. Melvin Gordon and James White combined to rush for 3,053 yards last season, the most ever at the FBS level by two teammates. White is gone — and many fans believe Gordon should have left, too. Gordon was eligible for the draft as a third-year sophomore and likely would have been the first back taken.

Gordon has averaged 8.1 yards per carry in his career, yet has never been the featured back and has carried the ball more than 20 times in only two games. Sophomore Corey Clement averaged 8.2 yards on 67 carries in his first season and will share the load.
The offensive line is as big and nasty as ever. Five players have started five or more games, led by senior right tackle Rob Havenstein (6'8", 327 pounds), who has 28 career starts.

The question on offense is the passing game. The 336 passes Stave attempted in 2013 were the most in school history, and his 2,494 passing yards ranked fifth. He also threw too many interceptions (13) and frequently missed open receivers.

The three players who caught the most passes last season all departed. At least two of the five receivers signed in February must contribute immediately.

Athlon's Cover 2 Podcast previews the Wisconsin Badgers for 2014:

 Order a copy of Athlon's 2014 Big Ten Preview, which includes an in-depth look at all 14 teams, features and predictions for the upcoming season.

Previewing Wisconsin’s Defense for 2014:

Get used to seeing undersized, explosive athletes on defense, because the Badgers have put a premium on speed. They have sacrificed size, but the goal is to get more big plays — turnovers, sacks and tackles for a loss.

The defensive front seven is completely new, led by senior nose guard Warren Herring, who will also play end to bolster the pass rush. Redshirt freshman Alec James was involved in one of several position changes, going from outside linebacker to defensive end. James will also help pressure the quarterback, along with outside linebacker Vince Biegel.

Replacing All-America linebacker Chris Borland is a concern. Derek Landisch is a leader and playmaker, but Marcus Trotter doesn’t run well and must prove he can play against spread opponents.

The secondary was a big issue last season, but three starters return in cornerbacks Sojourn Shelton and Darius Hillary and safety Michael Caputo.

Previewing Wisconsin’s Specialists for 2014:

Incoming freshman Rafael Gaglianone was signed to address a shaky field-goal situation. He will have to beat out incumbent Jack Russell. Kenzel Doe, who tied for the Big Ten lead in kickoff returns (26.5 average) last season and had a 91-yard kickoff return for a TD in the bowl game, will be the No. 1 returner.

Final Analysis

Losses in the final two games against Penn State and South Carolina spoiled what could have been a special first season for Andersen. A large senior class departed, but there is enough talent to contend for the Big Ten West title if a quarterback emerges. Opening the season against LSU in Houston ramped up the urgency in spring, but the schedule is favorable after that — the Badgers host Nebraska and do not play the projected top four teams from the Big Ten East.

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Five Reasons why Athlon Sports is Picking Wisconsin No. 15:

1. Significant personnel losses
Wisconsin should be able to effectively reload on both sides of the ball, but there will be a transition period in 2014. With only eight returning starters, concerns at quarterback and receiver, it’s hard to pick the Badgers to challenge Michigan State or Ohio State for the Big Ten title.

2. Question marks under center
Will it be Joel Stave or Tanner McEvoy taking the first snap against LSU this year? Stave threw for 2,494 yards last season, but McEvoy was coach Gary Andersen and coordinator Andy Ludwig’s pick to challenge Stave in 2013. McEvoy played safety last year and moved back under center this spring. Stave’s shoulder injury added to the uncertainty.

3. Rushing attack and offensive line
Boasting one of the Big Ten’s best rushing attacks and offensive lines has become an annual tradition in Madison. The Badgers return four starters on the line, while running back Melvin Gordon should be a Heisman contender. Even with quarterback concerns, Wisconsin’s offense should have no trouble moving the ball with a rushing attack that ranks among the best in the nation.

4. Rebuilding on defense
Take a look at Wisconsin’s depth chart for 2014 and it's easy to see there are a ton of new faces stepping into the starting lineup. The Badgers return only three starters on defense, with standouts like Chris Borland, Dezmen Southward and Beau Allen expiring their eligibility. Despite the personnel turnover, there are reasons to be optimistic. Coach Gary Andersen and coordinator Dave Aranda are sharp defensive minds, and there is experience returning at linebacker Vince Biegel and Derek Landisch, underrated nose guard Warren Herring and cornerback Sojourn Shelton. The opener at LSU will be tough, but Wisconsin’s defense should get better as the season progresses.

5. Favorable schedule
While the depth chart has a lot of holes, the schedule is a huge positive for Wisconsin. The Badgers catch Rutgers and Maryland in crossover play, while Nebraska visits Madison. Sure, there’s a road trip to Iowa and a potential swing game at Northwestern, but Wisconsin’s 2014 slate is one of the easiest in the Big Ten.

The Debate

Wisconsin's Defense or Quarterback Play: Which is a Bigger Concern in 2014?

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COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2014 PRESEASON TOP 25

#22 Penn State Nittany Lions

NATIONAL FORECAST

#22

Big Ten East PREDICTION

#3

HEAD COACH: James Franklin, First Year | OFF. COORDINATOR: John Donovan | DEF. COORDINATOR: Bob Shoop

James Franklin takes over at Penn State after a successful three-year stint at Vanderbilt. Franklin raised the bar for the Commodores, guiding the program to three bowl appearances and back-to-back nine-win seasons. The Nittany Lions are still under NCAA sanctions, so depth is an issue and there’s no postseason possibility. However, with a rising star at quarterback, combined with one of the top coaching staffs in the nation, Penn State could push for 10 wins this year.

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Previewing Penn State’s Offense for 2014:

New Lions coach James Franklin has said that he and his staff are going to play to the strengths they inherited rather than asking players to fit into schemes for which they weren’t recruited. And right now, the offense’s primary strength is sophomore quarterback Christian Hackenberg, who broke 11 school records and finished third in the Big Ten in passing yards per game (246.3) as a true freshman. Hackenberg added about 15 pounds of muscle during the off-season and now stands 6'4", 234 pounds. He should vie for All-Big Ten honors if the rest of the offense comes together. But that’s no sure thing.

The Lions are thin up front, with junior left tackle Donovan Smith the only healthy returning starter on the line. None of the other first-team hopefuls — tackles Andrew Nelson and Brendan Mahon, centers Angelo Mangiro and Wendy Laurent, guards Derek Dowrey and Brian Gaia — has started a single game. Likewise, the receiver corps is being restocked following Allen Robinson’s decision to forgo his senior year. The key returnee is Geno Lewis, who came on strong at the end of last season, catching seven passes for 119 yards and two touchdowns in the team’s last three games. After Lewis, the depth chart is a jumble.

The one area that survived graduation day unscathed is the backfield. Bill Belton, Zach Zwinak and Akeel Lynch are all back after combining for 2,150 rushing yards last season, led by Zwinak’s 989 yards.

Athlon's Cover 2 Podcast previews the Penn State Nittany Lions for 2014:

 Order a copy of Athlon's 2014 Big Ten Preview, which includes an in-depth look at all 14 teams, features and predictions for the upcoming season.

Previewing Penn State’s Defense for 2014:

Three defensive linemen with starting experience are back — ends Deion Barnes and C.J. Olaniyan and tackle Austin Johnson — so the Nittany Lions should be able to withstand the loss of All-Big Ten defensive tackle DaQuan Jones. In fact, this is one of the few position groups at which they appear to have real depth. The Lions also have some experience in the secondary with cornerback Jordan Lucas, safety Ryan Keiser and cornerback-turned-safety Adrian Amos.

The biggest changes on defense are at linebacker, where Mike Hull is moving inside after starting at an outside spot last year. Hull doesn’t have prototypical middle-linebacker size (6'0", 227), but he’s a big hitter with sideline-to-sideline range and enough experience to ensure that the defense is properly aligned. Flanking Hull will be Nyeem Wartman and most likely Brandon Bell. Wartman started eight games last year, while Bell shined at the end of his freshman season.

Previewing Penn State’s Specialists for 2014:

The new coaching staff has talked a lot about making special teams a priority. The Lions finished eighth in the Big Ten in punt returns and dead last in kickoff returns a year ago, but now they have a dedicated special teams coach in Charles Huff. They also have a talented freshman return man in De’Andre Thompkins, who could make an impact. Penn State looks to be solid at kicker, with Sam Ficken back after hitting 15-of-23 field goal attempts as a junior. Ficken also practiced at punter in the spring, but that job will most likely go to walk-on Chris Gulla. 

Final Analysis

Things are looking up at Penn State following the NCAA’s decision last fall to reduce its scholarship penalties. But until they get their numbers back up, the Nittany Lions will have to improvise. They raided their defensive line this spring to patch holes on the offensive front, and even with the extra manpower, the unit looks precariously thin. The Lions also lack experience at wideout and depth at linebacker. The freshman class will help when it arrives this summer, but there’s no quick fix for the problems Penn State is facing this fall. Says Franklin, “I think we’ve got really good football players and great kids here. We just don’t have enough of them. That’s the reality.”

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Five Reasons Why Athlon Sports is Picking Penn State No. 22:

1. James Franklin is one of the top coaching hires for 2014
Bill O’Brien stabilized Penn State’s program through some turmoil, but James Franklin is the right coach to take the Nittany Lions to the next level. Franklin maximized his talent at Vanderbilt and will do the same in Happy Valley. And if you need any evidence about the future of Penn State, take a look at the recruiting rankings for 2015.

2. Christian Hackenberg’s development
As a true freshman in 2013, Hackenberg threw for 2,955 yards and 20 touchdowns. Top receiver Allen Robinson must be replaced, but Hackenberg should take the next step in his development under Franklin’s watch.

3. Offensive line concerns
Line coach Herb Hand is one of the best in the nation, but he will have his hands full this fall. Guard Miles Dieffenbach suffered a torn ACL in the spring and is expected to miss 2014. With Dieffenbach out, left tackle Donovan Smith is the only returning starter on the line. Depth is also a concern for this unit.

4. Six starters back on defense
2013 was not a vintage year for Penn State’s defense, as the Nittany Lions allowed 5.7 yards per play in conference games. But with six starters back, along with the addition of coordinator Bob Shoop, Penn State is primed for a turnaround on defense. Ends Deion Barnes and C.J. Olaniyan, linebacker Mike Hull, cornerback Jordan Lucas and safety Adrian Amos could be All-Big Ten performers in 2014.

5. Favorable schedule
Penn State could be favored to win at least nine games in 2014. Road trips to Michigan and home dates against Michigan State and Ohio State are swing contests, but with a favorable schedule, the Nittany Lions could finish 10-2 this year.

The Debate

How Many Games Will Penn State Win in 2014?

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