If you asked most experts, Wisconsin's 2016 football season wasn't supposed to end with 11 wins, a division title and a win in a New Year's Six bowl. But just like the Badgers have done for the better part of the last decade, the program defied all expectations and closed with another banner year.
Heading into 2017, Paul Chryst's club is once again expected to be a major player in the Big Ten West — and possibly beyond. Although they suffered some significant personnel losses via graduation and the NFL draft, a solid core of playmakers return on both sides of the ball to lead the Badgers against what appears to be a much more manageable slate than what they faced a season ago.
12. Sept. 1 vs. Utah State
The season opener at home should be a walk-over. Utah State is a solid program, but the Badgers are more talented at nearly every position and will be focused on this one all summer.
11. Sept. 9 vs. FAU
New Florida Atlantic head coach Lane Kiffin will more than likely challenge the Badgers on offense schematically. That said, the Owls simply don't match up to a man to do much damage outside of any trickery they are able to execute.
10. Oct. 21 vs. Maryland
The Badgers will face at least three opponents more talented than the team Maryland will bring to Madison in late October. The Terrapins' running game could give Wisconsin trouble early, but it shouldn't be nearly enough to hand Chryst and Co. a loss at home.
9. Oct. 28 at Illinois
This is a road trip right in the middle of a lull in the schedule for the Badgers. If there is a trap game on the slate, this would be it. A group of talented Illini receivers could give the Badger secondary some problems, but Wisconsin should be able to control the tempo in this one.
8. Oct 14. vs. Purdue
Boilermaker quarterback David Blough is one of the best in the conference, while running back Markell Jones is a workhorse who can do damage as a runner and receiver. This game comes just a week after what looks to be a tough contest at Nebraska. The Badgers should not be looking past Purdue.
7. Nov. 11 vs. Iowa
This game will likely once again look like a fight from the Rocky Balboa series of movies. It'll be another bloody, smashmouth contest between two clubs that excel at running the ball and playing stingy defense. That said, Wisconsin does appear to be the more talented team in 2017.
6. Nov. 4 at Indiana
Road trips to Bloomington aren't what they used to be. The Hoosiers should once again have a high-octane offense and be much improved on defense. They'll be a tough out for a Wisconsin team that does not match up with them quite as well as some may think.
5. Sept. 16 at BYU
Wisconsin's first road game of the season is a scary, mid-September trip to Provo, Utah. With these teams still figuring out who they are, all bets are off. We'll learn a lot about the Badgers in this one.
4. Nov. 25 at Minnesota
This season finale comes on the heels of what should be a tough matchup with Michigan — both emotionally and physically. There could very well be a division title on the line for one or both teams in this battle for Paul Bunyan's Ax. And you know new Gophers head coach P.J. Fleck will have his team motivated to take on their rival.
3. Nov. 18 vs. Michigan
The Badgers have experience and the home crowd in their corner in this one. Be that as it may, it's still Michigan. Jim Harbaugh will bring a young, but talented Wolverine squad into Camp Randall looking for a statement win.
2. Sept. 30 vs. Northwestern
I can think of easier matchups the Badgers would rather have to open conference play than facing the most experienced team in the Big Ten West. This early-season matchup could very well end up deciding which team wins the division.
1. Oct. 7 at Nebraska
These are not Bo Pelini's Cornhuskers. They really won't be the Mike Riley Huskers we've seen over the last two seasons, either. The Nebraska offense will look a little different thanks to the presence of a quarterback who fits the scheme Riley and offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf want to run. On defense, a new 3-4 look installed by new coordinator Bob Diaco is tailor-made to close most of the seams that the Badger rushing attack has exploited against Nebraska recently. And you can bet the Sea of Red at Memorial Stadium will be anything but calm.
— Written by J.P. Scott, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. He is also covers the Big Ten for Black Heart Gold Pants, Iowa's SB Nation blog. His work has appeared on SI.com, FoxSports.com, Yahoo! and Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @TheJPScott.