Alex Hornibrook and the Badgers have to go on the road to face Penn State and Michigan this fall
Wisconsin has become a consistent threat in the Big Ten under Paul Chryst over the last three years. Although Wisconsin has played in two Big Ten Championship Games in the last three years, the Badgers are still looking to win their first conference title since 2012, when a seven-win team took advantage of a division with two teams forced to sit out of postseason play.
Wisconsin came within one game of making their first appearance in the College Football Playoff, but a loss to Ohio State in the Big Ten title game ended up being the hurdle the Badgers could not clear. Will this season be any different?
The Badgers are once again the trendy favorite in the Big Ten West this season with running back Jonathan Taylor ready to pile up big yards as a sophomore and starting quarterback Alex Hornibrook returning to lead an experienced offense. The defense has many more holes to plug this season, but this unit has proven to be pretty consistent for Wisconsin over the years. Road trips in cross-division play against Michigan and Penn State could be trouble though, and the Badgers also have to play two key division games away from Madison. Just getting back to the Big Ten Championship Game should be a stiff challenge with the schedule this season.
12. Aug. 31 vs. Western Kentucky
With just three returning starters on offense after seeing the production take a nose dive last season, the Hilltoppers shouldn’t be much of a threat to a sturdy team like Wisconsin to open the season on a Friday night in Madison.
11. Sept. 8 vs. New Mexico
Wisconsin’s second game of the year should be a pretty easy one for the Badgers. New Mexico is a bit of a wild card in the Mountain West with so much uncertainty at the start of the year. Wisconsin shouldn’t have much trouble.
10. Oct. 20 vs. Illinois
It could be another long year for the Fighting Illini. The gap between them and Wisconsin is still incredibly wide, and even the thought of this being a trap game between Michigan and Northwestern road trips should not be enough to suggest Wisconsin will break a sweat at home here.
9. Nov. 3 vs. Rutgers
These two have played twice since Rutgers joined the Big Ten, with the Badgers winning each by a combined score of 85-10. Rutgers has struggled the most on the road against the top teams in the Big Ten, and that trend should continue here.
8. Nov. 24 vs. Minnesota
Wisconsin has won the last 14 meetings in this rivalry, and the Badgers haven’t lost at home to the Gophers since 1994. Expect another "W" for the Badgers at home with Minnesota lacking depth.
7. Sept. 15 vs. BYU
If BYU struggles the way it did last year, this game could even slide down this ranking. But if the Cougars show a little more fight this season, it could also move up a spot or two. After a dominating win in Provo last season, expect Wisconsin to hold a decisive upper hand no matter what.
6. Nov. 17 at Purdue
The Boilermakers proved worthy of a defensive battle last year, and they will have to keep that going this year at home. If Purdue can manage to find a little more offense, they could potentially throw a scare into Wisconsin in mid-November.
5. Oct. 6 vs. Nebraska
Nebraska plays arguably the toughest schedule of any Big Ten team this fall. That includes a road trip to Madison in early October. Nebraska may have an optimistic long-term view right now, but scratching together a win against Wisconsin should be tough this fall.
4. Sept. 22 at Iowa
Wisconsin and Iowa have had some close calls the last few years, but last season was pure defensive dominance from the Badgers. But road trips to Kinnick Stadium are known to have some craziness unfold. If this game gets moved to a primetime slot, watch out and feel free to bump this one up a spot or two.
3. Oct. 27 at Northwestern
Wisconsin has won the last two meetings in this series, but the Wildcats are not a program to take lightly. Wisconsin is more settled all around than Northwestern going into the season, but a healthy Clayton Thorson could help lift the Wildcats to a key division win in Evanston. Northwestern’s defense will be on their toes to stop the running game.
2. Oct. 13 at Michigan
A mid-October road trip to Ann Arbor could potentially be one of the tougher game son Wisconsin’s schedule based on Michigan’s defense alone. But if Michigan solves some problems with the offense, then a road game in the Big House becomes even more challenging for the Badgers. Wisconsin returned home with a 14-7 setback in their last trip to Michigan. This one could be another stingy game determined by the defenses.
1. Nov. 10 at Penn State
If the road trip to Michigan is not the toughest game on Wisconsin’s schedule, then it has to be the mid-November trip to Happy Valley. While Penn State may have a few more questions to answer than Michigan with the defense this fall, a sure-to-be-raucous crowd in Beaver Stadium and a showdown against Trace McSorley in a matchup that could have some Big Ten title game implications riding on the outcome on both sidelines could make for quite a challenge. Penn State will be coming off a road game at Michigan, and if they do that with a win and manage to secure a big win against Ohio State earlier in the year, then Penn State could potentially have a lot to play for as well as Wisconsin.
It is not a stretch to say either the road games at Michigan or Penn State could potentially be a preview of the Big Ten Championship Game, although Ohio State is still the likely favorite out of the East Division. Fortunately for Wisconsin, they would not have to face the Buckeyes until the conference title game, if they see them at all this season.
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-- Written by Kevin McGuire, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. McGuire also contributes to College Football Talk and The Comeback as well as hosts the No 2-Minute Warning Podcast. Follow him on Twitter @KevinOnCFB and Like him on Facebook.