After two straight years of coming up just short of a Big Ten championship, the 2018 Wisconsin Badgers look ready to make another serious run for the conference crown. To some, Wisconsin may be the Big Ten’s top College Football Playoff candidate, while questions about the defense and a challenging schedule have some thinking the Badgers could once again come up just short of reaching their elusive goals.
The first challenge of the year comes Friday night in Madison with a season-opening contest against Western Kentucky of Conference USA. If this game were played a few years ago when current Purdue head coach Jeff Brohm was coaching the Hilltoppers, placing Wisconsin on upset alert may not have been unexpected. But this year, with the Badgers return a breakout running back in Jonathan Taylor behind a massive offensive line and WKU having seen better days, it looks like Wisconsin should cruise to a victory and maybe even give their Heisman hopeful an early rest.
Western Kentucky at Wisconsin
Kickoff: Friday, Aug. 31 at 7 p.m. ET
Spread: Wisconsin -36.0
Three Things to Watch
1. Jonathan Taylor’s Heisman run begins now
Wisconsin's sophomore running back is in a terrific position to get a productive season off on the right foot. Not only is the 2017 Big Ten rushing leader running behind one of the top offensive lines in the nation, but he will do so in the opener against a Western Kentucky defense that struggled against the run and returns with little pressure to bring up front. Taylor should be able to break some long runs. He had 61 runs of at least 10 yards last season, at least 23 more than any other Big Ten running back (and 32 more than Saquon Barkley).
2. Can WKU make Alex Hornibrook earn yards through the air?
It is unlikely the Hilltoppers will be able to penetrate the Badgers in the trenches to bring any significant pressure on Hornibrook, so it will be up to the secondary to try and make some plays. With four returning starters in the secondary, including safety Devon Key, Western Kentucky will still have some matchup concerns, although leading Badgers receiver Quintez Cephus will be out of action due to a suspension. But if Hornibrook has time to process the field, it may not matter.
3. Wisconsin’s defense may be a question this season, but not in Week 1
As will be the case for many programs throughout the country this week, the Badgers' defense has a good amount of roster turnover to account for in what many suspect will be a promising season. The good news for Wisconsin is this is a matchup that should allow the defense an opportunity to find its rhythm against a WKU offense with just as many new faces. Perhaps that leads to an unpredictable Hilltopper offense that opens things up at times, but Wisconsin’s overall talent advantage should allow for the Badgers to buckle down more than enough for a comfortable victory in Madison.
The recipe for Wisconsin to get off to a 1-0 start this season is fairly simple. Feed Jonathan Taylor and run the ball. A lopsided favorite, the Badgers should be able to stick to a vanilla offensive game plan and wear down their opponent from Conference USA without having to show too much form the playbook. Not that Paul Chryst and company stray too far from the ordinary when it comes to offense, but there should be no reason to waver too much from the typical game plan in the opener. Concerns about defense may have to be addressed and could lead to some adjustments during the game, but this should be a good opening test for a new-look Wisconsin defense that will have many more challenging tests later this season.
Prediction: Wisconsin 49, Western Kentucky 13
— 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.