It may not be back to the drawing board for Wisconsin midway through the 2018 season, but the Badgers likely are re-focusing on their goals for this season. Starting the year as one of the favorites in the Big Ten and discussed by some as a College Football Playoff contender, the Badgers are looking to get back on track after a 25-point loss at Michigan for their second loss of the season.
At 4-2, Wisconsin still has something to play for this season. Playing for a Big Ten championship for a third year in a row is well within reason, even if a spot in the playoff may be out of the picture, and with the ingredients of the Big Ten’s leading rusher and a stiff defense still a part of what makes Wisconsin tick, there is no reason to suggest the Badgers won’t be making a trip to Indianapolis at the end of the regular season.
The first half of the season has shown Wisconsin is a good team, but not a team that should have been discussed as a playoff candidate. It hasn’t all been bad, of course, but there is room for improvement in order for Wisconsin to be a legitimate threat to win the Big Ten and there are some good challenges still to come to prove whether or not the Badgers belong in that conversation.
Offensive MVP: RB Jonathan Taylor
Surprise, surprise. Although Taylor started the year as one of the preseason Heisman Trophy favorites and his standing in the race has taken a slide, the sophomore is still the Big Ten’s leading rusher with 950 yards and eight touchdowns while averaging 158.3 rushing yards per game. That production isn’t expected to trend downward either.
Defensive MVP: LB T.J. Edwards
Edwards has helped lead the way for one of the toughest defenses in the Big Ten. The senior leads the Badgers with 8.5 tackles for a loss and 3.0 sacks midway through the year. Fellow senior linebacker Ryan Connelly also has been a solid force in the middle of the defense, but Edwards has the slightly better stats so far.
Best Moment of First Half: Fourth-Quarter Rally at Iowa
In Week 4, Wisconsin headed into one of those dreaded night games in Kinnick Stadium and entered the fourth quarter losing a defensive battle, 17-14. Wisconsin still trailed by three with less than six minutes to play when the Badgers forced Iowa to punt. An 88-yard touchdown drive gave Wisconsin a lead with 57 seconds left to play. The Badgers' defense then came up with an interception of Nate Stanley to essentially seal the win, but a 33-yard touchdown run by fullback Alec Ingold punctuated the satisfying 28-17 victory.
Best Newcomer: TE Jake Ferguson
Replacing Troy Fumagalli is no easy task, but Ferguson is quickly taking on a role as a reliable option in the passing game and doing so as a freshman. Ferguson is on pace to put up similar numbers as Fumagalli did last season as the young tight end is currently second on the team in both receiving yards and touchdown catches.
Biggest Surprise: Losing at Home to BYU
Wisconsin was stunned at home by BYU in Week 3. The Cougars dug into their bag of tricks a couple of times to catch the Badgers off guard and a game-tying field goal try by Rafael Gaglianone in the final minute sailed wide of the goal posts, allowing BYU to escape with a 24-21 win. Jonathan Taylor failed to score a touchdown and quarterback Alex Hornibrook was not able to connect on some key passes for much of the afternoon. The Cougars have since lost two more games — a 35-7 loss at Washington and a 45-20 home loss vs. Utah State. Wisconsin’s rare home loss to a non-conference opponent looks even more shocking in retrospect.
Three Things to Watch in Second Half
1. Wisconsin won’t change much on offense
Don’t look for the Badgers to mix too many things up moving forward. If nothing else, Paul Chryst is not the type of coach to push any panic buttons, which is why Wisconsin has been one of the more consistent programs in the Big Ten the last couple of years. Although the idea of playing in the College Football Playoff is more than likely out of reach now, the goal of playing for and winning the Big Ten is still well within sight. For the Badgers to get back to Indianapolis for a third straight year, sticking to their defensive style and running game will be the formula.
2 That means it’s Alex Hornibrook for better or worse
There is no questioning which quarterback will be leading Wisconsin the rest of the year. It’s Hornibrook, who certainly has had his share of ups and downs. When Hornibrook is on, he is more than just a game manager that can rely on the strength of the running game and defense to win games. But when Hornibrook is off, it seems devastating for Wisconsin’s chances. Will Wisconsin get the Hornibrook who threw three touchdowns without an interception on the road against Iowa or the one who was picked off twice and completed just seven of 20 attempts against Michigan? It’s a guessing game, but expect more of the better side of Hornibrook the rest of the year than the bad.
3 Can Wisconsin reach another New Year's Six bowl game?
With two losses already, Wisconsin still has a shot to reach a New Year's Six bowl game at the end of the season. Odds are Wisconsin will have to at least play in the Big Ten Championship Game in order for that to happen. Winning the Big Ten, of course, would send Wisconsin to the Rose Bowl, but if Ohio State wins the Big Ten and is selected for the College Football Playoff, Wisconsin’s bowl outlook improves. With Michigan owning a head-to-head win and a better record, the Wolverines may end up being in a better bowl position than Wisconsin. Wisconsin will also have to do battle with Penn State as the two teams jockey for bowl position.
Ranking the Toughest Remaining Games on the Schedule
1. Nov. 10 at Penn State
The game may no longer be a possible Big Ten championship preview, but it should carry plenty of importance for Wisconsin in the Big Ten West race. Penn State has dropped two games at home and been taken to overtime in another, but it should still be a tough environment for the Badgers if Trace McSorley and Miles Sanders are on the field for the Nittany Lions.
2. Oct. 27 at Northwestern
Wisconsin heads to Ryan Field for a noon kickoff against the team that may be the biggest hurdle to the Big Ten West championship. If the Badgers can get out of Evanston with a win against the prickly Wildcats defense and Clayton Thorson, they will own key head-to-head tiebreakers against both Northwestern and Iowa. Northwestern has taken down Michigan State this season and nearly did the same against Michigan. This one should be a battle.
3. Nov. 17 at Purdue
This one could potentially move up the difficulty ladder. Since starting the year with three heartbreaking losses, the Boilermakers have been on fire with three straight wins heading into their primetime showdown at home against Ohio State. Jeff Brohm has Purdue playing with confidence and the program continues to grow. Playing at Purdue could be a stiff challenge not to be taken lightly at all.
4. Nov. 24 Minnesota
Wisconsin has dominated this rivalry and that does not appear ready to change with the game being played in Madison this year. Wisconsin is simply superior where it matters the most right now, on the line of scrimmage. The Gophers have some good young talent, but it will take another year before Minnesota should be ready to give Wisconsin a true challenge.
5. Oct. 20 Illinois
Wisconsin gets to host Illinois for a noon kickoff in their first game after losing a tough one at Michigan. It’s the perfect rebound opportunity. Even though Illinois is showing some signs of improvement this season, the Illini are hardly a threat to the Badgers at this point in time, especially in Camp Randall Stadium.
6. Nov. 3 Rutgers
Rutgers faces an absolutely brutal November schedule, beginning with a road trip to Wisconsin. Rutgers has been a mess of a program this fall and has flaws all across the field. Wisconsin should be able to rack up plenty of offensive numbers for Jonathan Taylor in this one while still giving him a rest in the second half.
— 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.