The Badgers rank No. 12 in Athlon's Top 25 for 2017.
Wisconsin is the defending Big Ten West Division champion, but the Badgers’ customary running game will look different this fall with new primary ball carriers and left tackle. The hope is that quarterback Alex Hornibrook can take a step forward, and stay healthy. The defense will have a new coordinator and also must replace two standout linebackers. Still, the beat should go on for Paul Chryst's team, who will remain the favorite in the West thanks to a winning formula built around a strong ground game and physical, stingy defense.
Previewing Wisconsin Football’s Offense for 2017
The Badgers ranked 39th nationally in rushing offense last season. While that production wasn’t up to their typical standards, it marked a jump of 56 spots from the previous season.
Whether Wisconsin can continue to trend upward in that category will depend largely on how a new-look backfield performs. Gone are Corey Clement, who rushed for 1,375 yards and 15 touchdowns as a senior, and jack-of-all-trades Dare Ogunbowale. Taking their place are Bradrick Shaw and Chris James. Shaw averaged 5.2 yards per carry in limited action last season. James, a transfer from Pittsburgh, gives Wisconsin a speedy option in the backfield.
There’s plenty of experience returning on the offensive line, although Wisconsin has to replace left tackle Ryan Ramczyk. Taking Ramczyk’s place will be David Edwards, who began his career as a tight end and started seven games last season at right tackle. Michael Deiter, who has started 27 consecutive games, provides options because he can play either center or guard.
Wisconsin needs more consistent play at quarterback. Alex Hornibrook started nine games as a redshirt freshman and had some big moments, but he had almost as many interceptions (seven) as touchdown passes (nine) and needs to improve his completion percentage (58.6). The good news for Hornibrook is that his top two targets from last season — wide receiver Jazz Peavy and tight end Troy Fumagalli — are back.
Previewing Wisconsin Football’s Defense for 2017
Leonhard’s biggest challenge will be replacing outside linebackers T.J. Watt and Vince Biegel. Watt, who had 15.5 tackles for a loss and 11.5 sacks as a junior, left early for the NFL Draft. The rest of the front seven returns intact. The Badgers have loads of experience at the front of their 3-4 defense, and inside linebacker is an area of strength. Jack Cichy, who played inside linebacker last season but has the ability to play on the outside as well, may help fill the playmaking void left by Watt and Biegel.
The secondary was the Badgers’ strength last season under Leonhard’s watch. Cornerback Derrick Tindal and strong safety D’Cota Dixon are back, but Wisconsin has to replace two players who had fantastic final seasons with the Badgers. Nick Nelson, a transfer from Hawaii, will step in for four-year starter Sojourn Shelton at the other cornerback spot. The situation at free safety isn’t as clear. Natrell Jamerson, who began his career at wide receiver before moving to cornerback, is the leading candidate to replace Leo Musso.
Previewing Wisconsin Football’s Specialists for 2017
Rafael Gaglianone was off to a good start in 2016, connecting on seven of his eight field goal attempts, but a back injury ended his season prematurely. Gaglianone has been a huge weapon for the Badgers during his two-plus seasons, going 44-for-57 overall with 17 conversions from 40 yards and beyond. Punter Anthony Lotti was highly decorated when he arrived at Wisconsin last season and should only improve.
The Badgers have won 21 games over Paul Chryst’s first two seasons despite inconsistency on offense. The defense, on the other hand, has been terrific, and Chryst doesn’t expect that to change under Leonhard’s leadership. Still, it would take some of the pressure off that group if the Badgers returned to the days where the offensive line wore down opponents.
One positive development for Wisconsin: Its schedule appears much more manageable than in 2016, when the opening two months included games against LSU, Michigan, Ohio State and Iowa.
NATIONAL RANKING: 12
BIG TEN WEST PREDICTION: 1
Don't forget to check out Athlon Sports' entire college football Top 25.