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Wisconsin Football: 2018 Badgers Preview and Prediction

Jonathan Taylor, Wisconsin Football

Jonathan Taylor, Wisconsin Football

After dominating on defense the past three years, Wisconsin may need to lean on its offense this fall. All but one starter returns from a unit that should not only pound opponents on the ground but has the potential to be a threat through the air as well. The defense is replacing a ton of experience, but there are plenty of pieces to work with. The Badgers remain the favorite in the Big Ten West, but another undefeated regular season could be hard to replicate thanks to a rugged road slate.

Previewing Wisconsin Football's Offense for 2018

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Ten of the 11 starters from the Orange Bowl are back on what could be an explosive unit. This figures to be Wisconsin's most lethal offense since Russell Wilson, Montee Ball and Co. helped the Badgers average a program-record 44.1 points per game in 2011.

Leading the way is tailback Jonathan Taylor, who finished sixth in the Heisman Trophy voting after rushing for 1,977 yards and 13 touchdowns as a freshman.

The Badgers have a go-to receiver in Quintez Cephus, who led the team with six touchdown receptions despite missing the final five games of the season with a right leg injury. A silver lining to the Cephus injury was that it gave A.J. Taylor, Danny Davis and Kendric Pryor a chance to shine in his absence, and all three helped pick up the slack in the passing game. The return of all four players gives Wisconsin quality and quantity at the wide receiver spot, which should help make up for the loss of Troy Fumagalli at tight end.

All five starters return on the line, though that group likely will look different this season. Fourth-year starter Michael Deiter played last season at left tackle, but he'll likely move back inside to left guard. Who takes over at left tackle remains to be seen, but there are options in a group that has legitimate depth.

Of course, the true potential of the unit falls on the left arm of one player. Quarterback Alex Hornibrook needs to lower his interception total - he had 15 last season - but he ended his sophomore campaign in style by throwing for 258 yards and four touchdowns in the Orange Bowl.

Previewing Wisconsin Football's Defense for 2018

The Badgers must replace eight starters, but they're strong up the middle with nose tackle Olive Sagapolu, inside linebackers T.J. Edwards and Ryan Connelly, and strong safety D'Cota Dixon returning.

Finding playmakers on the edge will be the biggest challenge for Jim Leonhard, who is back for his second season at defensive coordinator. Andrew Van Ginkel is a pass-rushing menace who appears poised to step into a full-time role, but finding a reliable starter at the other outside linebacker spot is crucial.

Depth at defensive end has been a luxury the past few seasons, but Wisconsin was hit hard by graduation at that spot. While Isaiahh Loudermilk and Garrett Rand are ready for expanded roles, the Badgers need to bring along some young players as backups. Depth could be even more critical at this spot if Loudermilk and Rand are limited or out due to offseason injury issues.

And yet the biggest question mark is in the back end, particularly at cornerback. Nick Nelson and Derrick Tindal gave Wisconsin two solid cover men in 2017. Now, it's up to a group that includes Dontye Carriere-Williams, Madison Cone, Faion Hicks and Donte Burton to make sure the pass defense remains a strength.

Previewing Wisconsin Football's Specialists for 2018

After missing all but three games in 2016 with a back injury, Rafael Gaglianone bounced back to make 16 of his 18 field goal attempts as a junior. Punter Anthony Lotti improved as a sophomore, but the Badgers still ranked near the bottom of the Big Ten in net average.

Final Analysis

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The defense has been the star for the first three years of the Paul Chryst era, a stretch that includes 34 wins. Now, the Badgers might have to light up the scoreboard if they're going to make a run at the Big Ten title. A light non-conference schedule should give the defense a chance to grow, but that group needs to be ready for a Big Ten slate that includes road games against five bowl teams from a year ago.