Paul Chryst was 36–7 at Wisconsin when he arrived at Camp Randall Stadium for a mid-September game against BYU last season.
A 24–21 loss that day set the tone for a season that ended with an 8–5 record. A blowout win over Miami in the Pinstripe Bowl was a nice way to finish the year, but it didn't remove the underachieving label attached to a team that began the season ranked No. 4 in the nation and in the national title conversation.
Injuries to key players didn't help matters, but what bothered Chryst was that many of his team's issues were self-inflicted. Turnovers, uncharacteristic penalties and substandard quarterback play topped the list. "There were games I thought we didn't play good football," he says. "Another way of saying it, did you give yourselves a chance [to win]? There were times when we made it harder on ourselves."
Fixing that problem was one of the things that drove Chryst in the offseason as Wisconsin transitioned to a new era following departures in several key areas.
Previewing Wisconsin's Offense for 2019
Tailback Jonathan Taylor, who rushed for 2,194 yards and 16 touchdowns as a sophomore, is a legitimate Heisman Trophy candidate entering what almost certainly will be his final season with the Badgers. While he needs to do a better job protecting the football and is taking steps toward becoming a more complete player, the fact that Taylor produced five games of 200-plus yards in 2018 was amazing considering there was little reason for opponents to respect the passing game.
While Chryst says there was plenty of blame to go around for the Badgers' ninth-place ranking in the Big Ten in pass efficiency, he's the first to admit that inconsistency at the quarterback position was a major factor. The Badgers went 26–6 over the past three seasons with Alex Hornibrook as a starter, but he regressed after a strong freshman campaign and left for Florida State as a graduate transfer.
Jack Coan has the inside track to step into the starting role, but fans are buzzing about the arrival of blue-chipper Graham Mertz. Coan was originally slated to redshirt last season but ended up appearing in five games, including three starts, and offered mostly uneven performances. While Mertz is dripping with talent, grasping Chryst's system in time to contribute as a true freshman won’t be easy.
Chryst also emphasizes that the surrounding cast of receivers needs to make a jump, regardless of who's playing quarterback. There's plenty of potential in a group that includes A.J. Taylor, Danny Davis, Kendric Pryor and tight end Jake Ferguson, but inconsistency plagued that group as well.
Meanwhile, there'll be a complete makeover on the offensive line following the graduation of four-year starters Michael Deiter and Beau Benzschawel and the early departures of David Edwards (NFL) and Jon Dietzen (injuries). The Badgers got good news when center Tyler Biadasz returned for his junior season after flirting with the NFL, and left tackle Cole Van Lanen is a potential star. The rest of the line will be filled with players who are highly regarded by the coaching staff but have yet to play extensively in games.
Previewing Wisconsin's Defense for 2019
The middle of the defense was a strength last season, at least when all the key parts were healthy.
The biggest losses are inside linebackers T.J. Edwards and Ryan Connelly, who made plays and covered up for weaknesses at other spots. Nose tackle Olive Sagapolu, strong safety D'Cota Dixon and outside linebacker Andrew Van Ginkel were also valuable contributors, but all three struggled with injuries as seniors.
What's left is plenty of question marks at all three levels. A front of Isaiahh Loudermilk, Bryson Williams and Garrett Rand would be formidable, but Rand missed all of last season with an Achilles injury, and there's not much established depth beyond those three players.
At linebacker, Chris Orr has starting experience on the inside and will be counted on for leadership. Outside linebacker Zack Baun was solid in his first season as a starter and could take another big step as a senior.
The Badgers have plenty of young talent returning in the back end. Defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard rotated a lot of players in 2018, but the coaching staff is waiting for two or three cornerbacks to emerge from that group and become dependable starters.
Previewing Wisconsin's Specalists for 2019
Rafael Gaglianone struggled as a senior last season, though he was a dependable four-year contributor, and his departure leaves a void at placekicker. Sophomore Collin Larsh is the most likely candidate for the role. The punting game was a disaster with Anthony Lotti and Connor Allen splitting time as the Badgers finished last in the Big Ten in net average in 2018.
As great as Taylor is, he can't do it alone. After Wisconsin failed to reach double digits in victories for the first time in the Chryst era, a bounce-back season will require significant improvements at quarterback and on special teams. The Badgers also need several of their role players to take major jumps. That's a lot to ask.