Wisconsin won 10 games last season and returned to the Rose Bowl for the first time in seven years, offering proof that the Badgers’ 8–5 mark the previous season was a blip and not a sign of regression.
But repeating as Big Ten West champs in 2020 will be a challenge because the Badgers have to replace their five best players: Three underclassmen on offense left early for the NFL, while a pair of outstanding seniors are gone on the other side of the ball.
Head coach Paul Chryst and his staff have put together some solid recruiting classes, but a program that prides itself on development will be put to the test in that area. “It’s a good group,” Chryst says. “But guys have to emerge if we’re going to be [special].”
Previewing Wisconsin's Offense for 2020
Gone are Chryst’s two best playmakers and the anchor of his offensive line. That said, the No. 1 talking point among the fan base continues to be the quarterback position. Incumbent Jack Coan completed 69.6 percent of his passes for 2,727 yards with 18 touchdowns and five interceptions in his first full season as the starter. It was, by all accounts, a solid junior campaign for Coan after he easily claimed the job in the preseason. But Graham Mertz is arguably the most talented quarterback on the roster, and after getting some reps during his redshirt season, he could be ready to push Coan for playing time in 2020.
It’ll likely take a committee to fill the shoes of tailback Jonathan Taylor, who produced 2,255 total yards and 26 touchdowns in 346 touches to cap off an outstanding three-year run with the Badgers. Garrett Groshek has mainly been used as a third-down back but could see his role increase, while Nakia Watson needs to make a jump after showing inconsistency in his first season on the field. Two young players who could make an impact are Isaac Guerendo and Jalen Berger, a four-star commit out of New Jersey.
There’s no obvious go-to player in the receiving corps, either. Tight end Jake Ferguson, who has 69 catches over his first two seasons, has star potential and should see his production jump. Wideouts Danny Davis III and Kendric Pryor served as complementary pieces to Quintez Cephus last season and are solid, but the Badgers need to develop some quality depth behind them. A.J. Abbott and Stephan Bracey are breakout candidates at that position.
As always, the Badgers’ success on offense will be determined by the offensive line. It’s a group with a lot of moving parts. Center Tyler Biadasz’s early departure for the NFL leaves left tackle Cole Van Lanen as the star of that group. Logan Bruss has spent most of his time at right tackle but likely will shift inside to guard, opening a spot for Tyler Beach. The big question is who will replace Biadasz, a three-year starter at center. Kayden Lyles and Cormac Sampson, who split time at tight end last season, are in the running for that role. So is Joe Tippmann, a redshirt freshman who is loaded with potential.
Previewing Wisconsin's Defense for 2020
Linebackers Chris Orr and Zack Baun leave big shoes to fill after combining for 33.5 tackles for a loss and 24 sacks last season.
Leo Chenal, who saw time as a true freshman, will replace Orr on the inside. He’ll be paired with Jack Sanborn, who will be counted on to make more plays. But outside linebacker, traditionally a position of strength, is a spot with some questions. The hope is that a star breaks through, as Baun did last season. Noah Burks and Izayah Green-May have the most experience, while Jaylan Franklin also will have a chance to play. The outlook at that spot will change significantly if somebody steps forward from a group of freshmen that includes Spencer Lytle, Nick Herbig and Kaden Johnson.
The front of Wisconsin’s 3-4 defense could help offset any drop-off in production at linebacker. It’s a group loaded with experience, including three capable starters at end: Isaiahh Loudermilk, Garrett Rand and Matt Henningsen. The best player in the group might be Keeanu Benton, who’s a load in the middle. “For us to continue to have a good defense,” Chryst says, “that group’s got to raise their production level.”
So does the secondary, which returns loads of experience. Safety Eric Burrell had three interceptions and two fumble recoveries in his first season as a starter. The cornerback spot opposite Faion Hicks was a bit of a revolving door, but Caesar Williams came on late, and Rachad Wildgoose provides a solid option at nickel.
Previewing Wisconsin's Specialists for 2020
Even here, the Badgers have to replace their two biggest strengths: kickoff specialist Zach Hintze, who was a touchback machine, and returner Aron Cruickshank, who transferred to Rutgers in the offseason. Wisconsin needs more consistency from placekicker Collin Larsh, who went 5-of-11 on field goals of 30 yards or more last season.
The Badgers have won at least 10 games in four of Chryst’s five seasons, including three trips to New Year’s Six bowls. Considering the high-end talent he has to replace, those seem like lofty goals in 2020. But Wisconsin still should be a factor in the division race and, after a reload, could be building toward something special the following season.