Wisconsin is looking to get back on track after two subpar seasons under eighth-year coach Paul Chryst.
The Badgers haven't played in the Big Ten Championship Game since 2019, but they have the three best recruiting classes in program history moving into starting roles on both sides of the ball. The talent on the offensive side will be operating in an updated scheme under the direction of four new assistant coaches. After the defense carried the team to a 9–4 record and the sixth bowl win under Chryst, the Badgers are trusting a new set of playmakers on offense to create more points after dipping below 26 per game for the second straight season.
Turnover both on the field and on the sideline could help the Badgers find a spark in areas where they've lacked one.
Previewing Wisconsin's Offense for 2022
Wisconsin found its latest star running back last season in Braelon Allen, whose physical and aggressive running style became the foundation of the team's offensive identity. Allen led the FBS in yards when facing an eight-man box (814) and yards after contact per attempt (4.5), according to PFF, and he will be the focal point of the offense as an 18-year-old sophomore under new coordinator Bobby Engram.
"Our key philosophies will be the same, but we want to present different pictures of them," Chryst says.
With Allen leading the way, the Badgers are hoping to field a three-back attack along with seniors Chez Mellusi and Isaac Guerendo akin to when Montee Ball, Melvin Gordon III and James White shared carries.
Veteran coach Bob Bostad has taken over the Badgers' offensive line after serving as the program's linebackers coach since 2017. Redshirt sophomore Jack Nelson, playing left tackle after starting last season at right guard, has the athleticism and aggressiveness needed to make an impact on the edge.
Quarterback Graham Mertz is back for a third season needing to cut down on turnovers after throwing 11 picks and losing four fumbles. Mertz will be operating more often under center with Engram calling plays, but the Badgers need to create more splash plays through the air after ranking ninth in the Big Ten in yards per attempt (6.9) last season.
Junior receiver Chimere Dike is in line for a bounce-back year after just 33 targets in 2021. He's the most experienced receiver on the roster and has the best chemistry with Mertz.
Previewing Wisconsin's Defense for 2022
Jim Leonhard is one of the premier defensive coordinators in college football, but he has the challenge of replacing eight starters from the top-ranked rushing and total yardage defense in the FBS.
Trying to replace linebackers Leo Chenal, a second-team All-American, and Jack Sanborn, a unanimous first-team All-Big Ten pick, will be a crop of inexperienced but talented players. Redshirt sophomore Jordan Turner figures to contribute, as does junior Maema Njongmeta, a powerful tackler who's quick off the ball. UW has used its inside linebackers as disruptive pass rushers under Leonhard, a trend that will continue regardless of who's occupying those roles.
Outside linebacker Nick Herbig had a breakout season with nine sacks and a forced fumble. UW believes he can be the kind of force off the edge that requires an offense's attention every play. The Badgers may use a rotation opposite of Herbig. Redshirt freshman Darryl Peterson's raw power stood out during training camp and in the Las Vegas Bowl last season, while senior C.J. Goetz has shown improved pass-rushing ability.
The Badgers have asked their defensive line to become more disruptive this year, and the group's depth should allow it to do so. Senior nose tackle Keeanu Benton is the player to watch in this unit — he decided against going to the NFL and is looking to have another strong year to improve his stock.
Three transfer cornerbacks were added to the secondary to help a group losing three-year starter Caesar Williams and four-year starter Faion Hicks. Those transfers — Justin Clark, Cedrick Dort Jr. and Jay Shaw — have plenty of experience at the college level.
Watch for a breakout season from safety Hunter Wohler. The former four-star recruit is in line to start and has the ball skills and athleticism to be a game-changer on the back end.
Previewing Wisconsin's Specialists for 2022
A new kicker must emerge after the departure of Collin Larsh, but the Badgers added junior transfer Vito Calvaruso to compete for the placekicking duties while shoring up the kickoff role. Calvaruso tallied touchbacks on 85.1 percent of his kickoffs for Arkansas in 2021. Andy Vujnovich returns as punter after registering a program-record 46.4 yards per punt.
Finding an explosive returner would be a big boost for a team that has struggled to replace Aron Cruickshank since his transfer following the 2019 season. Stephan Bracey Jr., Markus Allen or Skyler Bell could fit the bill.
This is a make-or-break season for Mertz, and it marks a turning point for the program as well. A strong season in the new offense could mean one more year of an improved Mertz, while another year of struggles would likely mean finding a new signal-caller.
The defense might not be as good from the first snap as it was last year, but it should get up to speed quickly and be able to keep UW in every game.
UW hasn't won a Big Ten title since 2012, but this year's team has the talent to find itself competing for one if the QB plays to his potential.
National Ranking: 19
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