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Wisconsin's Defense or Quarterback Play: Which is a Bigger Concern in 2014?

Gary Andersen

Gary Andersen

Wisconsin is one of the top programs in the Big Ten, winning at least seven games in each season since 2002. Additionally, the Badgers have experienced only one losing season since 1996.

As Wisconsin turns the page from a successful 9-4 debut by coach Gary Andersen, there are several holes to address on the depth chart. The Badgers need more from their starting quarterback – Joel Stave or Tanner McEvoy – and the defense returns only three starters.

Despite the heavy personnel departures, it’s unlikely Wisconsin takes a huge step back in the win column. The schedule is one of the easiest in the Big Ten, as the Badgers won’t play Michigan, Michigan State, Penn State or Ohio State in crossover play.

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Although the quarterback spot is a concern, Wisconsin can still lean on a ground attack that will be among the best in the nation. Running back Melvin Gordon should be in Heisman contention, and Corey Clement is a capable replacement for James White.

With an easy schedule, Wisconsin is Athlon’s pick to win the Big Ten’s West Division in 2014. But for this program to challenge Ohio State or Michigan State for the conference title, the quarterback play has to improve. But which is a bigger concern heading into 2014? Is it a rebuilt defense with three new starters? Or is the production at quarterback the bigger issue?

Athlon Sports’ preseason magazines are set to hit the newsstands in late May/early June, and it’s time to settle some of the biggest debates for 2014. Over the next few weeks, will dive into some of the key topics by conference and some of the debates that will shape preseason predictions for this year.

Athlon Sports' Top 25 Countdown for 2014 is underway. Wisconsin ranks as the No. 15 team in college football for 2014.

Wisconsin’s Defense or Quarterback Play: Which is a Bigger Concern in 2014?

Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven)
Despite returning only three starters on defense, I think Wisconsin is going to be fine on that side of the ball. Sure, it might struggle to stop LSU’s ground game in the opener, but the Badgers have enough returning to prevent a major drop on the stat sheet. Nose guard Warren Herring is a good piece to build around up front, while the linebacking corps should be in good shape with Vince Biegel, Joe Schobert and Derek Landisch. The secondary ranked 18th nationally in pass efficiency defense, and sophomore corner Sojourn Shelton is a rising star. Assuming Wisconsin gets the same type of production from its quarterback spot as it did in 2013, the Badgers should be able to win the West Division. However, for this program to take the next step, coach Gary Andersen needs more from its quarterbacks. Joel Stave was steady last year but is being pushed by Tanner McEvoy for snaps. McEvoy is a dual-threat option and played safety after transferring from junior college last season. And if Stave and McEvoy struggle, Wisconsin may have to dig deeper in the depth chart and turn to true freshman D.J. Gillins or sophomore Bart Houston.

Brent Yarina, (@BTNBrentYarina), Senior Editor
It has to be quarterback. The Badgers will have a good offense, no matter who starts under center, thanks to the one-two backfield punch of Melvin Gordon and Corey Clement. But, if the incumbent (Joel Stave) can’t improve or the dual-threat challenger (Tanner McEvoy) can’t win the job – and keep it – this could be a one-dimensional offense that isn’t nearly as prolific as the ones we’re used to seeing in Madison. It’s no secret Stave and Wisconsin have struggled to pass the last two seasons, and things won’t get any easier with Jared Abbrederis, Jacob Pedersen and James White, the team’s top pass-catchers, all out of eligibility. Making the quarterback’s job even tougher, the Badgers lack a proven vertical threat who can stretch the field and keep defenses honest. That said, a surprise year from Stave or McEvoy could be the difference between a good offense and a top (Big Ten) offense.

Mark Ross
With Melvin Gordon and Corey Clement carrying the load and four starting offensive linemen returning, Wisconsin will do what it always does — run opposing defenses into the ground. Because of this well-established and highly successful formula, I'm not that worried about the quarterback play. No, I'm looking more at having to replace eight starters from a defense that ranked seventh or better nationally in three of the four major categories (17th in pass defense). Three of those starters were taken in the recent NFL Draft and anytime you have to basically revamp your starting 11, that's no easy task. The only returning all-conference performers are in the secondary, which means the Badgers will be employing a largely untested and inexperienced front seven. What was a strength for last year's team can now only be characterized, at best, as a rather large question mark headed into this season. The conference realignment does provide the Badgers with a break, as Indiana, Ohio State and Penn State have been replaced by Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska and Northwestern when it comes to divisional foes. The Badgers' crossover schedule doesn't include the Buckeyes or Nittany Lions, or even the Spartans or Wolverines for that matter, but rather Maryland and Rutgers — the Big Ten's two newcomers. So while I am expecting Wisconsin to finish atop the West Division standings in 2014, I don't think the Badgers will be near as dominant on both sides of the ball as they were last season.

David Fox (@DavidFox615)
Wisconsin’s biggest concern isn’t so much the quarterback as much as it is the entire passing game. What here inspires a ton of confidence? Joel Stave missed most of spring with a shoulder injury sustained in the bowl game. Quarterbacks and bad shoulders can be bad news. And even before that Stave wasn’t the sharpest quarterback, throwing 13 interceptions. Five of those picks came in the final three games. His back up, Tanner McEvoy, may be athletic enough to scramble (or play safety), but he’s an unpolished passer. If that’s not enough, Wisconsin doesn’t have the security of Jared Abbrederis. It’s a good thing Melvin Gordon is back, otherwise, this offense would be in a heap of trouble. While Wisconsin’s pass defense was torched late in the season against Penn State and South Carolina, the Badgers should be fine on that side of the ball. Even with those two games, Wisconsin’s ranked third in the Big Ten in yards per attempt. Wisconsin’s secondary really was a mess to start the season in 2013 and returns three starters in 2014. Chris Borland is a big loss at linebacker, but Wisconsin has veterans there to replace him. 

Braden Gall (@BradenGall)
Early in the season the answer will be the defense when Wisconsin has to face a power running game from LSU and sneaky explosive offense from Bowling Green. The front seven needs to be rebuilt and a replacement for Chris Borland needs to be found. However, as the year goes along, Joel Stave's play will grow into the bigger issue - especially in November with big divisional games against Nebraska, Iowa and Minnesota looming. Over time the defense should develop and won't be nearly as tested against some average Big Ten offenses. But Stave will have to create balance on offense in those critical swing games late in the year if Wisconsin wants to cruise into its third Big Ten title game in four years.