We’ve got them where we want them: thinking we’ll be average.
I'm not saying we'll have a great team, but I think we'll have a pretty darned solid record and a nice bowl game to show for it.
Let’s just get it out of the way: starting quarterback Dustin Sherer (sr.). No, he’s not Brooks Bollinger, but it is what it is. Here’s the upside: he was good enough to beat Michigan State (even though we didn’t), Illinois, Indiana, Minnesota and Cal Poly (though our defense did what they could to surrender that one, too). Iowa wasn’t his fault (and it was his first collegiate start). He’s going to be even better this year. Great? No, but solid. That’s what we need, not some red-shirt freshman with a wobbly arm. And especially not with the other weapons on our offense.
If Sherer is decent, this offense could be spectacular. Clay (so.) and Brown (jr.) are a solid 1-2 combo. Clay will get more carries, but probably not that many more (I’m guessing 60/40) -- Brown is the better all-around back because of his blocking and hands in the passing game). Playing in a two-tight end set, with potential All-American Graham (sr.) and Kendricks (jr.), or Turner (jr.) (playing a hybrid fullback role from the TE spot), we’re going to see versatility Chryst hasn’t had to work with in a couple of years. Add to that Isaac Anderson (jr.) and Nick Toon (so.) starting at receiver, with David Gilreath (jr.) and Kyle Jefferson (jr.) adding depth and a solid 3-WR set. That’s a pretty stacked set of skill players by Badger standards.
With the departure of three starters and everything on offense relying on them, it’s reasonable to question how good the line will be? Pretty good. Carimi (jr.) is the leader, at left tackle, with a very capable and athletic Moffitt (jr.) at center. At right tackle Josh Oglesby (so.) needs to get and stay mean, but brings a load to move the right side of the line. Converted tackle Bscherer (jr.) and game-tested Nagy (jr.) will do well at the guard spots. Oglesby, Bsherer, and Nagy are all “new” starters, but all have significant playing experience as back-ups and starting several games in place of injured guys ahead of them. This line may not be all world, but it will be solid. The biggest area of concern is depth at guard. The Badgers just don’t have a stable of guards. One of the lesser problems to have, but one that an injury or two could really exacerbate.
In short, look for a capable and balanced Badger offense. Sherer won’t be asked to sling the ball all over the place, but he will throw more than the Badgers did last season, and with the skill the Badgers have around him, the Cardinal and White should be prolific.
That’s the good news.
With all the talk about who the starting quarterback should be, the defensive front seven hasn’t gotten the attention critics should give it. One starter returns to his position from last season. One.
Who knows what the defense will look like this season? Maybe a change of blood will mean the end of late-game struggles? (See, e.g., Florida State ‘09, Minnesota ’08, MSU ’08, OSU ’08, Michigan ’08, Fresno State ’08, Minnesota ’07, Michigan ’07, OSU ’07, and MSU ’07.) That’s the hope. In the mean time, who’s doing what for the new front 7? Schofield (sr.) is the [only] returning starter (DE) and got better and better as last year wore on. While no star, he’s good enough. At the other end, Watt (so.) turned heads throughout his mandatory (transfer) red-shirt year and continued doing so throughout the spring. There’s reason to be excited about him. Backing them up are two guys who show lots of promise in the passing game, but are pretty light to defend the run, Nzegwu (so., 245 lbs.), and Kelly (fr., 240 lbs.). The middle is a source of real concern. Dan Moore (sr.) is a solid player, but is a more natural end converted to tackle. Stehle (sr.) has yet to establish himself as a real presence inside, even with playing time last year. Backing them up are Butrym (so.) who has potential, but is young and not big (280 lbs.), and Cascone (sr.). In passing downs we may see Watt move inside with Nzegwu or Kelly taking his spot on the end.
Moving to the linebackers, talk about a lack of depth. McFadden (sr.) is a returning starter, but moves back outside (his more natural position). Culmer St. Jean (jr.) finally takes the middle position he’s been groomed for over the last two years. And Sorensen (jr.) is the other outside linebacker. McFadden and St. Jean should be fine, maybe even pretty good. Sorensen hasn’t shown up much, despite plenty of playing time and experience. And the two-deep? Freshman and sophomores with no real experience. All the guys on the list have gotten some favorable comments from their peers and coaches, but favorable comments don’t read offenses, shed blocks, and make tackles.
So, real questions up front for the Badgers. If I were an opponent, I’d game plan running the ball right at us. The good news on defense is the secondary.
Aaron Henry (so.) is back at one corner, and looks like his knee has finally healed up. He will get the opposition’s better receiver. Brinkley (jr.) and Devin Smith (so.) both look decent at the other corner (Brinkley will probably start), with Fenelus (so.) not far behind. At safety, after toying with a left/right idea (which held for the linebackers), the coaching staff is back with a strong/free set. Given the personnel, that makes sense. Valai (jr.) is purely a strong safety and Maragos (sr.) and Carter (sr.) are free-types and pretty good (Carter should press Maragos for the starting spot). Pleasant (sr.) could go either way, but has spent most of his career in Madison at strong safety, and is a pretty good option backing up Valai (or pressing him to start). These guys won’t all be pros (maybe a couple will), but they make up a solid Big Ten secondary.
In the kicking game, Welch (so., PK) and Nortman (so., punter) will continue to be fine. The Badgers need more out of Gilreath in the return game, and need to continue to improve their coverage.
In summary, expect the Badgers to play high scoring games this season. Despite all the talk about the quarterback situation, the offense should be very good, but don’t be surprised to see the defense give up long, sustained drives against teams running the ball up the gut.
And as for a game-by-game prediction?
Northern Illinois: Win
Fresno State: Win (but closer than it should be unless we can focus entirely on stopping the run)
Wofford: Win (augh)
Michigan State: Win (because it’s at home; expect a close fight)
@ Minnesota: Loss (they return almost everybody, we’ve struggled with them for two years, and it’s a huge home game for them in their new place)
@ Ohio State: Loss (close, but Pryor will do what he has to against our defense)
Iowa: Win (screw them!)
Purdue: Win (they just aren’t very good)
@ Indiana: Win (still Indiana football)
Michigan: Win (but close, they will be much improved and their option will hurt our defense)
@ Northwestern: Win (another close one; their defense is better than ours, but our offense will prevail)
@ Hawaii: Win (not the same since their coaching change)
That’s an unreasonably optimistic 10-2, with a terrible out-of-conference schedule, and optimistic picks against Michigan State, Iowa, and Northwestern. With as weak a Big Ten slate as we have this season (no Penn State or Illinois, still rebuidling Michigan, MSU with a new quarterback and running back, Iowa has a new running back, and Northwestern has a new quarterback), 10-2 just isn't that impressive. Worse than 8-4 would be a disaster of a season.