14 Teams in 14 Days: Wisconsin Badgers
Tanner McEvoy, who played safety last season, is expected to start at quarterback for UW against LSU. Photo: Image by Joe Koshollek
By opening the season against SEC powerhouse LSU, the Badgers are thrust into the national spotlight. Can they hang with the athleticism of the SEC and is Melvin Gordon good enough to carry this team against a defense that faces the likes of Todd Gurley?
The game against LSU is important for the Badgers because their schedule is not impressive. Every game on the schedule after facing LSU is winnable for the Badgers, they'll likely be favored in all.
The loss of Braxton Miller especially complicates things because its makes the B1G Ten appear much weaker now that a Heisman hopeful is gone. The Badgers facing LSU and Michigan State facing Oregon are two big tests not only for the two schools alone, but the conference as a whole. If the Badgers get run off the field against LSU, running the table and finishing 12-1 (including a win the B1G Ten championship) may not be enough to put them in the first ever college football playoff. The schedule is there and talent is there, but this is a team facing a lot of questions in 2014.
Tanner McEvoy gets the start in the season opener after beating out Joel Stave, although we expect Gary Andersen to employ a two-quarterback system with both seeing action this year. McEvoy represents a better fit for the scheme Andersen would like to run and did run at Utah State.
McEvoy's journey to this point has been a strange one. He originally committed to play for Steve Spurrier at South Carolina. In 2012 McEvoy was suspended following an alcohol-related arrest, but was ultimately reinstated by the team. However, rather than stay and compete for the backup job (behind Connor Shaw) McEvoy announced a week after his reinstatement that he was transferring to the JUCO level.
He played for Arizona Western College for one season where he was the top-rated JUCO level dual threat quarterback. McEvoy had offers from many schools, including Oregon, Florida and West Virginia, but ultimately turned them down to come to Madison. However upon arriving on campus McEvoy was given a brief chance at quarterback before being moved to the other side of the ball. He played in 10 games last season (three starts)...at safety. Joel Stave started all 13 games at quarterback in 2013.
Fast-forward to this spring where McEvoy was moved back to quarterback and put into a competition with Stave for the starting job. A competition Andersen was tight-lipped on until recently announcing McEvoy was his guy. They both add different elements to the passing game; Stave more a pocket-passer with a bigger arm while McEvoy is the mobile threat Andersen was seeking last year.
While they'll both play some in 2014 you have to figure this is primarily McEvoy's job to lose.
The quarterback only needs to keep the Badgers in the game, not win it for them because the Badgers feature one of the best running backs in the nation in Melvin Gordon. Gordon was expected by many to be the first running back selected in the 2014 NFL draft as many assumed he would leave school following his standout redshirt sophomore season. The ground game is deeper than just Gordon though, as behind him is another supremely talented player who saw some time last year in Corey Clement. White and Gordon rushed for over 3,000 yards combined last season and there's little not to expect Gordon and Clement to do the same. Gordon is the homerun-hitter while Clement has the size to run between the tackles.
The biggest question surrounding this offense is who is going to catch passes? With 19 career receptions between the two of them, Jordan Frederick and Alex Erickson are the most experienced returning players following the departures of Jared Abbrederis and Jacob Pederson. Pederson left school as the all-time leader in touchdown receptions by a tight end while Abbrederis left tied for the school lead in career receptions and won the Burlsworth award (given to the nation's top player who began as a walk-on). The Badgers added five freshmen receivers in February and expect two or three, if not more, to contribute immediately.
Offensive line has long been a strength of Wisconsin and last season was no different. Despite the number of scholarships on the line dropping the last few years, the Badgers set a new school record in 2013 by averaging 6.6 yards per carry. While some of that you can attribute to a back like Melvin Gordon, that does include all running backs who carried the ball, meaning its largely thanks to the offensive line. The line returns virtually in tact and have five starters with at least five career starts. More importantly, its deeper than it's been in a while thanks to the arrival of freshman Michael Deiter. Injuries to Dan Voltz and Dallas Lewallen gave Deiter time at both center and guard this spring, you can expect him to see the field in 2014.
Like the receivers on offense, the front seven of this defense is the biggest question the unit faces. The Badgers must replace all three starters and quite a bit of their depth as well as Brandon Kelly, Pat Muldoon, Ethan Hemer and Beau Allen are all gone. This year they'll rely heavily upon freshmen in defensive ends Alec James and Chikwe Obasih while senior Warren Herring is back and expected to start at nose guard.
Chris Borland was one of the best defenders in the B1G Ten the past few seasons, definitely making an impact in Madison. His absence will be tough to replace but the Badgers are confident in the duo of Derek Landisch and Marcus Trotter in the middle. Landisch was tabbed to replace Mike Taylor last year but never really got his footing under him while transitioning to a 3-4. Trotter had his strongest game of his career against Iowa last year, but he's not very athletic, more an instinctive player. Coaches have said they expect sophomore Leon Jacobs to push for some time at middle linebacker this year as well, likely challenging Trotter. The Badgers face fewer questions on the edges where junior Joe Schobert expects to start after a strong camp. He'll be joined by Vince Biegel on the other side who the staff expects to have a breakout season as the team's best pass-rusher.
While the front seven is getting rebuilt on the fly this year, the secondary returns three starters from a season ago, but it is a unit that struggled in times at pass-coverage last year. In their four losses, the Badgers allowed an average of 302.5 passing yards and 12 passing touchdowns. Sojourn Shelton has a strong season last year, leading the team with four interceptions as a true freshman and the coaches are expecting an even bigger 2014 from him. He's joined again by his running mate Darius Hillary, who had possibly the strongest spring of anyone in the secondary. At safety Michael Caputo returns following a good season last year. He's flanked by strong safety Peniel Jean. Jean is making the transition from corner to safety.
|8/30||vs LSU (N)|
|9/6||vs WESTERN ILLINOIS|
|9/20||vs BOWLING GREEN|
|927||vs SOUTH FLORIDA|
After the season-opener with LSU, this schedule is very favorable for the Badgers. No Michigan, Michigan State or Ohio State. Their biggest tests will be November 15 and 22 as they host Nebraska and travel to Iowa, the two teams that figure to be their biggest competition for the B1G Ten West crown
Never before have the Badgers entered a season with a clearer path to a national championship. Get past or give LSU a test and run the table in their remaining easy schedule and an undefeated conference record and B1G Ten championship may be enough to put them into the final four. Defeating LSU and getting help from their conference with their non-conference schedule could put the Badgers in the first ever final four playoff.