2014 CFN Preview - Wisconsin Badgers
Wisconsin RB Melvin Gordon
Wisconsin RB Melvin Gordon
Posted Jul 10, 2014

Preview 2014 - Wisconsin has the right schedule, but is the team good enough? (Getty Images)

Wisconsin Badgers

Preview 2014

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Head coach: Gary Andersen
2nd year: 9-4
7th year overall: 39-35
Returning Lettermen
Off. 21, Def. 22. ST 5
Letterment Lost: 25
Ten Best Wisconsin Players
1. RB Melvin Gordon, Jr.
2. CB Sojourn Shelton, Soph.
3. OT Rob Havenstein, Sr.
4. OT Tyler Marz, Jr.
5. S Michael Caputo, Jr.
6. OG Dallas Lewallen, Sr.
7. LB Derek Landisch, Sr.
8. QB Joel Stave, Jr.
9. QB Tanner McEvoy, Jr.
10. NT Warren Herring, Sr.
2014 Schedule

Aug. 30 LSU (in Houston)
Sep. 6 Western Illinois
Sep. 20 Bowling Green
Sep. 27 South Florida
Oct. 4 at Northwestern
Oct. 11 Illinois
Oct. 25 Maryland
Nov. 1 at Rutgers
Nov. 8 at Purdue
Nov. 15 Nebraska
Nov. /22 at Iowa
Nov. 29 Minnesota

Is Wisconsin on the verge of doing something really, really big, or is it stuck in a bit of a rut? It might be a good rut, but can it finally become the type of program that can compete at the highest level and for really, really big things?

You can only get so far by recruiting to a type. It’s fine to bring in the guys who fit your system to get to a certain level, but to break through and to win Rose Bowls, and beat a South Carolina, and deal with an Ohio State, and have a chance against an LSU, you need talent. If you don’t have the top-shelf guys on both sides of the ball, there’s a hard ceiling, and Bucky is having a problem breaking through.

Wisconsin has been college football’s lead bum slayer over the years - blasting away on teams like UMass, Tennessee Tech, Purdue, and other mediocre squads. Last season it played three teams that finished with ten wins or more, and lost all three games.

Winning two straight Big Ten championship games was obviously fantastic, but both were followed up by Rose Bowl losses. Fine, so the Badgers were totally hosed in the loss to Arizona State and had a shot against Ohio State, but the best win was BYU? Iowa? The loss to South Carolina was the first double-digit defeat since a 34-24 loss to Michigan State in 2010 – and that was close until the very end – but it’s hard to sell the program as one of the elite when so much of the success has come from fattening up on the dregs.

It’s also hard to get respect among the big boys when you lose six of your last seven bowl games.

And that’s what should make this season interesting. Gary Andersen had a decent first season, but the bizarre loss to Penn State to end the regular season and the loss to South Carolina in the Capital One Bowl closed things out with a thud. With so much turnover on defense, no Jared Abbrederis at receiver, a confusing quarterback situation, and four of the top five tacklers gone, including heart-and-soul linebacker Chris Borland, there are lots and lots of question marks …

But it might not matter.

The new world of college football should be tailor-made for the Wisconsin program, needing to get it close to the pin and not necessarily be perfect. Beat LSU in the opener, and it’s Game On with a favorable schedule with no Ohio State, Nebraska at home, and the toughest road game either at Iowa or Northwestern. Lose to LSU, rip through the Big Ten slate, get into the championship game, and then, with one puncher’s chance win over an Ohio State or Michigan State, a 12-1 Badger team is in the inaugural College Football Playoff.

Which would then beg the question – yeah, great, but is this team even any good?

That’s what the LSU game is for as a tone-setter, but yeah, Wisconsin is good. The bigger question now is whether or not Andersen can make the program truly great.

What to watch for on offense: Will the quarterback situation be settled at any point this season? You know exactly what the Badgers are going to do – they’re going to give it to Melvin Gordon and Corey Clement and run, run, run some more behind a fantastic line – but the offense was truly humming in the Bret Bielema era when Russell Wilson or Scott Tolzien was running it at a highly-efficient level. It’s not like UW is going to air it out and become Texas Tech, but the quarterback has to hit his third down throws and he has to hit the open man to take advantage of defenses cheating up to stop the ground attack. Joel Stave is trying to get past an injured shoulder, and Tanner McEvoy is right there and ready to push for the job. There isn’t a truly wrong answer – both can play – but with a mediocre receiving corps, the quarterback has to make everyone better.

What to watch for on defense: The seven needs close to seven new players. Derek Landisch is back at linebacker, and tackle Warren Herring is a good one who’ll emerge into a bigger force, but the defense that finished fifth in the nation against the run is undergoing a major overhaul. There isn’t a Chris Borland in the linebacking corps, and there isn’t a devastating pass rusher to worry about on the outside, but Andersen and defensive coordinator Dave Aranda know how to get production. There’s talent and upside returning, but considering the opening game is against an LSU offensive front that should be among the best in America, and a running game that should be bruising and nasty, the Badgers had better be ready.

The team will be far better if… the secondary works. The tremendous Badger pass defense stats were among the most misleading of the 2013 season. The secondary was young and beatable, and the pass rush in the 3-4 wasn’t generating much of a pass rush. Fortunately, UMass, Tennessee Tech, Purdue, and several other teams on the schedule couldn’t throw a forward pass. To be fair, Wisconsin shut down a high-powered Indiana passing game dead cold, but Arizona State’s Taylor Kelly did whatever he wanted on the way to a 352-yard day, Penn State’s Christian Hackenberg hit 70% of his throws for 339 yards and four scores, and South Carolina’s Connor Shaw completed 88.5% of his passes for 321 yards and four touchdowns – the Badgers lost all three games. The fourth loss to Ohio State was all but sealed when Braxton Miller connected on a big scoring pass at the end of the first half and finished with four touchdown passes on the day. In all, 12 of the 16 touchdown passes allowed came in three of the losses.

The Schedule: The Badgers open up with a knockdown, drag out slugfest with a physical LSU team in Houston. However, if they can find a way to win that, good luck – the schedule is among the easiest in the Big Ten, starting with non-conference games at home against Western Illinois, Bowling Green and South Florida. None of those three will be true cupcakes, but Wisconsin doesn't lose games like those at home.

There's no Michigan, Michigan State or Ohio State to face from the East – Bucky gets the newcomers, Maryland and Rutgers. The Big Ten road games? Northwestern, Rutgers, Purdue and Iowa – that's not bad. The showdown against Nebraska is in Camp Randall, and Minnesota, Illinois and Maryland are manageable home dates. However, there's a run of three road games in four weeks to start out November.

Best offensive player: Junior RB Melvin Gordon. It was a curious move not to turn pro last year considering running back draft stock doesn’t necessarily improve with more time, but Gordon wanted to come back and be the main man for the offense, and if he can stay in one piece, he has the potential to hit the 2,000-yard mark depending on the rotation. Blazing fast, he’s a deadly home-run hitter in the open field and a threat to do something big every time he gets the ball. While he’s not going to be a 300-carry workhorse, if he can average close to eight yards per carry again, he doesn’t have to be.

Best defensive player: Sophomore CB Sojourn Shelton. The Florida native has the speed, athleticism and talent to be the star of a revamped secondary. Tested time and again, he managed to come through, turning into the team’s No. 1 corner while also showing off nice open field tackling skills. He’s not huge, but he didn’t miss too many stops and he was ultra-aggressive when the ball was in the air, leading the team in interceptions and broken up passes. With so much turnover on defense, he has to stand out and make teams pay for coming his way.

Key players to a successful season: Senior WR Kenzel Doe. Someone, anyone, has to become a go-to, No. 1 target. You wouldn’t be insane to suggest that Jared Abbrederis was among the most valuable players in college football last year – the Badgers had no passing game whatsoever when he wasn’t producing. The fop four pass catchers from last year are gone, and one of those was tight end Jacob Pedersen and another was running back James White. Doe has always had the skill and the tools, but he only caught seven passes for 57 yards, Jordan Fredrick caught ten passes for 106 yards, and Alex Erickson made nine catches for 127 yards. Doe has the most experience, and he needs to bring the production.

The season will be a success if ... Wisconsin wins the Big Ten championship. The Badgers will never, ever get a break of a slate like this one. There’s absolutely no excuse with a dream draw from the East and with Nebraska having to come to Camp Randall. Getting into the College Football Playoff isn’t an unreachable goal, but it can only happen with a third Big Ten championship in four years. After the success of recent years, just getting to Indianapolis isn’t enough, even if this might be the third or fourth best team in the East.

Key game: Nov. 15 vs. Nebraska. The opener against LSU is the massive moment for the Badgers on a national scale – win that, and the respect will come, but that might not mean much without the big Big Ten wins. Iowa isn’t going to be bad, Northwestern will be better, and Minnesota could be sneaky-dangerous, but Nebraska is the one big challenger. The Badgers will be coming off of two road games before hosting the West game of the year, and they probably can’t get to Indianapolis without the win.

2013 Fun Stats:
- 1st Quarter Scoring: Wisconsin 103 – Opponents 40
- Total Plays: 912 – Lost Fumbles: 4
- Average Yards Per Carry: Wisconsin 6.6 – Opponents 3.2
- 2014 Wisconsin Preview - What You Need To Know & Top Players