CHICAGO – After waiting patiently for the other power conferences to have its turn soaking up the national media exposure, the Big Ten gets its turn this week Monday and Tuesday for the annual Big Ten Media Days at the Hilton Chicago.
After going 9-4 in his first season in Madison, Wisconsin head coach Gary Andersen will be bringing with him junior running back Melvin Gordon, senior right tackle Rob Havenstein and senior defensive lineman Warren Herring.
Leading up to the event, BadgerNation analyses the three major questions the national media will likely ask and the three questions we’re looking to have answered.National Media
1, How will the passing game improve?
Mediocre quarterback play has been the common theme in consecutive average years at the University of Wisconsin. Wisconsin’s offense averaged 6.9 yards per play last year, second in the Big Ten behind Ohio State (7.1 yards per play), but the Badgers were 93rd nationally (out of 123 teams) with 197.1 passing yards per game.
Joel Stave is the incumbent starter, but he missed the majority of spring recovering from a shoulder injury suffered in the Capital One Bowl loss. Stave earning All-Big Ten honorable mention recognition from the media after throwing for 2,494 yards and 22 touchdowns, but frustrated many, including the coaching staff, with his inconsistency throwing the football, leading to missing wide-open targets and throwing 13 interceptions.
Despite never throwing a pass in an FBS game, Tanner McEvoy enters the fall as the slight favorite for the job because of his ability to move. Andersen and offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig want a quarterback who can beat defenses with both the runs and the pass, which is not Stave’s forte. Even so, there are on-the-field and off-the-field question marks with McEvoy that will need to be answered moving forward.
Quarterback is only part of the problem considering Wisconsin’s wide receivers are a gigantic question mark. Jared Abbrederis had nearly 3.5 times as many receptions as the rest of the wide receivers last season (1,081 to 299), and he scored all seven of the group’s touchdowns. That’s a huge void considering UW has few proven options at the group.
If Wisconsin wants to be a yearly contender in the Big Ten, the Badgers have to recruit and develop better talent at those two positions.
2, Can Melvin Gordon win the Heisman?
The Big Ten hasn’t had a Heisman Trophy winner since Ohio State quarterback Troy Smith in 2006 and Wisconsin hasn’t had one since Ron Dayne in 1999. While Montee Ball finished fourth in the voting three years ago, Gordon is trying do a few spots better than his former teammate. An All-Big Ten selection a season ago, Gordon rushed for 1,609 yards and 12 touchdowns as a sophomore, including running for at least 140 yards in six of the first seven games of the season. He put up those numbers as the number-two tailback last season.
Gordon has worked hard on his overall game during the offseason, trying to become better at explosiveness, pass protection and blocking. It’ll be interesting to hear if the Heisman has become a bigger goal for Gordon as the season approaches and how big of a goal it is for Havenstein and Wisconsin’s offensive line to get him that opportunity.
If Gordon can become the every down back for Wisconsin, the end results could yield him a trip to New York. Playing a 12-game schedule that features only three opponents who finished in the top 50 in rushing defense last season (Iowa #19, LSU #35 and Maryland #45), Gordon can make a statement right away on national television. Speaking of which …
3, How big is the LSU game?
In the last 10 years, Wisconsin has opened the season against one opponent from a power conference and that Washington State opponent in 2007 finished 5-7. Playing the Tigers in Houston for the season opener has been talked about and drooled over by fans since the game first appeared on the schedule, as it represents a true measuring stick for the program, not to mention one of Wisconsin’s biggest nonconference games in years.
Wisconsin’s immediate schedule beyond the LSU game is rather pedestrian from an excitement standpoint, although there will be some challenges with the Badgers hosting MAC-favorite Bowling Green and traveling to challenging Ryan Field and Northwestern. Still, it’s not out of the ordinary to think UW and its roster full of question marks could go 9-0 after the LSU game.
If Wisconsin wins the opener against the Tigers (who themselves lost a ton of talent to the NFL) and navigate successfully through a manageable schedule, the Badgers will be in the thick of the discussion for the College Football Playoff.
Preparing for LSU in one week would have been tough. Giving Andersen, Ludwig and defensive coordinator Dave Aranda over six months to prepare a scheme, not to mention add a little extra fuel to the offseason workouts, a win might be as farfetched as one would think.
1, How is the progression of the front seven retooling project?
This question could fit in the national category for the more astute national media, but this is a concern for the badgers moving forward into the season needing to replace three starting linebackers (including super-tackler Chris Borland) and a ton of bodies on the defensive line. Derek Landisch is the lone returning starter from the front seven and he only started two games.
While the group will be short on experience, they shouldn’t be short on talent. Aranda spent the majority of spring moving players to new positions to maximize speed and agility on the field. Now that the group has had four months adjusting to the switches, how much better are they as a unit? How has Chikwe Obasih and Alec James carried over from their solid springs? Have Herring and Landisch emerged as the leaders on the defense? Will the secondary – the team’s most experienced unit – build upon last year’s lessons?
How quickly the defense can mesh together and play as well as the group from last few seasons remains a question, but it’ll be interesting to hear what Andersen and Herring have to say about it.
2, What did Andersen learn from the end of last year?
Everything was hunky dory at Wisconsin though 12 games, except for that whole Arizona State fiasco and losing to one of the top teams in the country on the road. Then the walls crumbled down with the Badgers having an opportunity to potentially play for a BCS game. Penn State torched Wisconsin’s defense and frustrated the offense to the tune of three interceptions and no rushing touchdowns. Wisconsin followed that up with a so-so performance in the bowl game, something that rarely gets a win over a SEC team.
Andersen hinted that Wisconsin could be a “great” team when they were 9-2, but he didn’t want his team to know that. By the end of the year, Wisconsin went 9-0 against teams that finished the season ranked and 0-3 against those who finished ranked (Penn State is ineligible to be ranked).
What has Andersen changed from year one? What lessons did he take away? All those thoughts are what I’m intrigued by.
3, Andersen’s Recruiting Strategy
If you kept up with our recruiting stories this past spring and summer, you likely would have noticed a common theme when talking to the recruits Wisconsin had offered; the Badgers were offering players without so much as a hello to them first.
It’s a drastic change from how the old staff recruited and on the surface it makes sense. Wisconsin has offered three times as many kids this season as the previous staff did in 2012. That allows the Badgers to cast a wider net and get more people thinking about Wisconsin. Still the lack of contact before and after the offer seems surprising, and it will be interesting to see what Andersen says if he’s asked about the topic.