Fresh off Wisconsin capping off its surprisingly successful 11-win season with a victory in the Cotton Bowl, many fans have brought up the inevitable question when a season ends – how good could they be next year?
The Badgers aren’t projected to have much turnaround with such a small senior class. Even if junior left tackle Ryan Ramczyk joins outside linebacker T.J. Watt in declaring for the draft, the Badgers will only have to replace 10 players on their two-deep depth chart. That list doesn’t account for inside linebacker Jack Cichy and Chris Orr and kicker Rafael Gaglianone projected to return after suffering season-ending injuries in 2016.
UW will enter the spring with some question marks at quarterback, outside linebacker and again at secondary, but there’s no reason to think the Badgers won’t be the favorite to win the Big Ten West and receive a decent preseason ranking.
Wisconsin’s schedule was dotted with seven top-12 teams this season, a schedule the Badgers navigated from the start. Beating then-No.5 LSU to start the season at Lambeau Field, Wisconsin stayed in the top 11 for the remainder of the season. UW’s three blemishes were by seven points — including one in overtime — to teams that entered bowl season ranked in the top six.
Next year’s nonconference schedule provides a tough road trip to BYU before Wisconsin’s week four bye, but conference play starting in week five – while still challenging on paper – doesn’t look nearly as tough as it did this past season.
Off the schedule are Ohio State, which will enter the season in the national title conversation, and Michigan State. New on the schedule are a road trip to Indiana (Nov.4) and a home game against Maryland (Oct.21). UW has outscored the Terrapins 83-31 in the two meetings since Maryland joined the Big Ten, and the Badgers haven’t lost to the Hoosiers since 2002 (nine straight victories).
UW will have five conference home games next season (Northwestern, Purdue, Maryland, Iowa and Michigan) and four road games (Nebraska, Illinois, Indiana and Minnesota). A full schedule can be found here
Here’s a way-too-early look at Wisconsin’s projected 2017 depth chart
With Bart Houston graduating and Malik Zaire a long shot to join the program as a fifth-year senior, the Badgers will enter the spring with Hornibrook as the “experienced veteran” but will certainly give Lyles and incoming freshman Jack Coan a look.
Hornibrook played in 12 games this season and completed 58.6 percent of his passes (106 of 181) for 1,262 yards, nine touchdowns and seven interceptions. He got better with ball security as the season wore on (no picks in the final five games) but his arm strength and decision making need to improve and likely will. Question is will be ready to shoulder the expectations?
UW will be without two terrific seniors in Corey Clement and Dare Ogunbowale, but the Badgers will have another strong unit. Shaw emerged from the crowded backfield and looks to be a legit talent, as he finished the season with at least 50 rushing yards in four of the final six games of the season. James played two years at Pitt before sitting out this past season because of N.C.A.A. transfer rules. After a year on the scout team, James has bottled up a lot of energy. Taiwan Deal and his upcoming ankle surgery is the x-factor.
The duo has done a fantastic job filling in for Derek Watt this past season, combining with the offensive line to open up some alleys for the running game and provide pass protection for the quarterbacks. Not only have they shown they can protect and be physical, the duo have shown to be able to catch the ball out of the backfield and be reliable ball carriers, especially Ingold. This group will be a strength.
Peavy will be the team’s top target after leading the team in catches, yards and touchdowns, but he’ll need help. Part of the reason Peavy was so successful was Rob Wheelwright drew so much attention from opposing defensive backs. Without him, Peavy will be blanketed until someone steps up consistently. Cephus has shown to be a great blocker but hasn’t had many catching opportunities. Rushing is inconsistent and Taylor is young, so spring will be big for them.
Wisconsin only loses Eric Steffes out of this group, and the Badgers are hopeful that converted defensive end Zander Neuville can develop into that blocking role to free up Fumagalli and Penniston to run routes. Fumagalli continues to get better each year and should be one of the conference’s top tight ends next season after his tremendous performance in the bowl game. Penniston is scratching the surface of his potential.
Maxwell was working at left tackle before the Badgers flipped him to the other side in a pinch in 2016. He struggled at right tackle earlier this season before a shoulder injury ended his season after seven games. If Ramczyk does declare for the draft, this could be Wisconsin’s best option. UW will also likely give redshirt freshman Cole Van Lanen a long look in the spring.
Wisconsin’s line appeared to function better with Dietzen in the mix, as he started the final seven games of the season once he overcame a leg injury, but this will be good position battle between the two players with starting experience. UW will also give incoming four-star recruit Kayden Lyles some reps in the spring.
Deiter was a good solider this year moving to left guard during Wisconsin’s early offensive line shuffle, but he is at his best when he’s operating at center. All week players have called him “the glue” that has kept the group together. Connors was a nice fill in during the shuffle but isn’t nearly the player Deiter is.
1, Beau Benzschawel, r-junior; 2, Kapoi
Benzschawel has been playing right guard for roughly 13 months, so it’s still a work in progress for him, which was evident by his season of good and bad. Kapoi is another guy to watch out for and will fight for playing time.
1, David Edwards, r-sophomore; 2, Connors
Edwards looks to be the next big success story for Wisconsin, a high school quarterback turned tight end turned starting right tackle in year one. Edwards started the final seven games and should be even better next year with added weight and knowledge. UW needs to develop some depth here.
Everybody returns on the defensive line, so there’s not too much to debate with this position other than the fact the Badgers will have more depth and talent at the end spot than they have had in many years.
Sagapolu is the clear starter at the nose tackle position, but Wisconsin showed its depth by not missing a beat in the five games he missed with an arm injury after sliding Sheehy to the nose position. Jeremy Patterson is running out of time to make an impact, as Rand is earning his opportunities.
UW will need to replace its field linebacker in Vince Biegel and its boundary linebacker in Watt, making this the position to watch over the next eight months. Watt finished with 15.5 tackles for loss and 11.5 sacks, so his departure thins out the group. Even so there are some talented young players who will get opportunities. Junior college prospect Andrew Van Ginkel and redshirt freshman transfer Christian Bell could also see the field early next season.
As we saw this season, Wisconsin can’t have enough inside linebackers. All four of these players have starting experience and will make Wisconsin one of the deepest at the position in the country. Edwards lead the team in tackles for his first two years and Cichy should be fully healthy by the summer. Does UW consider moving him back to outside linebacker where he played up until October 2015? Orr should get his year of eligibility back and Connelly should provide an adequate punch after being a solid contributor all the way through the season.
Tindal is a given and Nelson, in my opinion, was Wisconsin’s best cornerback in fall camp. If he carries that through, he’ll have a great chance to be a starter. Williams was close to playing this season until Wisconsin decided it was worth keeping his redshirt intact. Jamerson will be going into his third season as a corner and has room to grow. UW needs to see where senior Lubern Figaro, redshirt sophomore Titus Booker and redshirt freshman Dontye Carriere-Williams are at.
After showing flashes in a reserve role in 2015, Dixon has a breakup campaign to help the Badgers fill the void left by Michael Caputo. Strong in run support (60 tackles, tied for fourth on the team) and solid in pass coverage (four interceptions), Dixon will be an emotional leader for the Badgers next season after making many timely plays. Farrar and redshirt freshman Eric Burrell should also see expanded roles.
UW will need to find an adequate replacement for Leo Musso, the team MVP who finished with five interceptions on the season. UW will likely try out multiple players at this spot in this spring, including Farrar, but Ferguson has taken some nice steps forward this season in certain packages. It will be a committee approach for spring ball.
Field Goal Kicker
1, Rafael Gaglianone, r-junior; 2, P.J. Rosowski, r-junior
Gaglianone was off to a tremendous start (7-for-8) before his back flared up on him and he had to end his season. Fortunately he can get a medical redshirt. Gaglianone is 44 –for-57 in his career and will be a reliable weapon for Wisconsin – if his back holds up.
1, Anthony Lotti, sophomore; 2, Rosowski
It took a while to figure out, but Lotti took control of the punting job as the season wore on. Known for having impeccable touch, Lotti put 25 of his 51 punts inside the 20 and would routinely pin teams inside their own 10. He still needs to work on his leg strength, as only two of his kicks went over 50, so that will be his focus in the offseason.
1, Adam Bay, freshman; 2, Neuville
Wisconsin isn’t going to bring in a scholarship long snapper and have him sit around. The only high school All-American in Wisconsin’s 2017 recruiting class, Bay will likely take this position over when he arrives in the summer.