USA TODAY Sports' Paul Myerberg counts down to the start of the college football season team by team from No. 128 to No. 1.
I know Wisconsin plays Indiana, but why? Other than the fact that both inhabit shared space in the Big Ten Conference, that is, and are thus mandated to meet on a regular basis.
It would be better for both parties if this series was sent to the sidelines: Wisconsin would get a midseason breather in advance of the annual Rose Bowl push, while Indiana would be able to avoid the humbling nature of another defeat of illogical proportions. Controversial legislation, to be sure, but conference politics is a brass-knuckled business; someone has to get hurt for the good of the community.
Consider that Wisconsin has won nine in a row against the Hoosiers, or that the last four wins have come by a combined score of 255-44. Take into consideration, when casting your vote, of the fact that UW's scoring output during this four-year span includes 66 points in the fourth quarter, meaning there's a slight sense of malice to the proceedings.
The Badgers and Hoosiers have met in each season since 2005; since 2007, the Badgers' lowest rushing output against the Hoosiers is 229 yards. Just in the last two meetings, UW has gained 1,118 yards and scored 13 times on 9.81 yards per carry – that's more than half a mile in yardage, more touchdowns than 20 teams accounted for in all of 2013 and nearly a first down on every touch, and that's ridiculous.
Last year's victory featured four Badgers with at least 86 yards rushing: James White, Melvin Gordon, Corey Clement and Jared Abbrederis. Bad news: Two of those guys are back in 2014.
Good news, depending on your allegiance: Wisconsin and Indiana don't meet this fall. Or next. Or in 2016. The two sides won't meet again until 2017, thanks to the vagaries of the Big Ten scheduling machine, meaning the fun – or sadness, again depending on allegiance – takes a short hiatus.
This is great news for Indiana, which needs every winnable game it can get to leap into the postseason. It could even be viewed as a positive development for those among us who value the character-building nature of competition itself – and this series has been many things, but not competitive.
It hurts Wisconsin in the standings and the national rankings. The Badgers' last two iterations are 9-6 against Big Ten opponents other than Indiana. If you remove the Hoosiers from the equation, last year's rushing attack slips to 13th nationally in yards per game; the 2012 team, previously 13th, slides to 23rd without IU in the mix.
The Badgers might need Indiana as much as the Hoosiers don't need Wisconsin. Then again, there's always Purdue: UW has accounted for 1,219 yards and 15 scores on 7.77 yards per carry in its last three matchups with the Boilermakers. Rephrased: I know Wisconsin plays teams from the Hoosier State, but why?
LAST YEAR'S PREDICTION:
What is possible is that Wisconsin plays above my own expectations despite the coaching change, slight issues on offense and question marks on defense, making a push for 10 wins in the regular season and taking advantage of a somewhat easy schedule. I don't have enough optimism to make that projection, though betting against history is rarely a good idea.
In a nutshell: At the very least, Wisconsin will no longer have to deal with Ohio State as a divisional rival. The Buckeyes took home the division thanks to a seven-point win in September; the Badgers would go on a run from there, taking six in a row before a loss to Penn State, but the division had long been decided. Even after the coaching change, this smelled like vintage Wisconsin football: Gary Andersen's team owned the second and third tiers of the Big Ten, struggled against an SEC team in bowl play and lost by single-digit margins to Arizona State, OSU and Penn State – so there was little separating Andersen's debut from ending in Pasadena.
High point: The six-game winning streak following the loss to Ohio State. Included were three victories against eventual bowl participants: Iowa, Brigham Young and Minnesota.
Low point: Ohio State. Though there's something to be said for the debacle that was the final moments against Arizona State.
Tidbit: Andersen has lost just six games in his last two seasons, with his final year at Utah State joining last season's turn with the Badgers. These six defeats have come by a grand total of 31 points: 16-14 to Wisconsin and 6-3 to BYU in 2012, and 32-30 to Arizona State, 31-24 to Ohio State, 31-24 to Penn State and 34-24 to South Carolina a season ago.
Tidbit (24 points edition): Wisconsin has lost its last five games when scoring exactly 24 points. The Badgers' last victory when landing on the 24-point mark came against Iowa on Nov. 11, 2006.
ARBITRARY TOP FIVE LIST:
PLAYERS TO WATCH:
Offense: This might not be the best backfield in college football, but it's in the conversation – with maybe three or four others, but not many more. You're familiar with Melvin Gordon (1,609 yards and 12 touchdowns), who somehow finished 10th nationally in rushing and first in yards per carry among backs with 200-plus touches in his first season as the Badgers' go-to back yet no one batted an eyelash; such were the expectations circling around Gordon heading into his fantastic starting debut. He met those expectations and then some: Gordon was one of the nation's best and certainly one of our most consistent runners, vaulting him very firmly into the Heisman Trophy conversation as he enters his junior season. There are other great backs in the FBS, including one in Gordon's own division, but perhaps no other back gets as much bang for his buck – Gordon is the equivalent of a slugger, with home-run power each and every time he touches the football. There are few better players in college football.
His backup's no slouch, though he needs to prove himself against quality competition. There's a bit of smoke and mirrors to sophomore Corey Clement's debut, with all due respect to his off-the-charts potential: Clement (547 yards) racked up yardage at a wildly impressive clip, but the majority of his work came in late-game laughers – Tennessee Tech, Purdue, Indiana and the like. That's not to question his talent, which is obvious, but rather suggest that Clement won't necessarily replicate his production in a role as the Badgers' co-starter in the backfield. There'll also be touches for a third back, a spot Clement held a year ago, with true freshmen Taiwan Deal and Caleb Kinlaw angling for a spot in the rotation. There will also be carries left over for redshirt freshman Austin Ramesh, who could be a battering ram in short-yardage situations. Again, this backfield is absolutely elite.
So is the offensive line, but you knew that already. One year after struggling to legitimately fill a two-deep, UW has a new toy: depth. Some is of the young variety, yes, but the Badgers have slowly built a solid second tier to join an ever-dominant starting quintet, with this year's group breaking in just one new starter. That'd be senior left guard Dallas Lewallen, who steps into Ryan Groy's on the weak side. It's the same story elsewhere: Tyler Manz at left tackle, Don Voltz at center, Kyle Costigan at right guard and Rob Havenstein, the best of the bunch and an All-American candidate, at right tackle. All five players, including Lewallen, bring at least six career starts into the season. An influx of talent does give the Badgers depth, but let's not confuse that quality depth – not yet, at least; let's give the young guys time to develop.
It'll eventually be Joel Stave at quarterback, though that won't be officially until the Badgers creep closer to the opener. Andersen opted to renew the competition this offseason, pitting Stave with Tanner McEvoy, and it's hard to disagree with the mentality: Stave didn't perform capably enough last fall to earn the clear-cut, unquestioned starting nod, and was also forced to deal with a lingering shoulder injury that curtailed his ability to participate in spring drills. He's still the guy, if healthy, and gives UW's offense the balance it needs to temper a powerful running game. There'll still be a role in certain packages for McEvoy, a gifted runner with the athleticism to contribute as a wildcard. Better yet, I can imagine a scenario where McEvoy's place in the pecking order motivates Stave to a solid final season. Andersen doesn't need his quarterbacks to win games; he just needs them not to lose games. Stave fits that bill if he cuts down on his interceptions.
Defense: There are two ways to look at this: one, Wisconsin's entire starting line and three-fourths of its linebacker corps are gone, and that's not good; or two, despite the personnel attrition, a second season in Anderson's preferred 3-4 base set will yield equal or improved production thanks to added experience. I'm an optimist – so let's say it's the latter, but do so with a bit of caution. If everything clicks, the front three shouldn't be terrible: Warren Herring (17 tackles, 4.0 sacks) could be superb in a full-time starting role on the nose, senior end Konrad Zagzebski has four career starts and redshirt freshman end Chikwe Obasih has been nothing but terrific since the first day of spring drills – and he's remade his body to handle the load on the outside in this scheme. Herring might be the key to the whole deal, but he's light in the middle, which has an impact on the Badgers' run defense; he's also used to exploding as a fourth lineman, not a starter, so he'll have to pace himself in one of the key positions on the entire defense.
It's going to take an optimistic mindset. Obasih is going to have his off moments, befitting his youth and inexperience. Zagzebski has experience but lacks the physical gifts Obasih and fellow redshirt freshman Alec James bring to the table; James, a converted linebacker, seems like a potential weapon on passing downs. There's zero proven depth behind Herring, which hurts: UW could use a mauling, squat, 315-pound reserve to use in tandem with Herring's quick first step. Perhaps – maybe, just maybe – Herring can repackage his reserve production into a fuller role, Zagzebski is supremely steady, Obasih lives up to his offseason and James brings pressure on third down. If so, the Badgers won't miss a beat. If not, this is the third-best team in the West Division.
The entire front seven has to answer the bell. The losses up front hurt; losing Chris Borland, if par for the course – seniors move on, after all – is a punch in the gut. No one did more with less, and I mean that in the kindest, nicest, most fantastic way possible: Borland looked like a guy who delivered beer off a truck but played like Butkus, and such linebackers are simply impossible to replace. Wisconsin will try, handing his job to senior Marcus Trotter, a smart and heads-up defender who played very well in Borland's stead in last year's win against Iowa. He'll be joined by the unit's most experienced option, senior Derek Landisch (33 tackles), with this pair flanked by a combination of outside linebackers Joe Schobert, Vince Biegel, Leon Jacobs, Michael Trotter and Jesse Hayes. The one nice thing about this group is that a few, such as Jacobs and Trotter, could find a role as coverage linebackers on third down. It's still a substantially weaker unit without Borland. Alas, such is life.
It'd be a shame if a faulty front seven left this secondary to waste. It's a group loaded with depth on the outside and experience nearly across the board, with the exception of free safety. Wisconsin does need to find a replacement for Dezmen Southward, but shouldn't struggle finding two quality options between sophomore Joe Musso, junior A.J. Jordan and senior Peniel Jean. The starter – though I think two will play – will join junior strong safety Michael Caputo (63 tackles) along the back end, with Caputo your standard, normal, supremely reliable Wisconsin strong safety. The star of the bunch is sophomore Sojourn Shelton (36 tackles, 4 interceptions), a second-year starter with All-American potential during his career. With Shelton drawing the top target, junior Darius Hilary a returning starter on the opposite side and Devin Gaulden and T.J. Reynard in reserve, the Badgers are in great shape at cornerback. The big priority: Wisconsin must do a better job forcing turnovers. Even if not, however, this group should match last year's top-15 finish if teamed with a slightly above-average front seven.
Special teams: Kicker Jack Russell may very well find himself booted from the starting job in favor of freshman Rafael Gaglianone, who's been a bit of a fall-camp revelation. Don't be shocked if punter Drew Meyer loses his role as well, seeing that he nosedived last fall and has competition in camp from redshirt freshman P.J. Rosowski. At least Doe is a weapon on kickoff returns. But there's some great news: Wisconsin's coverage teams are as good as you'll find nationally.
POSITION(S) TO WATCH:
Wide receiver: This is a position of substantial concern. Gone are the Badgers' top four pass-catchers from a season ago; in are a mix of inexperienced holdovers, unproven could-be contributors and raw freshmen from February's recruiting class. UW has identified a top three heading into the opener, but there's a catch: Kenzel Doe, Alex Erickson and Jordan Fredrick combined for 26 receptions in 2013. That's still your leading threesome, joined by a healthy Robert Wheelwright, sophomore Reggie Love and three incoming freshmen, though a pair of potential signees – Chris Jones and Dareian Watkins, the latter a four-star recruit – won't join the program. This is clearly an issue.
But things could work out fine should Doe make the most of his final shot, Erickson and Frederick deliver in vastly beefed-up roles, two of the freshmen contribute immediately and Wheelwright bounce back; he was in the midst of a great offseason before suffering a knee injury early in the spring. There are even changes afoot at tight end, where Jacob Pederson leaves some all-conference shoes: Sam Arneson will do well in a receiving-first role, where his athleticism will come in handy, but the position as a whole is set for a decline in production. You hate to say it, seeing that the Badgers seem to find answers every fall, but still: UW's receiver corps might be the weakest in the Big Ten.
GAME(S) TO WATCH:
Nebraska: It's either Nebraska or Iowa, which join Wisconsin in creating the West Division's clear power trio. I'll say the Cornhuskers for two reasons: one, Nebraska's pretty good, and two, Nebraska comes to Camp Randall. A loss there, with Iowa on the road seven days later, wouldn't be good for the Badgers' Rose Bowl hopes. There's also LSU to think about in the opener, when Big Ten brawn will meet, well, SEC brawn.
SEASON BREAKDOWN & PREDICTION:
In a nutshell: The Badgers seem weaker, right? It's not an illusion: Wisconsin looks at least slightly inferior at wide receiver, tight end, defensive line and linebacker, and that's not a positive development for a team angling for a West Division championship. Perhaps the most distressing decline is found near the line of scrimmage, where the Badgers' line lacks experience, production and depth, and the linebacker corps lacks star power and a disruptive presence. The issue with the front seven is that Wisconsin can only win games with a simple formula – simple in conceit, not simple in action: by running the football with violence and keeping the opposing running game under wraps. I'm just not sure if the defense is up to the task of handling LSU, Nebraska and Iowa.
The offense keeps the Badgers in the mix even if the receiver corps raises eyebrows. The combination of Stave and McEvoy seems fine – not great, but fine. The offensive line is a bunch of big-bellied maulers. The backfield might just be the best in the country. In turn, the running game is going to hit on its typical rate, if not improve upon last year's totals; there's a reason Gordon is a very strong contender for the Heisman. In every way, this ground attack is the passing game's best friend: UW will force defenses to creep closer and closer, giving Stave room to operate and the receivers space to breathe. The offense is going to be fine.
But I can't pick Wisconsin to win the West Division – nine wins, perhaps, if not likely, but no shot at the Rose Bowl in December. Nebraska's more athletic, equally explosive on offense and better on defense, recent injuries be damned. Iowa's a sleeper for reasons beyond the kind schedule. The Badgers are just a very good team that should top out at nine wins during the regular season; that's good, given the issues, and would bode well for the program's future under Andersen once the young slice of the roster catches up with the curve. Not that there's any question about the Badgers' future whatsoever, but let's be clear: Andersen is a good one.
Dream season: Wisconsin loses to LSU in the opener but rolls through the rest to create a spot in the playoff conversation heading into the Big Ten title game.
Nightmare season: The Badgers lose to LSU, Bowling Green, Northwestern, Nebraska, Iowa and Minnesota.
Who's No. 20? This program is a combined 71-15 in seasons when it scores 500 or more points.
RANKING EVERY FBS TEAM 64-1