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B1G 2021: Wisconsin Cocktail Party Preview

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Badger week looks more fun in odd years. Let’s dive in.

Can the family feeling continue without the godfather involved?

It’s easy to hand wave away 2020 and say that it really doesn’t count.

Which is good, because that is what UW fans want to do.

If nothing else, CFB 2021 will provide a great chance to watch the editing of team narratives in real time. Has Indiana arrived, or did they parlay an improbable victory over PSU and general disinterest in the rest of the East into a fluke that won’t be replicated anytime soon? Did Iowa gack away one of their occasional special seasons (2009, 2015) or have they actually raised the bar? And, most relevant for this week, did UW’s 2020 indicate they’re becoming the odd-year good/even-year disappointing yang to NW’s even-year good/odd-year bad yin in perhaps the least Zen usage of this concept in recorded history?

Let’s explore!

2020 Season in Review

It mostly sucked.

Graham Mertz won the Week 1 Heisman (vs. Illinois, but still...), got COVID, and never really looked that great after. Not having starting WRs almost all year didn’t help, but scoring 20 points—TOTAL—over three straight losses raises red flags regardless of whatever extenuating circumstances you can point to. By the end of the season, Chryst was having the QB come to the sideline before each play because it was thought UW’s signs had been figured out.

Embarrassing? YES. Reason to discount last year’s performance? Hopefully.

On the plus side, a heroic defense kept each of those three losses one-score games at least deep into the 3rd quarter (Iowa) or well into the 4th (NW, Indiana), and those teams went 17-3 against the rest of the B1G (not counting NW/Iowa game). UW did manage to utterly annihilate Michigan in Ann Arbor before things went bad, hold onto the Axe to get back on track a bit, and then win the Duke’s Mayo Bowl, defeating Wake Forest despite being outgained 512-266 behind a parade of Demon Deacon interceptions. [Add in return yards—KO, punt, INT, fumble—and that discrepancy disappears entirely.]

While non NY6 bowl games are of questionable meaning even in the best years, UW was able to create a unique memory out of their 2020 bowl game.

Trophies are forever!

I think the best that can be said is that re-purposing a plastic bottle of mayo to replace a broken trophy is perhaps the best encapsulation of the attempt to find meaning in the 2020 CFB season.

Let’s move on.

Offense

Almost everybody is back. Losing Cole Van Lanen and Jon Dietzen off the OL doesn’t make you better, but would it surprise you to know that UW has a lot of depth up front?

QB Graham Mertz is still more sizzle than steak, but most B1G teams would trade their starter for him without a second thought. Danny Davis and Kendric Pryor both decided to return at WR, and there are several youngsters—especially Chimere Dike and Devin Chandler—who possess more speed than you usually see in the Badger WR corps. And Jake Ferguson returns at TE (you know the rest).

But, at UW, RB is the glamour position, and UW could go either way. The rushing attack was frankly abysmal last year (3.9 ypc), but Jalen Berger showed real potential (60-301) and is joined by 4-star Clemson transfer Chez Mellusi. [If these guys produce, get ready for the “Chez-Berger” jokes to be run into the ground.]

The optimistic take is that UW is in the process or re-creating a multi-headed (Clay/Ball/White or Ball/White/Gordon) killing machine. The pessimistic take is that there’s a collection of intriguing talent, but it’s built on (injury-prone) sand. If nothing else, John Chenal and Quan Easterling should continue the Badger stranglehold on the “FB U” title, and that’s really all that matters now, isn’t it?

Defense

Pundit-ese: “The most important returnee is DC Jim Leonhard, who turned down overtures from the Green Bay Packers. This HC-in-waiting is one of the rising stars in the profession, and UW is lucky to hold onto him.”

This is true, and I’m glad Leonhard is back. It is worth noting, though, that UW’s shift to a 3-4 came under Dave Aranda, and continued during Justin Wilcox’s year as DC. Leonhard is great. I don’t want to lose him. The defense has been really good even prior to his arrival.

The 2021 prognosis looks familiar:

  1. Dicey depth on the DL, but if the rotation stays healthy, it will win the trench battle most of the time. If NT Keeanu Benton makes a leap, look out.
  2. A deep wrecking crew at LB: Noah Burks (obligatory “he’s STILL in college”), Jack Sanborn, and Leo Chenal will headline, but get used to the name Nick Herbig [Prediction: any cold weather game will find announcers referencing Herbig’s Hawaii origins EVEN MORE than Jake Ferguson’s family tree. Can’t wait, can you?]
  3. A talented and deep secondary that doesn’t really have a shutdown corner. Maybe Caesar Williams can remedy that, but UW’s best bet is still getting up early and being able to bring pressure to help out the DBs.

Special Teams

Oldsters like me who can remember the late 90s will bore you with complaints about the current state of the unit.

Truly, though, it’s fine, as in average. It was atrocious in 2018, but has been middle of the pack for most of the rest of Chryst’s tenure, and like FT% in basketball, it’s something that galls purists, but matters less than you think so long as there’s basic competency. UW should be able to get that out of the kicking game, and Devin Chandler has home run potential returning kickoffs. [Looks wistfully at Aron Cruickshank...“I’m glad you’re happy Aron. Truly.”]

Coaching

Worth noting is the coaching turnover. With RB coach Gary Brown and DB coach Hank Poteat joining 2020 hire, WR coach Alvis Whitted, UW has three fairly new faces, each of whom had NFL careers lasting almost a decade. Maybe that’s a coincidence, but I don’t think so. Brown also brings several years of NFL coaching experience and, by all accounts, is making a good impression very quickly.

Finally, Chryst took the playcalling keys back from OC Joe Rudolph, a move that was positively received, to say the least.

Schedule

9/4 vs. Penn State Nittany Lions

9/11 vs. Eastern Michigan

9/18 Idle

9/25 vs. Notre Dame (Soldier Field)

10/2 vs. Michigan Wolverines

10/9 @ Illinois Fighting Illini

10/16 vs Army Black Knights

10/23 @ Purdue Boilermakers

10/30 vs. Iowa Hawkeyes

11/6 @ Rutgers Scarlet Knights

11/13 vs. Northwestern Wildcats

11/20 vs. Nebraska Cornhuskers

11/27 @ Minnesota Golden Gophers

Pros: only four true road games, and hard to get a better road B1G schedule than those four; no OSU; getting the chance to beat Notre Dame

Cons: opening with PSU; who the hell thought it was a good idea to schedule Army!!!; not beating Notre Dame

Wrapping Up

Wanna make a Sconnie happy? Bring Up: RB tradition, the Watt brothers, “Coach Dad,” the Axe, beers on the Terrace, beers anywhere else, volleyball, Cole Caufield, the Alvarez era, the recent recruiting uptick

Wanna OTE properly? Checklist: Last 4 B1G championship game appearances, last 4 Rose Bowls, recorded player-coach conversations, Cole Caufield’s last game as a Badger, Gary Andersen, even-year visits to Ryan Field