Wisconsin football 2023. For the first time in...10 years? 35 years?...the Badgers are dealing with massive unplanned changes, and there really are stories to be written during Wisconsin week beyond “durr, will this be the year UW opens up the offense” (i.e., throws the ball 5% more than last year)?
Unless you just came out of a year-long coma, you know know most of the broad strokes here. Luke Fickell is now the head coach. Air Raid enthusiast Phil Longo is running the offense and nothing will ever be the same again.
I’ll try to provide some fresh, or at least not beaten to death, observations here, but we’re (re-)building the ship while at sea, and part of the exhilaration (probably both for Badger fans and for Badgers haters) is knowing that things could go in one of a dozen different directions. The program that had long been a model of stability is undergoing one of the biggest overhauls the B1G has seen in recent years. Buckle up.
2022 Season Recap
Well, the coach only made it through five games, so, um, not great.
Tabbed #18 preseason, Wisconsin lost that ranking after a home loss to Washington State in the second game. As it was just “one of those days” (UW had almost a 150 yard edge in total offense), it was easy enough to rationalize the loss...until conference play started. A 52-21 loss to Ohio State (that was not as close as the score indicated) and a 34-10 shellacking at home to Illinois and former coach Bret Bielema, was enough for AD Chris McIntosh to send Paul Chryst packing.
DC Jim Leonhard became the interim HC, and it was clear he had the rest of the season to audition for the permanent job. Leonhard did a good job stabilizing things and getting players to buy in after the Chryst firing, which was pretty stunning by UW standards.
However, a stabilized Badger squad was still pretty mediocre. There was a blowout win over Northwestern (who was horrendous), home wins over quality, but far from elite, Purdue and Maryland squads, and a bowl-clinching win over in Lincoln. But the Badgers also lost on the road to a bad, almost equally discombobulated, Michigan State team, were thoroughly shut down by Iowa, and failed to regain the Axe in the home finale against Minnesota despite the Gophers trotting out a freshman backup QB.
In some respects, the win over Nebraska was the most telling as Wisconsin had to overcome a 14-3 fourth-quarter deficit to get the win. I know the Huskers knocked off Iowa the following week, and were showing some scrap in November, but the Badgers were running on fumes.
Most talking heads thought Leonhard had done enough to earn the job, at least by Wisconsin’s methodical, don’t rock the boat standards. Players were advocating for Leonhard, and Leonhard clearly wanted the position.
And then, the day after the regular season ended, Luke Fickell was announced and the buzz hasn’t worn off yet. It looks like a really good hire for the most part. It could go totally sideways. Either way, though, it was the sort of statement Wisconsin never makes.
The Badgers did close the season with a fairly convincing win over portal-affected Oklahoma State, moving UW to an 8-1 record in their last nine bowl games, but it mostly felt like an afterthought.
All eyes are firmly fixed on 2023.
What was your reaction to Wisconsin hiring Luke Fickell?
This poll is closed
How the hell did Wisconsin pull that off?
Cincinnati slipped last year and Fickell must be getting desperate
For all that is holy, will UW fans STFU about Fickell?
Matt Rhule was actually the better hire
Ryan Walters will be at his job longer than Fickell
What Should You Expect in 2023?
Besides: “Things to Be Different?”
OFFENSE: Longo is an “Air Raid” guy, sure. But, as has already be noted ad nauseum, North Carolina had two 1,000 yard backs in 2020. So, to call Long an Air Raid disciple is more accurate if you mean “He’ll try to spread the defense out and force them to defend the entire field” than if you mean “He wants to set passing records and disdains the running game at the same level Mike Leach did.”
Braelon Allen and Chez Mellusi are an excellent tandem, and you can bet they’ll still get some carries. However, UW did target WRs in the transfer portal (more Tuesday), and that position group looks as strong, on paper, as it ever has in Madison. Futher, Tanner Mordecai will be the QB this year, and he didn’t do a lot of handing off at SMU. And #2 QB Braedyn Locke transferred in from, um, Mississippi State, so, for once, summer talk of Wisconsin opening up the offense is legit.
Since it’s UW, let’s talk about the OL for a second. Longo favors wider splits on the line that UW’s phone booth approach has traditionally utilized. If you want to sound smart, talk up that UW’s 2023 will be largely determined by whether UW can get away with wider splits or it this is just an invitation for B1G West rivals to just flow through the gaps.
Wisconsin overhauling the offense?
This poll is closed
What took them so long?
This is a mistake
Whatever. Personnel and execution wins games.
DEFENSE: Mike Tressel spent 14 years, including the Dantonio glory years, in various capacities at Michigan State. He probably knows what he’s doing and is probably a good DC to have. That said, even the portion of the fanbase who pre-Fickell announcement did NOT think Leonhard had earned the HC position still thought Leonhard was one of the best DCs in America. Heck, Fickell made some effort to keep him around, though how that would work out was never clear.
Either way, Tressel has made his presence felt as recruiting has clearly shifted toward taller, rangier DBs. Truth be told, for all of Leonhard’s success, UW was still susceptible to YOLO ball (PSU in 2016 B1G championship game, MSU more than once, even Nebraska a couple of times), so most UW fans are excited by the prospect of having corners who might not lose so many jump balls.
The skepticism is up front. UW ran a 3-4 that was wildly successful against pretty much every rushing attack it faced AND typically rang up big sack totals. Tressel favors a 3-3-5, and, as with the OL questions, there is some hand-wringing about if the Badger D can stand up against B1G rushing attacks with nickel personnel on the field pretty much permanently.
Tressel’s installing a 3-3-5
This poll is closed
It’s worked elsewhere; can probably work in Madison
It’s worked elsewhere, about 10 years ago
I don’t care if it works or not. This is the Big Ten. UW should run a 5-4-2 with backup TEs on the DL and a FB as NG
SPECIAL TEAMS: Honestly, my most tangible feeling of optimism comes here. UW’s special teams weren’t bad in recent years, but there weren’t good either. And they were susceptible to untimely breakdowns everywhere except punting. (By B1G standards, Andy Vujnovich was merely an above average punter, but he was still really good.) Fickell had demonstrated his commitment to improving the ST by 1) grabbing frosh All-American kicker Nathanial Vakos in the portal and, just a few days ago 2) giving a scholarship to Atticus Betrams, a former USC commit, at punter. Betrams is one of those newfangled “Australian” punters that UW has never really looked at before, making them slower to adapt than, say, Kirk Ferentz, in this area.
The Bertrams additions was very recent because Fickell auditioned a couple of existing Badger P/K types over the spring and decided he didn’t like how things looked. Fickell also just offered a highly-ranked P/K in the class of ‘25, so clearly special teams are a priority in Madison. Again, this is really heartening compared to most of the last 15 years.
What % of the game is special teams, really?
This poll is closed
Less than 10
About 25% or so
33-50% if you really work at it and press an advantage
I’m Kirk Ferentz; wait until you see the quick kick package we roll out this year