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Wisconsin Football 2023 Post-Mortem: The More You See, The Less You Know

Not all 7-6 seasons are created the same, but they’re all kinda sucky

NCAA Football: Wisconsin at Minnesota Milwaukee Journal Sentinel-USA TODAY NETWORK

Year 1 of the Luke Fickell era has come and gone. It didn’t go as well as most expected, but there aren’t many calls for his head. Does this mean Badger fans are patient? Confused? Numb? All of the above?

Last summer, you could look at the transfer portal haul, a fair amount of returning talent, and Luke Fickell’s track record, and reasonably think, “Yeah, maybe the aircraft carrier can turn on a dime. And anyway, the West is week. The division is there for the taking.”* But once play started, it was clear the better metaphor was that of rebuilding the plane while flying it. Tanner Mordecai was solid early, but it was clear Braelon Allen and the offense weren’t a great match.

*The truest part was the weakness of the West. Despite their very uneven season, turns out the Badgers win the West if they beat Iowa

Allen was force fed 13 passes receptions the first two games...for 37 yds (2.85 ypc). Over the remaining nine games he played, he caught 15 more passes. Fellow RB Chez Mellusi was lost for the season in the B1G opener, and Mordecai missed three games with injury in the middle of conference play. The nadir of the season came when Wisconsin handed Indiana their only conference win of the season, a game all three of the aforementioned missed with injury.

Reader, the summer tales of of an over-stocked WR room, and the optimistic “we can win now” perspective of the coaching staff, turned out to be inaccurate.

The defense was clearly off from the heights established by Dave Aranda and Jim Leonhard, but limited all but one regular-season opponent to 24 points or fewer. Of course, no opponent scored fewer than 13, either. And allowing Northwestern to convert their first nine (Or was it ten? Too traumatic to track down.) third downs single-handedly blew up any chance of winning that game. Needless to say, there’s work to be done on both sides?

Squint right, and this could’ve been a 10-2/7-2 season with a bit of injury luck, a curious replay review going the other way, and an INT being held onto. At the same time, injuries are part of the game, and if a targeting call isn’t made and Nebraska manages the clock better, this could easily have been a 5-7/4-5 season with a 21-season bowl streak getting snapped.

Season 1 of the Fickell era is down, and I feel...confused.

The Predictions:

  • Predicted: 7.7-4.3 (5.2-3.8)
  • High: 9-3 (7-2) — GoForThree, Larry31
  • Low: 5-7 (3-5) —Thumpasaurus
  • Std. Dev.: 1.22 (overall), 1.21 (B1G)

Score one for the OTE “writers,” who pretty much nailed UW’s 7-6/5-4 season, especially the conference prediction. Unlike the actual writers who picked UW to win the West (though, to be fair, that seemed to be almost out of habit rather than reflection), our crack staff knew that completely overhauling 30+ years of identity was probably not going to be a seamless process.

How do you assess this season? Given the record was the same as 2022, are you more or less optimistic than you were a year ago?

Kind of...: I’m more optimistic about the long run. This year was worse than I expected, especially on offense, but, sitting at 5-5, the team won their last two games and clearly hadn’t quit on Fickell. The early returns from the portal have been pretty good (though we were saying that last year, too). There’s really a choose-your-own adventure aspect here. There WAS a lot of happy talk last year about the available talent, expecting to win right away, etc. And that didn’t happen. So now we’re trying to figure out if the Badgers underachieved in 2023 or expectations were set too high. Or both.

MC ClapYoHandz: Similar vibes here- if comparing to one year ago technically less optimistic because last year included the honeymoon phase and the possibility that all these changes being made would churn immediate results. Now that we’ve seen the growing pains and the attrition and taken the questionable losses some of the shine has worn off in a way, but I’m as optimistic if not more about the long term future. We got to see some of the struggles pay off in the bowl game with much better productivity, and Fickell just brings a different level of intensity to all facets of running the program, which seems as important as ever in this shitty new landscape we’re embarking upon.

This is not a question: THERE WAS NO “SIGNATURE” GAME THIS YEAR. YOU CAN’T POINT TO ANY GAME AND SAY “THAT IS A GLIMPSE OF WISCONSIN IS BUILDING TO.” So...what moments stand out? What gives you any sense of optimism going forward?

MC: I would argue the bowl game against LSU was exactly the example of that, albeit as a loss. After slogging through a full season of an offensive line that struggled with being asked to play the game completely different, receivers that couldn’t create much separation, and a quarterback waiting eleven seconds for the snap to get to him, everything seemed to finally click as intended. And that was despite losing key players to the draft and the portal. It was a fun watch! They went punch for punch with one of the best offenses in the country and I’m looking forward to seeing how everything evolves as they get more and more settled in.

Kind of...: I mean, you’re right. Including with all of your qualifiers about the the bowl game. It was mostly fun...and seemed to come from another planet.

What is the most important thing that you would change to make 2024 notably better?

Kind of...: Honestly, the game-day coaching. Way too many weird “let’s punt” decisions. Too many repetitive explanations at postgame press conferences. Too much “I’m the coach, it’s on me” blame-taking that felt rote.

MC: I’m still largely optimistic about the road ahead so I don’t have a material change here yet. But the hashtag they’re rolling with for 2025 commits is #JumpAroundMadTown25, which straight up sucks.

Kind of...: Fickell has even more #dadvibe than I thought. Ooooof. He should look for a spot on one of those Dr. Rick commercials.

How do you feel about the Longo offense? The Tressel defense?

Kind of...: I’m higher on Tressel than most. This wasn’t an elite defense, but I could see what the vision was. Longo gets an incomplete. The injuries to Mordecai and Mellusi didn’t help. The play-calling was perplexing on occasion. And I honestly think the brain trust had too little respect for the quality of defense played in the conference. The gameplan against Iowa was downright embarrassing.

MC: All in on Longo as the aforementioned bowl game provided enough of a look at what they’re trying to do to be sold. It’s hard to grade Tressel because they clearly are looking for a different roster vibe than what was available to them. And they must have felt that most at linebacker because they have hit the portal hard for impact linebackers and had almost all of the existing LB room transfer out. Clearly going for a new fit. They’re also looking hard for DL help, but then again so is everyone in the country. I’m watching Tressel next year like Longo this past year.

Kind of...: I look over the season and the defense was actually better than I thought. 21st in scoring defense isn’t up to standards, and worse than it looks given...*points at collection of B1G West offenses.* But they forced OSU into the fourth quarter and really came on against Wazzu and Illinois to make comebacks possible. There was a penchant for taking too long to find their footing that seemed to become even more pronounced as the season went on, but I think Tressel has a clear vision and I’m here for it.

Anything else?

Kind of...: This year’s recruiting class is the second most highly ranked of the modern era for Wisconsin. Second only to the 2021 class which...was during Covid and is pretty clearly going to go down as a very disappointing overall class. The tale of Fickell is going to be told here. He got a lot of the guys he wanted. It’s really going to be double-or-nothing. IF Wisconsin wins 9-10 games in 2025, then Fickell is on track, the ‘21 class was overrated, and the end of the Chryst era was marked by notable slippage. IF Wisconsin is still sputtering in two years’ time, then Fickell is a guy who did some great stuff at the G5 level, but hasn’t been able to replicate that in a P5 league and drove off a lot of Chryst’s late era recruiting efforts, leaving little foundation for an overhaul that really required it. This still feels like it can work, but the magnitude of the gamble also seems higher than I initially thought.

MC: I’m more sold on the Fickell era as it is, but there are still questions for the year ahead. A big one we haven’t given much ink to yet is opting to go with an outsider as the presumed starter at QB in Miami’s Tyler Van Dyke. By virtue of not spending this season of transition with the team, I’ll be interested in how it impacts Van Dyke’s fit with the team and if talented backup returnees Braedyn Locke, Nick Evers, and/or newcomer Mabrey Mettauer can make a run at the job. That alone will be a fun follow in spring.

Kind of...: It would’ve been great if Locke looked good enough in Mordecai’s absence that the one-year rental wasn’t necessary, but...points at Indiana game film. Locke’s not mobile, so he needs to be accurate, and I’m still haunted by the short pass he missed on a fourth down vs. Indiana. It might be over-dramatic, but Longo’s time at UW may well ride on being right about Mettauer.

What is your “way too early” (tm) prediction for 2024? [schedule]

Kind of...: Let’s see...vs. Alabama, @USC, vs. PSU, @Iowa, vs. Oregon. Even if you win two of those, which seems optimistic, @Rutgers, @Northwestern, and @Nebraska seems unlikely to result in a 3-0 record, so 8-4 looks like the ceiling. I’ll say 7-5/5-4 (again), but with a clearer sense of whether this thing is going to work, long-term, or not.

MC: Improved squad meets big boy schedule. One of those where we may not see the progress reflect in the W-L record. I will say, with the Saban retirement and subsequent attrition the Alabama game doesn’t feel quite like the sharpie’d loss it did a couple weeks ago, though you have to imagine they are still going to be favorites. My official prediction is always 15 16-0 until proven otherwise, but for the sake of injecting unnecessary realism I will take your projected ceiling of 8-4.

Kind of...: Reading through this again, I can talk myself into better. Wisconsin has a fine record in Iowa City that last 15 years. USC is early, and they may not have a solidified QB situation at that point. Plus, well, they really weren’t very good this year. Can Wisconsin split home games vs. Oregon and Penn State? Sure, maybe. Absolute best case is 10-2. Reasonable best case is 9-3.