Longtime BuckAround contributor Rex Sheild gives his thoughts on the 2016 season - and game-by-game predictions.
Howdy, folks! Football season is finally upon us, which means that the offseason #hottakes will finally be a thing of the past. In head coach Paul Chryst’s first season at the helm, the Badgers turned in a solid season, finishing 10-3 (6-2), including a Holiday Bowl victory over USC.
However, and mainly because of a downright brutal schedule, this season may not yield quite as much as success. In fact, Athlon Sports ranked UW’s 2016 strength of schedule third while FBSchedules (based on their Win/Loss Method) ranked it sixth. And truth be told, what comes around goes around with the scheduling gods - UW's 2015 schedule was insanely easy in retrospect, er, in general.
About this season's schedule, while the non-conference slate is not overly troubling save for LSU (obviously), the first four conference games are the farthest thing from a cakewalk. To wit, the first four conference opponents had a combined record of 46-8 overall (28-4 B1G) in 2015. To break it down further, all four teams finished with 10+ victories overall (and three of them finished with 12+) and start this season ranked in the top 15 of the Amway Coaches Poll.
No matter. Here's a look at the schedule this season and predictions on just how Chryst and Co. will fare in Year 2.
Week 1, 09/03: LSU (Neutral, Lambeau Field; 2:30 pm ABC)
The biggest headline for the Badgers, at least in my mind, will be going up against former defensive coordinator Dave Aranda, who was hired this past offseason by Les Miles. Any review, though, would be remiss if it didn't mention running back Leonard “He Should Probably Sit Out the 2016 Season” Fournette. The Heisman Trophy frontrunner rushed for nearly 2,000 yards (1,953 to be exact) last season and accumulated 23 total touchdowns. Oh, and he averaged a paltry 6.5 yards per carry.
With Fournette in mind, if UW’s front seven can hold him to under, say, 125 yards, the Badgers may have a chance to pull off the upset. As possible examples, in LSU’s three losses last season (Alabama, Arkansas, and Ole Miss), Fournette rushed for 31 yards, 91 yards, and 108 yards, an average of 76.7 yards on the ground. In LSU’s ten victories on the other hand, the New Orleans native averaged 172.3 rush yards/game. This strongly suggests that if you shut down Fournette, you put yourself in a position beat LSU.
LSU’s quarterback situation is nowhere near as strong as its running back situation, but the same cannot be said about the team’s defensive backs. Fox Sports CFB writer Bruce Feldman ranked LSU’s secondary numero uno for the upcoming season and he's not alone. Given that UW’s receiving corps is perhaps slightly above-average, in addition to the fact that QB Bart Houston is starting his first collegiate game, it's tough to envision the Badgers having much success, if any, through the air. Nevertheless, it shouldn't be surprising if Chryst has Houston come out firing. After all, the California native was named Green Bay Packers legendary QB Bart Starr and the game is, of course, being played in Lambeau Field. If the shoe fits …
All in all, UW will need to lean heavily on its run game to neutralize its mediocre, if unproven passing attack and further rely on its defensive front to neutralize Fournette. Both of which are tall tasks against this talented LSU squad.
Week 2, 09/10: Akron (Home; 2:30 BTN)
A 2:30 home opener!? Great news for the returning students and incoming freshmen. For a not-so-old-but-I-feel-old alumnus like myself, I'm not complaining, either. At any rate, the Zips were 8-5 last year and won their last five contests, including a 23-21 victory over Utah State in the Idaho Potato Bowl. 2015 was the team’s first winning season since 2005.
This season, Terry Bowden’s defense loses its top three tacklers, Darryl Monroe, Dylan Evans, and MAC DPOY LB Jatavis Brown, the three whom combining for 305 tackles, 16.5 sacks, and 37 tackles for loss in 2015. Adding salt to these wounds, Akron also replaces its entire (!!) starting offensive line and top running back from a season ago. On the bright side, the team returns QB Thomas Woodson, who threw for 2,202 yards with 16 touchdowns (even if he only completed 53% of his passes and tossed 11 interceptions). He also rushed for nearly 600 yards to go along with three touchdowns. Top target WR and converted linebacker Jerome Lane also returns after leading the team in receiving yards (782) and touchdowns (8) in 2015.
For a historical perspective, Wisconsin has played Akron twice, both times at Camp Randall Stadium. In 2003, UW won 48-31. Star wide receiver Lee Evans, who will be inducted into the UW Hall of Fame this fall, recorded 214 receiving yards while Zips QB Charlie Frye threw for 372 yards on 49 (!!) attempts. In 2008, UW also came away victorious, 38-17. In this year’s meeting, I expect another victory for the Badgers.
Week 3, 09/17: Georgia State (Home; 11:00 BTN)
After going 1-11 in 2014, Georgia State improved significantly last season, finishing 6-7 overall and 5-3 in the Sun Belt. And by improved significantly, Georgia State turned in its best season in school history. Heading into this season, the Panthers aren’t too shabby on the offensive side of the ball. Wide receiver Penny Hart registered 1,099 yards and eight touchdowns in his inaugural campaign, and fellow WR Robert Davis caught 61 passes for 980 yards and six touchdowns last season. Plus, the team returns four of their big boys upfront. To the contrary, the quarterback situation is still up in the air and, while the running back situation is more concrete, the unit only ran for an average of three yards per carry a season ago.
Defensively, the Panthers are led by senior Kaleb Ringer, who finished as the team’s fourth-leading tackler (73) in 2015. Altogether, it’ll be another good opportunity to showcase the Georgia State program, similar to when it traveled to Eugene, Oregon, last year and got steamrolled 61-28. Color me shocked if the Badgers also put up 61 points, but they will move to 2-1 after week 3.
Week 4, 09/24: Michigan State (Away)
Once again, it seems as though people are sleeping on Michigan State. The Spartans lose star quarterback Connor Cook and only return four starters on offense, but sleeping on MSU is a mistake. Mark Dantonio is a helluva football coach and his highly physical defenses consistently feature speedy athletes that can make plays in space, no mean feat in the world of college football. In sum, this game will go down to the wire, but home-field advantage gets MSU the nod here.
Week 5, 10/01: Michigan (Away)
Just to make sure we have this on record: who all is sippin’ the Michigan & Harbaugh Kool Aid? Who cares - Michigan will be good this year. In fact, the Wolverines ranked third on ESPN writer Todd McShay’s list of teams with the most draft talent. (LSU was second). Most notably, and no surprise to most, tight end Jake Butt and hybrid freak-athlete Jabrill Peppers were Michigan’s top draft prospects, respectively. I can't see this changing by October 1.
The last time that Wisconsin traveled to the Big House was 2010 — J.J. Watt’s final year in the red and white. As fans will recall, Bielema & Co. housed Rich Rod and Michigan, 48-28, as then-offensive coordinator Paul Chryst called like 20-straight run plays to finish the second half en route to 354 combined total yards and six combined touchdowns from James White and Montee Ball. While I do not envision 76 total points scored this time around, I do envision Chryst relying heavily on the run game once again. With Peppers and Jourdan Lewis commanding Michigan's defensive back end, it may be less of a mismatch between UW’s offensive line and Michigan’s defensive line than there is between UW’s receivers and Michigan’s secondary. What remains the constant in that turn of phrase when Wisconsin has the ball? Mismatch.
Bye week, 10/08
Games to Watch — No particular order
Clemson at Boston College — 10/07
Since 2008, Boston College has not played at home on a Friday in October. In related news, I needed to fill in space.
LSU at Florida
I need that Miami Heat fan to greet the Florida players after the game with his signature line: “Good Job! Good Effort!”
Florida State at Miami
ESPN’s 30 for 30s, “The U" and "The U: Part II,” were exceptional. This year's Hurricanes are clearly not of the same caliber as the teams described in the film (farthest from, actually). Point being, FSU head coach Jimbo Fisher will beat Miami for the 7th-straight year. (Yes, I could have used the Miami Heat analogy for this game, but I could not miss an opportunity to reference 30 for 30).
Alabama at Arkansas
HOT TAKE CENTRAL: Will Bert finally beat Saban and the Tide this year? Maybe.
OU vs. Texas — Cotton Bowl
The 2015 matchup will not repeat itself.
Iowa at Minnesota
Peak Big Ten football. That is all.
Week 7, 10/15: Ohio State (Home; 7:00 ABC/ESPN/2)
The six-year anniversary of David Gilreath’s opening kickoff return TD against the then-No.1 Ohio State Cheatin’ Buckeyes. (Seriously, Terrelle Pryor and Jim Tressel were on the sideline for the entire season). Primetime night game. Conference home opener. ‘Nuff said.
*The 2010 matchup against Ohio State was actually on October 16, but I ain’t about to let one day kill the vibe.
Week 8, 10/22: Iowa (Away)
Will Iowa repeat what they accomplished last season? Quite possibly, as the Hawkeyes enjoy another relatively easy schedule. It is also important to note that Iowa returns the second-most defensive starters (8) in the conference - that from a defense that finished 19th in scoring defense and 22nd in total defense in 2015. Oh, and by the way — the 2015 Jim Thorpe Award winner, cornerback Desmond King, returns to doing what he does best.
Offensively, it’s not as pretty, but QB C.J. Beathard returns, looking to improve on a very solid 2015 campaign — 2,809 yards, 17 TDs, 5 INTs, and 62% completion rate. As with Michigan State contest, home-field advantage plays to the Hawkeyes favor.
Week 9, 10/29: Nebraska (Home; 6:00 ABC/ESPN/2)
Nebraska is a mystery because everyone, time and time again, still associates the program with their 90's glory. To that end, however, anonymous Power-5 coaches and insiders identified Nebraska as this year’s Big Ten “sleeper,” per ESPN. That’s all fine and dandy, but a night game on Halloween weekend at Camp Randall Stadium will subdue the “sleeper” talk, at least for one night. Put another way, I still do not trust starting quarterback Tommy Armstrong and, therefore expect defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox to dial up the blitz repeatedly so as to take advantage of Armstrong’s interception-heavy, errant tendencies.
Additionally, Chryst may rely heavily on the run and employ a game plan similar to the one we might see him use against Michigan. Nebraska lost its three top defensive linemen, including most notably Maliek Collins and Vincent Valentine, who were both third-round picks in this year’s NFL Draft. I also firmly believe that UW’s offensive line, if healthy, will be a fairly strong unit by week nine, and should be able to control the line of scrimmage against the Huskers' front.
Week 10, 11/05: Northwestern (Away)
I am overly troubled by UW AD Barry Alvarez's failure to petition the Big Ten Conference to discontinue Badgers' games in Evanston. Seriously though, the Badgers have not recorded a road victory against Northwestern since October 1999. UW has also lost the last four in Evanston (2003, 2005, 2009, 2014) by an average of five points. Chyrst will FINALLY get Wisconsin over the hump, right? Nope.
Week 11, 11/12: Illinois (Home, Homecoming; 2:30 TV)
Lovie Smith may bring some much-needed “swag” to the Illini program, but the truth of the matter is that really only helps with wooing donors and recruits. Will it help win football games in year 1? I answer that question in the negative. Illinois returns a mere four starters on defense, which is second-least in the entire conference behind the Buckeyes.
Week 12, 11/19: Purdue (Away)
Purdue is still fielding a team? Good for them.
Week 13, 11/26: Minnesota (Home)
Well, if Kirk Herbstreit’s predictions come to fruition, the Gophers will be playing for a Big Ten Championship berth when they travel to Madison over Thanksgiving weekend. To refresh your memory, Minnesota hasn’t won a conference title since 1967 and that was a shared title - the Gophers’ last outright conference crown was actually 1941. Mitch Leidner is touted by some as a first-round selection, and a legitimate starting QB can go a long way in powering a contender. Now I’m obviously not a scout nor will I ever be, but Mitch Leidner is not a first-round selection - or even a second-round selection. That means Minnesota will once again be a pretender this year, which also means that Wisconsin keeps Paul Bunyan's Axe for the billionth-straight year.
In closing, I'm calling for Wisconsin to finish 7-5 overall and 5-4 in the Big Ten. With this killer schedule, and if the Badgers can sneak away with another bowl victory to finish with eight wins (hopefully at Yankee Stadium so Rich can spend $11.25 on a 12-oz adult beverage), the 2016 season has to be chalked up as a success.