Our ranking: No. 8 WISCONSIN
Coach: Paul Chryst (21-6, entering the third season; 40-25 overall)
2016 record: 11-3, 7-2 in Big Ten, first in West Division
Look back: Wisconsin opened the 2016 season with a stunning upset of LSU in the opener after being double-digit underdogs to the fifth-ranked Tigers. The Badgers would rely on a stout defense much of the time last season l, including during upset wins over previously ranked opponents Michigan State and Nebraska. The team’s three losses were by a combined 21 points. Wisconsin fell to Penn State in the Big Ten Championship Game, the program’s third appearance in the title tilt since 2012.
Offensive starters returning: 8
Offensive starters lost: 3
Defensive starters returning: 7
Key losses: RB Corey Clement, WR Robert Wheelwright, OL Ryan Ramczyk, LB T.J. Watt, LB Vince Biegel, CB Sojourn Shelton, S Leo Musso, LB Jack Cichy
Top returnees: QB Alex Hornibrook, TE Troy Fumagalli, WR Jazz Peavy, DE Conor Sheehy, LB T.J. Edwards, NT Olive Sagapolu, DE Chikwe Obasih, CB Derrick Tindal, S D’Cota Dixon
Strengths: Dominant defenses have been synonymous with Wisconsin football and that shouldn’t change much this season despite losing defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox in the offseason. Jim Leonhard was promoted from within to provide a smooth transition for the unit. The Badgers entered preseason camp with one of the best linebacker units in the Big Ten, but that was before a devastating season-ending ACL injury to team captain Jack Cichy last week. T.J. Edwards is the team’s top returning tackler (89 tackles, 3.0 sacks, 3 interceptions) and Wisconsin will lean on his versatility as it looks to fill the loss of Cichy.
Wisconsin’s offensive line is once again anchored by first team all-conference selection OG Beau Benzschawel, who combined with C Michael Deiter for record close to 50 career starts.
Weaknesses: Wisconsin has historically produced some of the top rushing offenses in the Big Ten, but the Badgers have struggled establishing that all-too familiar punishing ground game under Chryst. Cory Clement bounced-back after an injury-plagued 2015 season to rush for 1,375 yards with 15 touchdowns. His departure, along with that of versatile Dare Ogunbowale (506 yards, five touchdowns) leaves the unit waiting for the next big back to emerge. Bradrick Shaw and transfer Chris James could fit that bill but will need to establish themselves quickly.
Inconsistency forced Chryst and his staff to rotate two players at quarterback: Alex Hornibrook and Bart Houston. Hornibrook started nine games but struggled in big matchups, throwing just as many interceptions (6) as touchdowns (6) against Big Ten opposition. His development this offseason led to an invitation to the Manning Academy.
Outlook: Cichy’s injury was a huge blow for a Wisconsin defense that was looking to continue a trend of allowing fewer than 21 points per game since 2009. But the Badgers have enough depth and plenty of talent to survive the loss. Hornibrook’s improvement is crucial for an offense that was inconsistent at times and needs to improve if the Badgers hope to return to another Big Ten title game.