As the Big Ten enters its first nine-game conference schedule, the Land of 10 examines each school before its league opener.
ANALYSIS: New defensive coordinator, same shutdown results. Under first-year button-pusher Justin Wilcox, Wisconsin ranks among the top 10 nationally defensively in opponent yards per game (261, No. 8), opponent third-down conversion (21.2 percent, No. 8), opponent rushing yards per game (82.3, No. 9), and opponent-time-of-possession percentage (35.9 percent, No. 3), and all despite injuries cutting into the depth at linebacker and in the secondary. The offensive side of the ball has been less eye-popping, with two of the best playmakers — running back Corey Clement and tight end Justin Fumagalli — missing all or some of the last two weeks because of issues with an ankle and leg, respectively. Coach Paul Chryst likes senior Bart Houston’s intangibles at quarterback, but the passing game — and passing balance — has looked better under redshirt freshman Alex Hornibrook in relief.
KEY GAME: at Iowa, Oct. 22
Any number of tests during the Badgers’ six-week death march — at Michigan State, at Michigan, vs. Ohio State, at the Hawkeyes, vs. Nebraska, all in a row — could make or break the midseason. But if the Badgers can steal a road win at the reigning West champs, it could be just the boost needed to set the tone for the division race, especially coming off the grueling troika of the Spartans, Wolverines and Buckeyes, back-to-back-to-back. Bucky doesn’t just want that game at Kinnick. They might need it to get the season on track again.
KEY PLAYER: Corey Clement, RB
With the senior tailback (4.7 yards per carry, 3 touchdowns in two games), it might not matter who the Badgers have under center. But without him, the Badgers suffer in the red zone. Among other places. Chryst has enough good backs to survive with the committee approach, but none of his other options has the same combination of power, ball security and explosiveness that Clement exhibits.
FIRST MATCHUP: at Michigan State (2-1), noon ET, Saturday, Spartan Stadium, Big Ten Network
BEST-CASE SCENARIO: The Badgers take two out of three from the baddest boys in the East, sweep Iowa and Nebraska, and ride that momentum all the way to a West Division title.
WORST-CASE SCENARIO: A three-game losing skid to open league play turns into a downhill snowball because of injuries, ineffectiveness, or some combination therein. Wisconsin is too dang good to let 3-0 turn into 3-5. But 3-5 isn’t out of the realm of possibility, either, if the wrong player gets hurt or an answer can’t be found at quarterback.
REALISTIC SCENARIO: The Badgers pick up at least two victories from their opening five killers and sweep the rest of the league slate, including a hard-fought win in Evanston, Ill., usually a Bucky house of horrors. A 6-3 league mark might not look like much on paper, and it might not even be enough to win the West outright. But it might well prove to be one of the more impressive achievements of Chryst’s coaching career, given the dance card.