The proverbial dog days of summer can be long and tedious for college football fans.
But each passing day brings us closer to the launch of the 2016 season, which for the Big Ten, includes one high-profile clash (Wisconsin vs. LSU at iconic Lambeau Field), one ambitious West Coast trip (Rutgers at Washington) and then a number of eminently beatable opponents for the first weekend (Sept. 1-3).
In the coming weeks, Land Of 10 will offer a “Best-Case Scenario” piece for the Big Ten’s presumed cluster of bowl-bound clubs. Today’s piece focuses on Wisconsin, the same Badgers who could have the nation’s toughest schedule this fall.
Here are four factors that will matter for the Badgers:
1. Corey Clement and Dare Ogunbowale quickly develop into the Big Ten’s best rushing tandem
In a perfect world, Ogunbowale – the Badgers’ leading rusher last year – and Clement, who has averaged 6.6 yards per carry during his career in Madison, would combine for 440 touches this season. It would mimic Alabama’s 2015 approach to controlling the tempo and ultimately shortening games, when they worked – some say overworked – Heisman Trophy winner Derrick Henry and a little dose of Kenyon Drake.
But that would require consistent discipline from offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph and head coach Paul Chryst — the same offensive minds who green-lighted the Badgers’ middling quarterbacks for 35 or more passes six times last season, a year when only five Wisconsin games were decided by seven points or less.
At first blush, this reads like needless nitpicking of Wisconsin’s superb 10-3 record from last year, highlighted by victories over Nebraska and USC in the Holiday Bowl. Instead, I’m merely bracing for future impact, given how the Badgers’ 2016 schedule runs substantially more difficult than last year’s slate.
For my money, Wisconsin will be the most difficult preseason prediction in college football. The team no longer has quarterback Joel Stave, and the running backs — while supremely talented — haven’t always been available to showcase their talents.
Take Clement, for example. He may have an incredible YPC of 6.6 yards in his favor, but he has only played in 26 games over a three-year span. Plus, he’s never collected 20 or more carries in a single outing.
Need further testimony? When citing Clement’s eight 100-yard rushing efforts with the Badgers, he only averaged 13.7 carries for those signature performances.
The optimist would see the goodness in the above nuggets, marveling at how Clement can affect so many games with so few carries. The pessimist, in turn, might view Clement as an extremely fragile asset, something that cannot endure for an entire season. They might also deride the Wisconsin coaches for not maximizing their tailbacks’ potential — relative to the marginal quarterbacks.
Either way, the philosophy needs to change for the upcoming season. Clement could mathematically win the Big Ten rushing title with 250 carries and Ogunbowale (819 total yards, 8 TDs last year) has 1,000-yard potential in a robust role. They just need to stay healthy and gain their coaches’ ultimate trust.
The pair should want to emulate the 2012 Badgers, who leaned heavily on tailbacks Montee Ball and James White for 2,084 total yards and 35 touchdowns.
2. New defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox eradicates the ‘Dave Aranda’ comparisons before Halloween
It’s a timeless conundrum in football circles: When a new defensive coordinator takes over an unfamiliar program, is he expected to implement sweeping philosophical changes with the inherited collection of talent? Or should he initially conform his teaching methods to the skill level of the new players?
In the case of new defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox, his 3-4 defensive system at USC technically ran similar to what Wisconsin executed last year under Dave Aranda, who is now the D-coordinator at LSU. But in today’s game, it’s common for coaches to access multiple defensive looks over the course of a 60-minute game, often blurring the effectiveness of debating 3-4 versus 4-3.
It may blur lines on the personnel side, but it doesn’t muddy the waters on the production end. Last year, the Aranda-led Badgers had the nation’s No. 1 scoring scoring defense, holding opponents to just 13.7 points per game. Even with a few graduation losses — including Joe Schobert (9.5 sacks, 20 tackles for loss last season) — the 2016 Badgers are still expected to be stingy when surrendering points to the opposition.
Which brings us back to Wilson: Yes, he was fired at USC before the end of last season; but every college job has its share of challenges beyond the control of an assistant. Stuff happens, you know. It also helps that Aranda spurned Wisconsin on his own accord, meaning the Badgers faithful won’t be publicly lamenting the loss of a coach who, technically, didn’t want to be in Madison anymore.
Wilson walks into a highly pressurized environment, but one that’s not necessarily emotionally charged. As such, he’ll likely enjoy a momentary honeymoon with Badgers fans, a fleeting period where he can do no wrong, regardless of the box score.
What’s a good barometer of early success? For starters, how about limiting LSU tailback Leonard Fournette — a Heisman Trophy front-runner and a healthy lock for 2,000 rushing yards — to less than 150 yards in the opener?
3. Senior QB Bart Houston holds down the ship for a few weeks … before making a clean handoff to freshman Alex Hornibrook
Wisconsin might have the worst quarterbacking situation in the Big Ten West this fall. There are just too many unknowns with senior Bart Houston and the freshman standout, Alex Hornibrook, compared to the division’s deep corps of experienced passers. Other schools have QBs chasing records, like Nebraska’s Tommy Armstrong Jr. (on the verge of becoming the school’s all-time passer), Iowa’s C.J. Beathard (led Hawkeyes to West title), Minnesota’s Mitch Leidner (20 TDs last season), Northwestern’s Clayton Thorson and Illinois senior Wes Lunt (last year’s conference leader in passing attempts/completions).
Heck, even the cellar-dwelling Purdue Boilermakers have stability at quarterback, now that sophomore-to-be David Blough has 293 passes (for 1,574 yards, 10 TDs) and eight starts under his belt.
If Houston’s career stats (29 of 51 for 295 yards and four TDs) had come from one singular effort, perhaps there would be more optimism about his presumptive starts. But we’re talking about a bevy of garbage-time stats and one decent outing against Illinois, passing for 232 yards, two TDs and two INTs last fall.
That’s not enough to form a substantive scouting report on Houston — good or bad. It’s just barely more info than we have on Hornibrook, a 3-star recruit from the Class of 2015.
The major difference between the two: Hornibrook has four years to write his story. Just don’t expect to see him earn a ton of reps against LSU and its vicious, experienced defense.
4. The Badgers overcome the dispiriting effects of a meat-grinder schedule and qualify for a good bowl
From just about every angle, Wisconsin’s 2016 slate elicits shudders of fear:
Neutral site: Yes, playing at Lambeau Field should provide some comfort to the reloading-on-the-fly Badgers.
But can that jacked-up feeling of euphoria sustain over four quarters against LSU — my pick to win the SEC championship — a previously scorned team that’s loaded at running back (the aforementioned Leonard Fournette), wide receiver (Malachi Dupre, Travin Dural), offensive line (three returning starters, including All-American center Ethan Pocic) and defense (five first-rounders in next year’s NFL draft)?
Away games: Wisconsin has either the toughest or second-toughest road schedule among Big Ten clubs (coin-flip debate with Ohio State), a slate that begins with back-to-back trips to Michigan State and Michigan before winding down with Iowa, Northwestern and Purdue.
Home games: The Badgers should be be prohibitive favorites against Akron, Georgia State, Illinois and Minnesota, but the reverse could be true when Ohio State (Oct. 15) and Nebraska (Oct. 29) invade Madison.
Bottom line: Wisconsin may have nine-win talent on paper — or 10, if Clement stays healthy and channels the game-breaking prowess of Montee Ball, Michael Bennett or Brian Calhoun. However, with that schedule, anything beyond six victories would be a foolish promise.
After all, it’s one thing to break down Wisconsin’s schedule in three compartments; but it’s another to genuinely wonder how the Badgers will be emotionally and physically ready for six consecutive outings against Michigan State, Michigan, Ohio State, Iowa, Nebraska and Northwestern from late September to early November — with only a bye week serving as the respite.
Jay Clemons, the 2015 national winner for “Sports Blog Of The Year” (Cynopsis Media), has previously written for SI.com, The National Football Post, Bleacher Report and Fox Sports.