The buzz surrounding Wisconsin’s football program entering the 2017 season is palpable. Already, the Badgers have earned a top-10 national ranking in the preseason coaches poll, and there is a belief they could run the table into the Big Ten championship game.
Wisconsin likely will be favored in every regular-season game. But the Badgers must deal with their share of difficult matchups. With that in mind, here’s a look at Wisconsin’s five toughest games of the regular season, ranked from 5-1:
5. Iowa, Nov. 11, Camp Randall Stadium (Madison, Wis.)
When Wisconsin and Iowa meet, the two schools look like mirror images of each other: stout defenses, a heavy reliance on running backs and lots of plays decided in the trenches. Perhaps that’s why the series has been so close over the years. Wisconsin holds a 45-43-2 lead in the all-time series, and the winner of the last three games has gone on to capture the Big Ten West.
This time around, Iowa will travel to Wisconsin one week after playing a tough home game against Ohio State. Hawkeyes running backs Akrum Wadley and James Butler will give the Badgers defense everything it can handle. Wadley rushed for 1,081 yards with 10 touchdowns last season and briefly flirted with leaving school early for the NFL. Butler is a graduate transfer from Nevada who rushed for 1,336 yards for the Wolf Pack last season with 12 touchdowns. Iowa’s offensive line should be dominant this season, which will open plenty of holes for the Hawkeyes’ top-two tailbacks.
Iowa wide receiver Matt VandeBerg returns after missing most of last season with a broken left foot. In 2015, VandeBerg caught 65 passes for 703 yards and 4 touchdowns. Nathan Stanley and Tyler Wiegers have competed for the starting quarterback spot throughout fall camp. Collectively, they have thrown a total of 13 passes at Iowa, and their development is one area to watch.
Iowa’s defensive strength will be with its linebackers. Josey Jewell returns after leading the team with 124 tackles last season, but Bo Bower ranked second (91 tackles) and Ben Niemann fourth (69 tackles). Iowa’s defensive line will be tough as well, led by Nathan Bazata and Parker Hesse, who have combined for 45 career starts.
The last time Iowa ventured to Camp Randall Stadium was two years ago, when the Hawkeyes forced 4 turnovers and squeezed out a 10-6 victory, which propelled them to an undefeated regular season. Wisconsin has its sights set on a similarly magical run, but the Badgers will have to close the season strong during their most difficult stretch of the schedule against Iowa, Michigan and Minnesota.
4. Minnesota, Nov. 25, TCF Bank Stadium (Minneapolis)
The streak has to end at some point, right? Whether Wisconsin’s 13-game winning streak against Minnesota in the battle for Paul Bunyan’s Axe ends this season remains to be seen. But first-year Gophers coach P.J. Fleck, a master motivator, will no doubt have his team ready for the regular-season finale in Minneapolis.
Minnesota will focus offensively on the running back tandem of Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks. Smith had a breakout season in 2016 when he rushed for 1,158 yards and 16 touchdowns. Brooks added 650 yards rushing and 5 touchdowns. Quarterbacks Conor Rhoda and Demry Croft have battled for the starting job, but neither has much in-game experience. Rhoda has completed 8 of 17 career passes; Croft is 7 of 17.
Wide receiver Drew Wolitarsky is gone, which leaves Rashad Still as the leading returning receiver after catching 18 passes for 349 yards last season. Linebacker Jonathan Celestin is the team’s leading returning tackler, and Steven Richardson anchors the defensive line.
Minnesota players were asked in July at Big Ten Media Days in Chicago about how much they had discussed finally beating Wisconsin. In a departure from years past, they largely spoke in clichés about taking one game at a time and playing their best by the last week of the regular season. Perhaps this is a change in mindset under Fleck. But for the players who have experienced multiple losses, the sting lingers.
The Gophers have been close before. Minnesota led Wisconsin 17-7 in the third quarter at Camp Randall Stadium last season. Wisconsin didn’t take its final lead until 6 minutes, 42 seconds remained in the fourth quarter and eventually prevailed, 31-17. Minnesota also led in the third quarter of the 2014 matchup, when the teams vied for the Big Ten West title. Wisconsin managed to escape with a victory in that one, as well.
So, how much longer can the longest winning streak in series history last? We’ll find out in November. But Wisconsin’s margin for error seemingly continues to decrease as Minnesota improves.
3. BYU, Sept. 16, LaVell Edwards Stadium (Provo, Utah)
Few college football programs have been the model of consistency that BYU has. The Cougars have made 12 consecutive bowl game appearances dating to 2005, which is tied for the ninth-longest active streak in the FBS. In Kalani Sitake’s first season as head coach in 2016, BYU finished 9-4 and won the Poinsettia Bowl.
This is not your typical non-Power 5 program. Last season alone, BYU defeated Power 5 schools Arizona, Michigan State and Ole Miss, and the Cougars routinely beat the big boys. BYU defeated Nebraska in 2015, Texas, Virginia and Cal in 2014, Georgia Tech and Texas in 2013 and put a scare into Wisconsin when the teams met that season, as well.
BYU has some re-tooling to do this season, but the Cougars return quarterback Tanner Mangum, whose last-second Hail Mary as a freshman in 2015 helped BYU sink Nebraska. Mangum threw for 3,377 yards with 23 touchdowns and 10 interceptions as a freshman before taking a back seat to Taysom Hill last season. This is Mangum’s team again now that Hill has exhausted his eligibility, but he’ll have an entirely new set of offensive weapons around him.
The Cougars lose their top-three receivers from last season. Nick Kurtz, Colby Pearson and Mitchell Juergens collectively caught 121 passes for 1,258 yards and 8 touchdowns. That leaves Jonah Trinnaman as the leading returning receiver (28 catches, 321 yards, 1 touchdown). Moroni Laulu-Pututau moved from receiver to tight end and is the second-leading returning receiver.
The most difficult offensive departure to overcome will be that of running back Jamaal Williams, who left as the program’s all-time leading rusher. He finished his career with 3,901 yards and was selected in the fourth round of the 2017 NFL Draft by the Green Bay Packers. Cougars running back Squally Canada is the presumed starter after rushing for 315 yards and 2 touchdowns.
BYU must replace three starters on the defensive line, so the Cougars will lean on their returning linebackers. Fred Warner (86 tackles) and Butch Pau’u (83 tackles) were the team’s leading tacklers last season. The third-leading tackler, Francis Bernard (80 tackles), won’t play this season because of personal reasons. The Cougars also ranked tied for second in the FBS last season with 31 forced turnovers. Winning in Provo certainly won’t be easy for Wisconsin.
2. Nebraska, Oct. 7, Memorial Stadium (Lincoln, Neb.)
Wisconsin was listed as an eight-point favorite against Nebraska in an early betting line released two months ago. This game could prove to be among the most difficult on the Badgers’ schedule, however, because of how hard it is to win in front of that sold-out crowd in Lincoln. It also could represent a pivotal moment for third-year Nebraska coach Mike Riley, whose teams have lost twice to Wisconsin the past two seasons late in the fourth quarter or in overtime. Wisconsin required a fourth-quarter field goal from kicker Rafael Gaglianone to beat Nebraska in Lincoln, 23-21, in 2015. The game at Camp Randall Stadium last year went to overtime before Wisconsin prevailed, 23-17.
Of course, we don’t know exactly what this Nebraska team will look like this season given so much turnover, which creates a greater sense of intrigue about the matchup. Tommy Armstrong Jr. started 44 games as Nebraska’s quarterback the last four seasons — more than any other quarterback in program history. Now, Tulane transfer Tanner Lee is set to take over for him. Lee started 19 games for Tulane in 2014 and 2015.
And what about Lee’s offensive weapons? That’s another bit of mystery. Tailback Terrell Newby is gone, and he carried more times last season (190) than the three returning backups combined (155). Running back Devine Ozigbo has the most returning experience, but he’s battling Mikale Wilbon, Tre Bryant and freshman Jaylin Bradley for playing time.
Nebraska also lost wide receivers Jordan Westerkamp, Brandon Reilly and Alonzo Moore, who combined to catch 79 passes last season for 1,313 yards with 9 touchdowns. At least Stanley Morgan Jr. and De’Mornay Pierson-El return to help Lee.
Riley fired defensive coordinator Mark Banker and replaced him with Bob Diaco in the offseason. The biggest news in Lincoln is Diaco’s schematic change from a 4-3 defense to a 3-4. It worked at Wisconsin when former Badgers defensive coordinator Dave Aranda arrived in 2013, and the team still operates out of a 3-4 defense two coordinators later.
Nebraska could be difficult to throw against, given the experience and talent in its secondary. Kieron Williams (5 interceptions), Joshua Kalu (11 pass breakups) and Aaron Williams (7 pass breakups) all return. But the Cornhuskers won’t have the services of senior cornerback Chris Jones, who underwent surgery for a meniscus injury in his left knee.
1. Michigan, Nov. 18, Camp Randall Stadium (Madison, Wis.)
The toughest game on Wisconsin’s schedule very well could be the next-to-last game of the regular season against Michigan at Camp Randall Stadium. Michigan has so many pieces to replace off last year’s team. But there’s a reason the Wolverines are ranked No. 9 in the preseason coaches poll: They possess the talent to excel.
First, here’s what Michigan won’t have: its top three playmakers from last season on offense. Jake Butt, Amara Darboh and Jehu Chesson combined for 14 catches, 170 receiving yards and 1 touchdown during Michigan’s 14-7 victory against Wisconsin in Ann Arbor last season. Those three were responsible for 138 catches overall last season, 1,908 receiving yards and 13 touchdowns. That’s an astounding 60.5 percent of Michigan’s total receptions, 69.2 percent of the receiving yards and 65.0 percent of the touchdown catches.
Michigan’s top returning receiver is Grant Perry, who was reinstated last week after pleading guilty to one charge of resisting a police officer and one charge of assault and battery. Perry caught 13 passes for 183 yards with 1 touchdown last season. Freshman Donovan Peoples-Jones, the No. 1 receiver in the 2017 class, according to 247Sports, could help immediately, and so should sophomore Eddie McDoom.
Michigan quarterbacks Wilton Speight and John O’Korn continue to battle for the starting spot, but Speight was solid last season as a starter, throwing for 2,538 yards and 18 touchdowns. He’ll have a deep running back group to work with, led by Chris Evans (614 rushing yards, 4 touchdowns).
There are more questions on defense, where Michigan loses 10 starters off last season’s team. That includes Heisman Trophy finalist Jabril Peppers, Taco Charlton, Chris Wormley and Jourdan Lewis. Defensive end Rashan Gary and defensive tackle Maurice Hurst will be the strength of the defense.
Last season, Badgers quarterback Alex Hornibrook struggled against Michigan, when he completed 9 of 25 passes for 88 yards with 1 touchdown and 3 interceptions. That game represented only his second career start. He’ll be much improved this time around, and Wisconsin could have plenty at stake in this matchup, as a Big Ten West championship and potential College Football Playoff spot arrive in view.