The University of Wisconsin football team enters the 2017 season with high expectations and hopes of replicating, or even exceeding, last year’s success.

In 2016, the Badger’s won the Big Ten-West title and acquired a Cotton Bowl victory over Western Michigan. In 2017, the Badger’s will open the season as the No. 12 ranked team in USA Today’s annual preseason coaches poll.

After coming so close last year, Wisconsin’s goals remain the same — a Big Ten title and a birth in the College Football Playoff. Let’s dive in on what will help them get there and what could possibly trip them up along the way.

Why They’ll Succeed

The Schedule

Perhaps the most promising thing for the Badger’s this upcoming season is their schedule. Last year, they had to play an astonishing five of the top ten teams ranked nationally.

This included an opening day game against Louisiana State University and a brutal three-week stretch consisting games against the University of Michigan, Michigan State University and Ohio State University.

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This season’s schedule is much kinder to the Badgers, as they are set to play only one team that is ranked in the pre-season poll: The Michigan Wolverines.

While a weaker strength of schedule may leave Wisconsin with less wiggle room, at the end of the day, it is unlikely the Football Bowl Subdivision selection committee would leave a Big Ten Champion with relatively few losses. 

The Defense

Wisconsin’s top-ranked defense was undoubtedly the biggest strength of the team last year, and that is unlikely to change this upcoming season. The Badgers return 27 of the 33 players who lettered for the team on defense last season, with the departures of TJ Watt and Vince Biegel leave big holes to fill.

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That being said, head coach Paul Chryst and newly promoted defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard are confident that a collective effort, lead by seniors Garret Dooley and Leon Jacobs, will be sufficient in making sure the defense can continue the success that they had last season.

The Badgers ended last season giving up an average of only 15.6 points a, ranking fourth best in the FBS.

What Could Cause Them to Fail

A New Defensive Coordinator

With defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox’s departure for the head coaching position at the University of California, Los Angeles, Wisconsin was left with large shoes to fill. But, they got their man in Leonhard, a former NFL safety. The only slightly concerning aspect of his arrival to the team is this will only be his second season coaching any level of football.

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Having just retired from the NFL two seasons ago, Leonhard is a very new face in the college football world. Athletic director Barry Alvarez and coach Chryst see the tenacity and grit that made the 5-foot-8 undersized Leonhard successful and hope that will help him overcome his lack of coaching experience.

If Leonhard and the Badger’s defense can find away to replicate last year’s success, it is difficult to imagine any team being able to give them a real challenge in the Big Ten-West Division.

Uncertainty with the Quarterback

Although freshmen and four-star recruit Jack Coan was incredible during spring practice, the Badgers will start the season with Alex Hornibrook as their starter. Hornibrook started nine games last season and, although he showed flashes of potential, he was also inconsistent with his accuracy.

This was evident in games where the Badgers were forced to throw the ball more than usual, like during his 9 for 25 passing performance in a loss against Michigan. This season, Hornibrook will rely heavily on Troy Fumagalli, who returns with hopes of being an All-American tight end.

If Hornibrook can take the next step this season and become an above average Big Ten starter, then the Badgers are in business. If not — or God forbid he gets injured — the Badgers will likely turn to Coan to help guide the team to another Bowl game.