The University of Wisconsin football team is looking to follow up on one of the most successful seasons in program history. They started 12-0 for the first time ever and finished the year ranked No. 7 in the country after an Orange Bowl victory over the Miami Hurricanes.
While the Badgers are losing seven defensive starters and two offensive starters, they are mostly all seniors with viable younger replacements in line to take over. On defense, defensive ends Alec James and Conor Sheehy, linebackers Garret Dooley and Leon Jacobs, and defensive backs Derrick Tindal and Natrell Jamerson are all seniors leaving the program, with the corner Nick Nelson being the only junior heading out. Offensively, fullback Austin Ramesh and tight end Troy Fumagalli will both be graduating and looking for work in the NFL next year.
The hardest loss for Wisconsin may be Troy Fumagalli, who has been Wisconsin’s most consistent receiving option since Paul Chryst took over as head coach. Some combination of Zander Neuville and Kyle Penniston, neither of whom have had much game experience for the Badgers thus far, will replace Fumagalli.
But another significant loss is a player who was not on the field for the Badgers in 2017 — linebacker Jack Cichy. Cichy suffered a season ending injury in training camp of his senior year and could have applied for a medical hardship waiver to extend his career at Wisconsin another year, but chose not to do so. Since Cichy was a highly touted prospect for the 2017 draft, he is trying to reestablish himself for this year’s draft, participating in UW football’s pro day last Wednesday.
Wisconsin has several players that forwent a potential draft selection to continue their careers in Madison. Offensive tackle Michael Deiter, linebacker T.J. Edwards and safety D’Cota Dixon are all strong starting pieces who will be returning to the Badgers in 2018.
Some more big returners will be junior quarterback Alex Hornibrook and sophomore running back Jonathan Taylor.
While Hornibrook has usually been adequate in the Badger offense, in the bowl game against Miami, he took off throwing for 258 yards with four touchdowns and zero picks. This year will decide whether Alex Hornibrook can merely manage Wisconsin’s offense or lead it.
On the running side of the offense Wisconsin has a early season Heisman candidate in Jonathan Taylor. As a true freshman, Taylor dominated opposing defenses, rushing for 1977 yards and 13 touchdowns. He should continue to be the focal point in Wisconsin’s ground game going forward.
One of the biggest obstacles Wisconsin will need to overcome again this year will probably be a weak schedule. In the CBS “way-too-early” college football rankings, Penn State, Michigan and Purdue are the only teams ranked in the top 25, with Penn State and Michigan likely being the only ones in contention for the College Football Playoffs.
Chryst was asked if he felt Wisconsin had a strong enough schedule going into 2018.
“Well schedules are set in advance and I think what we’ve tried to do is be as proactive as we can. My first game that I got to coach as a head coach was against Alabama and then we played LSU and we’ve got the series with Notre Dame coming up and those games are hard to get,” Chryst said. “And that’s why you’re appreciative when you get to play in them.”
Chryst is right as schedules are set well before teams even know which players will be on their rosters for the upcoming year. Games that are supposed to be challenging can often become easy, or vice-versa.
Last year the Wisconsin versus Michigan matchup was supposed to be a deciding game for each team’s chances at the playoffs. But by this time, Michigan was ranked No. 24 without much of a conceivable route at a postseason run.
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Also, many traditionally powerful teams do not want to schedule tough out of conference games. For example, games against SEC teams like Alabama and LSU are difficult to get since they already have a strong enough strength of schedule within their conference. An upset loss to a solid Big Ten school like Wisconsin could be the difference between making the playoffs or not.
In 2020 and 2021, Wisconsin has a series scheduled against independent Notre Dame, which should help bolster their case to the playoff committee in future years.
But even if the Badgers have to go undefeated or only get one loss this year, the team has already proven they have the talent to compete with every team on their schedule.
Coming up for Wisconsin is their annual Spring Football Game, which will be played 6 p.m. on April 13 in Camp Randall Stadium.