The 2020 campaign was not one to remember for those around the University of Wisconsin football program, as the team finished 4–3 in their shortened season. During the season, the Badgers never got into their true form as cancellations due to COVID-19 and an injury-riddled depth chart dragged down the season.
But, Badger fans have a reason for optimism as the 2021 season approaches. While there are improvements to be made from last season, the key starters on both sides of the ball will be returning, helping to get UW football getting back on track.
Major producers for the Badgers offense like senior receivers Danny Davis III and Kendric Pryor are back to make life easier for Graham Mertz, as well as sophomore Chimere Dike, who showed promise in the 2020 season. Jake Ferguson also opted to return for another season in Madison — a safe target who should be one of the top tight ends in the Big Ten in 2021.
Last season’s rushing attack did not look like that of the vintage Badgers like Ron Dayne, Montee Ball, Melvin Gordon III and Jonathan Taylor. Redshirt freshman Jalen Berger will look to add his name onto that list of Badgers greats and he certainly has the potential to do so. Berger led the team in rushing last season, with 301 yards in just four appearances.
The Badgers return three of the five offensive lineman from last season, and are expecting to fill in the remaining holes without much worry. Getting a strong running game is vital if the Badgers want to improve on last season’s lackadaisical offense. Berger will anchor this year’s with help from Isaac Guerendo and others.
With the offense’s arsenal of weapons all set to return in 2021, the production will come down to the most important position of all — the quarterback. Graham Mertz showed the potential that has been long talked about with the highly-touted recruit, but did not do so consistently. But, there was nothing easy about being a first-year starter in the 2020 season because of cancellations and a constant lack of weapons due to injuries.
With another offseason under his belt, it is fair to expect more consistent quarterback play. If the players around him stay healthy, Graham Mertz has the ability to elevate the Badgers’ offense in 2021.
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On the other side of the ball, the Badgers return much of what was a top-ranked defensive unit last season. That defense led the Big Ten in total defense, allowing just under 300 yards a game and ranked No. 9 nationally in scoring defense at 17.4 points per game allowed.
The big win for this unit was retaining defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard, who drew interest from the Green Bay Packers for the same role. Leonhard has made a name for himself as one of the top defensive coordinators in the nation and is back to lead the Badgers’ defense.
The strongest group of Badger defense set to return is the linebacking core. Tackling machine Jack Sanborn is back along with Leo Chenal, two experienced linebackers who make things very difficult for opposing offenses. Nick Herbig will return after showing great playmaking ability in his freshman year — a young piece on the defense who is expected to continue improving with time.
The secondary also returns a wealth of experience with senior cornerbacks Caesar Williams and Faion Hicks, along with senior safety Scott Nelson. They will miss graduating senior Eric Burrell, but overall should have a sturdy safety net for the back end of the defense.
Wisconsin’s defensive line is the one level of the defense that will see some fresh faces in 2021, with Isaiahh Loudermilk and Garrett Rand both moving on. Keeanu Benton is a name to watch in the upcoming season with elevated snaps and production expected.
Schedule and Expectations
The 2021 season will get off to a hot start, with the Badgers opening up the season at home against Penn State. It doesn’t get much easier after week one, with two of the next three games against Michigan and Notre Dame at Soldier Field. If the team can get through that tough stretch to start the season, things could be looking bright for this Wisconsin team.
The Badgers only have four true road games which fall into place with some of the weaker Big Ten opponents. The team plays on the road against Illinois, Purdue, Rutgers and Minnesota.
Pairing the road schedule with the key fact that the Badgers do not face Ohio State in the regular season makes this a relatively favorable schedule for Wisconsin.
With the Jim Leonhard-led defense expected to be among the top in the nation again in 2021, Badgers fans are aware that success will be reliant on the offense improving from their sluggish performance last season.
The rushing attack will be pivotal to improving the Badgers offense, as we have seen with successful Wisconsin teams in the past. A strong running game would open up the offense and make things easier for young quarterback Graham Mertz.
A healthy group of playmakers along with improved decision making from Mertz should lead to a return to the Big Ten Football Championship game for the Badgers in 2021.