2015 CFB Preview – Wisconsin

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Paul Chryst, it’s sort of simple – win your bowl games, and don’t embarrass the boss in front of his friends.

By Pete Fiutak | @PeteFiutak

Bret Bielema couldn’t win the Rose Bowl, Gary Andersen didn’t win enough really big games, and now it’s up to Chryst to be the Point C to Point D guy and get the Badgers into the playoff.

While Bielema is turning into one of college football’s elite head coaches, there could only be one Head Man In Charge in Madison, and Barry Alvarez was and is it. There won’t be the same sort of clashes between Chryst and the AD.

Bielema did some terrific things to not only keep the Barry era rolling, but improve it in several ways by taking the program to a consistently higher level. However, two straight Rose Bowl losses didn’t give him quite enough juice to get all the things he wanted to try to take the Badgers even higher.

The transition from Alvarez to Bielema was seamless, while the hiring of Gary Andersen brought in a totally different personality and a change of style and tenor.

Very nice and relatively humble, Andersen was the polar opposite to Bielema’s hard-ass act. Each turned out to be what Wisconsin needed at the respective times, but each style eventually didn’t work out.

Bielema was too much Barry – at least the version of Barry came into Madison all tan and salty after helping lead Notre Dame to a national title – while Andersen, one big Nebraska win aside, didn’t seem to have enough of a bully streak, evidenced by the big game losses to LSU, Arizona State, South Carolina …

And in the 2014 Big Ten championship.

Andersen picked the wrong time for his team to get destroyed by Ohio State – little did anyone know at the time just how much of a juggernaut that team was turning into – just as Alvarez was settling into the digs in Grapevine, Texas with his fellow College Football Playoff members.

Andersen left for Oregon State on his own, just as Bielema did going to Arkansas, but in both cased it was time for another coach to step in and try to win the really, really big games. This time around Alvarez is getting a Wisconsin man to coach Wisconsin

Bielema was the rising superstar hire, and Andersen was the steady selection. Chryst is more of a guess, considering he went a non-descript 19-19 at Pitt. However, he knows the Wisconsin program, he was Alvarez’s offensive coordinator for a long stretch, and he’s a true Barry guy. But none of that matters if he’s not winning Big Ten championships and bowl games.


This is the year Wisconsin was building towards under Andersen. The O line needs some retooling, and replacing Melvin Gordon isn’t going to be easy, even for Wisconsin, but the defense has the talent and upside to be among the best in a long, long time.

There’s no grace period here. There’s no giving the new guy a shot to change some things around. The schedule is light enough and the team is good enough to get back to the Big Ten championship – at the very least.

Wisconsin beat 38-0 Kentucky in the Final Four. That’s where the overall expectations are at now, and that goes to the football program, too.

What You Need To Know About The Offense: Don’t expect anything to change. Wisconsin will still run the ball as effectively as anyone in college football with a terrific group of running backs behind a big, strong line, but the big question mark will be the passing attack that has to be more efficient and effective. Offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph was a part of the Badger coaching staff from 2008 to 2011 and was a master at developing tight ends, and he knows how to get a ground game moving after spending the last few years as the Pitt offensive coordinator. Can he help make Joel Stave a more consistent quarterback? Can he help out the mediocre receiving corps? If not, Wisconsin will just keep on pounding away.

What You Need To Know About The Defense: Why mess with what worked? The D should be phenomenal after finishing fourth in the nation in total defense and fourth against the pass. Sticking around with the new coaching staff is defensive coordinator Dave Aranda, who helped make it all work over the last few seasons. The defense has been building to this point, and now it’s going to be tremendous in the secondary and with a terrific linebacking corps that’ll be more than fine despite losing Derek Landisch and Marcus Trotter on the inside. The front three will be a brick wall against the run.

What to watch for on offense: The wide receivers have to be better. Wisconsin can win ten games in its sleep just by running the ball over and over and over again, but to from 11-3 good to Big Ten championship and College Football Playoff great, the passing game has to be efficient, even if it’s not rolling up the massive yards. QB Joel Stave only seems like he’s been around since the Don Morton era, and while he has the experience, he needs help from a mediocre receiving corps. The Badgers don’t have to be 2011 Russell Wilson good throwing the ball, but they can’t be sad like they were completing 8-of-24 passes in the loss to LSU and 17-of-43 in the loss to Ohio State.

What to watch for on defense: More of a reliance on the secondary. The defense has adapted and adjusted under coordinator Dave Aranda, but this time around, the 3-4 style will do more to allow the secondary to shine. The linebacking corps should be terrific, and the line will be a rock against the run, but it’s the pass defense that should be the calling card. CB Sojourn Shelton has the look of a Big Ten all-star leader of a defensive backfield that returns all four starters from a group that finished fourth in the nation in pass D.

The team will be far better if … it wins the turnover battle. The No. 1 priority is to get the passing game going a bit more, but overall, Wisconsin can’t do what Wisconsin does without dominating the turnover margin. Bielema’s teams absolutely killed it when it came to holding on to the ball, and while it’s not Andersen’s fault that Melvin Gordon had a fumbling problem, the -9 overall last year was devastating in key moments. The Badgers survived the bowl win under Barry despite going -3, but they were -4 in the Big Ten title game, Joel Stave couldn’t stop throwing picks in the Northwestern loss – going -4 – and they were -1 against LSU. In the other ten games combined, Wisconsin was +3 and went 10-0.

The schedule: For some reason, Wisconsin thought it wise to go to a whole other level when it came to the non-conference scheduling. It didn’t work out well last year against LSU to start the season, and now it gets Alabama to kick things off. Of course, a win changes the narrative, but it’s asking a lot to get through with a win over the Crimson Tide in Dallas.
– Playing Alabama makes the remaining non-conference slate against Miami University, Troy and Hawaii forgivable. At worst, the Badgers should be 3-1 going into the Big Ten slate.
– Maryland and Rutgers from the West? No Ohio State, Penn State, Michigan State or Michigan? Merry Christmas, Paul Chryst.
– The Bucky season should hinge on the road game at Nebraska. Going to Minnesota to finish things up will be dangerous, but beating the Huskers in Lincoln should make it really, really hard for anyone else to get by the Badgers for the West title.
– WATCH OUT FOR … Maryland. It’s a road game to start out November and just before the week off. The Terps are going to need a while to rebuild, and if they’re going to be okay, it should happen by this point – and they might be desperate.

Best offensive player: Junior RB Corey Clement. It really is a case of the Next Back Up being good enough to produce more big numbers. The lineage of Wisconsin running backs go on and on and on, and Clement has the talent to be yet another big producer. While he might not be Melvin Gordon, he has good size, power and toughness to do what Wisconsin running backs do. The key will be the reserves with Dare Ogunbowale leading a relatively green group.

Best defensive player: Junior CB Sojourn Shelton. He might have regressed a bit statistically last season, but don’t be fooled – teams were staying away from him. The strength of the defense is at linebacker – and that’s a good thing when the Badgers go to a 3-4 front – but the secondary isn’t far behind in terms of talent and should be even more productive. Shelton is the veteran star corner who knows what he’s doing, and he should be even stronger surrounded by excellent defensive backs Michael Caputo at safety and Darius Hillary at the other corner.

Key player to a successful season: Senior QB Joel Stave. The receiving corps has to be better, but the talent just isn’t there. For whatever reason, Wisconsin just can’t seem to get top-shelf wide receivers over the last few seasons – Jared Abbrederis was a walk-on – and even with Alex Erickson returning, opposing defensive coordinators aren’t going to worry about the Badger targets. Stave doesn’t have to be Aaron Rodgers, but with his experience and his decent skills, his job will be to just not screw things up. The three interceptions against Northwestern were a killer, the three against Ohio State didn’t help, and the three against Auburn were a problem. He can’t have any more games like those.

The season will be a success if … Wisconsin gets back to the Big Ten championship game. The Badgers aren’t going to be better than Ohio State or Michigan State, so it’s asking a wee bit much to win the title and go to the playoff, but with this D, and this schedule, 10-2 is there for the taking, and 11-1 is possible.

Key game: Sept. 5 vs. Alabama. The October 10th game at Nebraska is actually the biggest game of the year – Wisconsin can lose the opener to Alabama and make the playoff by running the table, including a Big Ten championship, but the season-opener is bigger for the program’s status on a national scale. Wisconsin has solidified its place among the very, very good, but a win over Alabama – ALABAMA – would be the instant statement type of victory to get the Paul Chryst era rolling.

2014 Fun Stats:
– Rushing Touchdowns: Wisconsin 46 – Opponents 19
– Third Quarter Scoring: Wisconsin 156 – Opponents 48
– Penalties: Opponents 82 for 645 yards – Wisconsin 65 for 607 yards

Players You Need To Know

1. CB Sojourn Shelton, Jr.
While he didn’t pick off any passes last season and broke up just six throws and made 33 tackles, he was still an all-star part of a terrific secondary. Now that he has two years of starting experience under his belt, he should be ready to take away one side of the field and be a huge producer whenever tested. The Fort Lauderdale native started right away and turned into an instant standout making four interceptions in his freshman year – expect far bigger stats this year. At 5-9 and 178 pounds he’s not big, but he can move with great closing speed to go along with phenomenal instincts.

2. LB Vince Biegel, Jr.
How do you possibly replace Chris Borland in the linebacking corps? Biegel wasn’t the same type of player, but he came up with an outstanding year going from a solid part of the rotation to a killer in the backfield. At 6-4 and 244 pounds he’s built like a defensive end, and now he seems ready to do even more following an all-star season. The 56 tackles were good, but the 7.5 sacks and 16.5 tackles for loss were among the best in the Big Ten. Throw in the production against the pass, and he was both explosive and consistent, destroying Purdue with three sacks and holding his own against the run throughout the year.

3. RB Corey Clement, Jr.
He waited his turn, just like Melvin Gordon did behind Montee Ball, and almost all other top Badger backs have had to do over the years, but he has the talent to take the running game over by himself. He showed what he could do as a freshman running for 547 yards and seven touchdowns, and last year ran for 949 yards and nine scores, and caught 14 passes for 119 yards and two touchdowns in the rotation. Mostly used in garbage time, he ripped off 100 yards three times including 105 on just 15 carries in the bowl win over Auburn getting the start. At 5-11 and 217 pounds he has the right size and breakaway speed – he’s built for the job.

4. S Michael Caputo, Sr.
The 6-1, 216-pounder got plenty of work early on in his career, and then came up big as a sophomore finishing second on the team with 63 tackles. Last year he put it all together in an all-star season coming up with 106 tackles with an interception and six tackles for loss – he was a tackling machine. With good size and decent range, he’s great against the run and started to do more in pass coverage breaking up six passes. He’s at his best, though, when he gets to rock against the run making 15 tackles in the opener against LSU and coming up with 11 or more four times. He’ll be more than just the last line of defense.

5. CB Darius Hillary, Sr.
Tested on a regular basis on the other side of Sojourn Shelton, Hillary didn’t come up with any interceptions, but he broke up five passes to go along with 41 tackles. At 5-11 and 188 pounds he has decent size and three years of experience, but it would be nice if he could come up with a few picks with just one in his career. Even with his lack of truly big plays, he was good enough in coverage and against the run to earn All-Big Ten honors.

6. C Dan Voltz, Jr.
The veteran leader of the line, Voltz is the next great Wisconsin center, earning All-Big Ten honors last season after coming up with an all-star freshman season. A starter for half of his first season, he made the position all his last year blasting away with good toughness and dependability. While he’s not a big-time athlete, he moves well enough to get out of the phone booth once in a while. But at 6-3 and 311 pounds, he’s at his best when he gets beat people up for the ground game.

7. OT Tyler Marz, Sr.
The veteran is back after turning into the new main man left tackle at a spot that’s quickly becoming one of college football’s unsung glamour positions. At 6-5 and 321 pounds he has the Wisconsin lineman size, and while he’s not the quickest tackle in pass protection – any NFL future is likely as a guard – he’s good enough to hold his own. When he gets his hands on a pass rusher, it’s over. Of course, it’s the Badger line, so his job is to destroy for the ground game, and he proved he could do that.

8. LB Joe Schobert, Sr.
A good, sound all-around defender on the outside, he has the right 6-2, 240-pound size and big hitting skills. His biggest plus, though, is tremendous athleticism – he’s a pure athlete in the body of a big linebacker. He came up with 69 tackles last season with three sacks and 13.5 tackles for loss, and he was terrific in pass coverage breaking up seven passes. Dominant against Nebraska, he made 11 tackles with 2.5 tackles for loss, but he was consistently good all year long and now he looks ready to be an all-star.

9. QB Joel Stave, Sr.
Okay, Joel, are you ready to close out your career with a bang? It’s been a very, very interesting run, to say the least for the guy who had to take over for Russell Wilson. The former walk-on was a surprise starter in 2012, showing good poise and ability before getting knocked out for the year with a collarbone injury. He had some nice moments as a sophomore, but he threw too many picks and missed too many makeable plays, opening up the quarterback competition. Out for the 2014 offseason with a shoulder injury, he missed the first part of the season when he wasn’t able to throw – and it had nothing to do with his physical ability. He got his game back, and just when he appeared ready to rock and roll, he threw three picks and the Badgers lost to Northwestern. Even though he’s inconsistent, immobile, and throws too many interceptions, he has three years of experience and has been through the wars. While he doesn’t have to bomb away, he has to limit the mistakes, hit the third down throws, and complete over 60% of his passes.

10. PK Rafael Gaglianone, Soph.
A cult hero as a true freshman, the 5-11, 234-pound Brazil native solved a massive concern right away. His first career kick was a 51-yard bomb of a field goal against LSU, and after a few early misses, he got hot over the second half of the season connecting on his last 14 attempts including two huge kicks in the bowl win over Auburn. He has 50-plus range and is a proven, consistent weapon – he’ll be a key part of the puzzle this year.

Head Coach: Paul Chryst
1st year
4th year overall: 19-19
Sept. 5 Alabama (in Arlington)
Sept. 12 Miami Univ.
Sept. 19 Troy
Sept. 26 Hawaii
Oct. 3 Iowa
Oct. 10 at Nebraska
Oct. 17 Purdue
Oct. 24 at Illinois
Oct. 31 Rutgers
Nov. 7 at Maryland
Nov. 21 Northwestern
Nov. 28 at Minnesota
Ten Best Wisconsin Players
1. CB Sojourn Shelton, Jr.
2. LB Vince Biegel, Jr.
3. RB Corey Clement, Jr.
4. S Michael Caputo, Sr.
5. CB Darius Hillary, Sr.
6. C Dan Voltz, Jr.
7. OT Tyler Marz, Sr.
8. LB Joe Schobert, Sr.
9. QB Joel Stave, Sr.
10. PK Rafael Gaglianone, Soph.