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Hawkeye Football Opponent Preview: Wisconsin Badgers

How will the Badgers follow up a successful 2019 season that featured 10 wins — and some frustrating losses?

NCAA Football: Big Ten Championship-Ohio State vs Wisconsin Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

Hey there. As you’re aware if you’re reading this article, we’ve been counting down the days and weeks until the beginning of the Iowa football season and previewing each of Iowa’s opponents in 2020. Welp, last week the Big Ten announced that fall sports will not happen, and there’s “hope” that a season will be played in the spring.

Will the spring season actually happen? If I were a betting blogger, I’d invest my entire life savings on ‘No!’ and that other conferences won’t be playing this fall either, despite their best wishes. Or maybe they will? Or maybe the Big Ten and the PAC-12 will play in the spring when everyone else is playing in the fall? Nobody knows!

Regardless, we’re already here, blogging away about Iowa’s opponents for the upcoming season, and we’re gonna need a lot of content to fill these months, so we’ll keep on keeping on. Just note, we are assuming at this point that these games will get played, and that the rosters in the spring will be the same as the fall. Will that come true? Probably not! But who cares?

This week we’re previewing the Wisconsin Badgers, the reigning Big Ten West champions whose overall successful season featured some bad losses and two straight losses to end the season.

As I sit down to write this blog post, it’s an unprecedented day in the history of sports. In the wake of yet another act of police violence in Kenosha, Wisconsin last weekend, in which a police officer fired seven shots into the back of 29 year old Jacob Blake, the Milwaukee Bucks refused to take the floor for their playoff game against the Orlando Magic in protest of police brutality. This historic action rippled through the sports world, causing the postponement of the day’s three NBA games. The Milwaukee Brewers also did not play their scheduled game against the Cincinnati Reds. The Seattle Mariner game vs. the San Diego Padres was also not played.

I feel that I would mention something about this day in sports even if I wasn’t here to preview the Wisconsin Badgers. I know we try to keep politics out of our discussions in the comments here, and I’m doing my best to avoid politicization here as well. But I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention this moment in history that sports — and us as sports fans — are facing. We’re at a moment in time where athletes at all levels are starting to bridge the gap between sports and real life, whether it’s for social change or just the chance to play college football, and I’m all for it. These athletes have a platform and the more they use it, the more change we will see. In the NBA, hopefully it will result in systemic change. In college football, hopefully we have finally started to bridge the gap for players to have their own union to ensure their safety. Two extremely different topics, yes, but still something we would have thought unthinkable even a few years ago.

I’ll close with this thought: sports are considered an escape for many people, and understandably so. But it’s becoming clearer every day, whether through acting for social change, representation from the NCAA, or even athlete mental health, we’re entering a new era of sports where we can’t view sports as an escape. We need to view these athletes as entertainers who are using their platform for the betterment of others.

Onto what you clicked here for...

Wisconsin Badgers

2019 Record: 10-4 (7-2), 1st in Big Ten West

Another strong year for the Wisconsin Badgers football program ended on a frustrating note, and featured a pretty big bump along the way. 6-0 and ranked No. 6 in the country, the Wisconsin Badgers traveled to Champaign, IL for what should have been an easy matchup against the 2-4 Fighting Illini. Instead, the Badgers left Champaign with a last second loss that ruined their perfect season, and had to face the Ohio State Buckeyes the following week, which resulted in two straight losses.

Those two games proved to be the Badgers’ only regular season losses, but the damage, in some ways, was done. The Badgers made a run after falling behind in the Big Ten Championship against Ohio State, but ultimately fell short, and missed out on a spot in the College Football Playoff for the second time in the season. And their Rose Bowl matchup against the Oregon Ducks was a narrow, one-point loss.

So where does that leave the Badgers headed in...whatever the 2020 season might bring? It leaves them with a tough challenge to repeat as Big Ten West champions, as the team lost five of its most talented players.

Key Departures

The Wisconsin offense was hit hard in the offseason from both graduation and early departures for the NFL. Gone is center Tyler Biadasz to the NFL, a key cog in what makes Wisconsin so successful year after year: a beefy offensive line. So, too, are the people Biadasz worked so hard to protect: running back Jonathan Taylor, who capped off the 2019 season with 2,003 rushing yards and 21 touchdowns, along with 252 receiving yards and 5 receiving touchdowns. He was the star of the Badger’s offense, and was greatly assisted by a strong offensive line that will take time to gel in 2020. Also gone is wideout Quintez Cephus, who tallied 901 yards and 15 touchdowns on 59 receptions in 2019.

The defensive departures are highlighted by linebackers Chris Orr and Zack Baun, who together tallied 24 combined sacks last season, but otherwise the squad will return a lot of talent across the board.

The Badgers also face some key departures on special teams: kicker Zach Hintze and kick returner Aron Cruickshank, who transferred to Rutgers (I don’t know why you’d leave Wisconsin football for Rutgers football, but education is important, and there’s obviously more to life and where people finish (or start anew) their education than football).

Key Returners

The team does return a lot of talent, but there are still a lot of questions on offense too. That begins with quarterback Jack Coan, who completed 69% of his passes last season (nice) ate the tune of 2,727 yards, 18 touchdowns and 5 interceptions, but was inconsistent, and could face a quarterback battle from redshirt freshman Graham Mertz. Whoever lines up under center will have experienced options at running back and receiver, but a lot of talent to replace. On the running back front, Garrett Groshek might be the go-to guy, but Nakia Watson will get more snaps in his second season as well.

Mertz or Coan (or both!) will have some experienced receivers to throw to, but none as talented as Cephus, or Taylor, for that matter. Tight end Jake Ferguson caught 69 nice passes last season, and should be a big, reliable target, along with receivers Kendric Pryor and Danny Davis III, who both have talent but will need to step into larger roles. And the offensive line returns a lot as well, but will see a big hole at center that could cause some early shuffling along the entire line to find Biadasz’s replacement.

Defensively, the team is stacked with returning talent, starting with the defensive line. Highlighted by Keeanu Benton, the line will also reach Isaiahh Loudermilk, Matt Henningsen and Garrett Rand. And in the secondary, Eric Burrell highlights a strong returning group after tallying three interceptions and forcing two fumbles.

2020 Preview

While needing to replace high quality talent — and a potential battle for the starting quarterback position — will make for a tough start to the season (again, whenever that is) for the Badgers, the team overall has a pretty solid 10-game schedule. The team is slated to face Minnesota at home, but does have tough road matchups at Iowa and Michigan. Other opponents include Nothwerstern, Indiana, Purdue, Illinois, Nebraska, Maryland, and Rutgers, which means on paper, the Badgers have games against Iowa and Minnesota circled as the obvious big games on the way to repeating as division champions.

If I had to guess, the returning talent, combined with the great coaching of head coach Paul Chryst, will turn this into another solid season for the Badgers, with one major caveat: the team figures out its situation at quarterback early.

Iowa/Wisconsin Prediction

This game makes me nervous year after year, and this Wisconsin defense seems like it will be solid. I think, like always, this will be a close game that Iowa can win, but probably won’t, due to some last second trick Wisconsin pulls.

I hope I’m wrong (again, if the games even happen at all!).

Wisconsin 27, Iowa 24