Roundtable: Wisconsin Badgers Football Season Preview

Alright, the last season is behind us. We enter a new dawn. How do we feel about this 2022 Wisconsin Badger team?

Tyler: I’m cautiously optimistic about this Badger team. I think we all remember the low points from last year’s group, which is fair, but that team had some good moments too. I think they cleaned things up and got better, so hopefully this team continues to be a Big Ten West contender and winner.

Nick: Honestly, I don’t know yet. I’m excited about the season, but I also have scars from the last two years. The team has all the talent in the world in my opinion. Will this be the year something clicks? Or does the Mertz experience from 2020 and 2021 continue? This year and next are supposed to be the years that we’re going to compete for the Big Ten titles. It feels like the bar has been lowered going into this season because of the struggles Mertz has had over the last two years, which I really hate. If the offense looks clean and fresh for the first three weeks, I think my enthusiasm level would skyrocket. I just need to see something different from the last two seasons and until I do, I’m going to keep wondering.

JJ: This is the most insecure I’ve ever been about how good the Badgers are going to be in a couple of years, and I’m sort of excited about it. We’re going to learn a lot about Paul Chryst, Graham Mertz and pretty much everyone else on offense not named Braelon Allen. If the offense works out, this is a team that could play on New Year’s Day. If not…the outlook for the season is a little different. But I choose to lean more towards hope. We all know Jim Leonhard will turn the defense into a top-tier unit because that’s what he does. But I’m excited to see who on offense will stand out besides Braelon Allen and continue to amaze people every game.

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Do you expect the offense to step up with new OC Bobby Engram? Why or why not?

Tyler: I think all off-season manager changes are positive, so by default this team should be better. The signing of Bobby Engram should help modernize the offense while still leaning on the pillars of Wisconsin football. I think that should make them produce at a higher level overall. Personally, I think Bostad’s return to offensive line coach was even bigger, but both are positives that make me feel better about this offense, we won’t know for sure until we see it.

Nick: I hope the offense takes a step, but I don’t think it’s the step everyone would like to see. It’s going to be somewhere between how bad things were last year and our expectations for this year. Engram will undoubtedly bring new wrinkles. But can Graham get out of his own way? To me, if he can hit a deep ball here and there and control the ball the rest of the time, the offense will be fine and Engram will get credit for cleaning things up. He continues to lean into the running game, but be unpredictable in the passing game. That’s all I ask. I still have my fingers crossed that they will come out and surprise me, but I don’t trust it.

JJ: Yes and no. I expect the offense to be different, and maybe more exciting. Engram brings the promise of a more modern offense that should be a bit more aggressive through the air. But I’m not sure it’s necessarily more productive, at least not at first. Between Jake Ferguson and Danny Davis, there are a lot of targets that will need to be assigned elsewhere, and not a lot of players who have the college experience that would make them a natural fit to take on such important roles right away. I have faith that the players will develop and eventually the offense will peak. But it will take a while, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Wisconsin leans a little more toward its traditional ground-and-pound style behind Allen until the QB/WR chemistry grows more.

Defense doesn’t come back much, but confidence still seems high. How do you think this group will fare?

Tyler: I don’t really care much about Wisconsin’s defense anymore. Yes, they lost a lot, but Wisconsin only produces quality players on that side of the ball year after year. Jim Leonhard is the best defensive coordinator in the country, and I think that always makes this group dangerous. I expect this unit to be back in the top 15 across the board in 2022.

Nick: Defense is something that has stopped worrying me year after year. I feel great about the moves they’ve made to the transfer portal to provide depth and replace the lost starters from last year’s secondary. The outside linebacker group is really deep. The defensive line sounds like it hasn’t missed a step. My only concern is inside linebackers. They have a lot of potential, but inexperience feels like something that could be a problem during the Big Ten schedule. I’m confident Jim Leonard will have them and the entire defense ready anyway, but that doesn’t mean there won’t be growing pains.

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JJ: As I said before, we’ve gotten to the point where we expect Jim Leonhard to create a top-notch group. It’s not for lack of talent; Wisconsin’s classic recruiting problems apply much less to the defensive side of the ball. The depth is there, which should be a major strength for this team over the grind of a Big Ten schedule. Inexperience will be something that needs to be addressed, but I trust Leonhard to structure the defense in a way that protects some of the younger players from taking on major responsibilities early on while also allowing those younger players (as well as the other top talent) defenses) to make plays.

What is your main concern with Wisconsin heading into the 2022 season?

Tyler: It’s hard to pick anything other than the passing game, though, I guess some of our other writers will pick that, so I’ll go somewhere else… SPECIAL TEAMS. Special teams were HORRIBLE last season and off season, did it get any better? Nope! They don’t even have a special teams coach assigned to them anymore! Not that the last one was good, but is anyone focusing on that side of the ball? I have a very uncomfortable feeling about this unit at the moment, but I hope that a miracle has been wrought and we don’t know it yet.

Nick: The quarterback position, of course. Graham Mertz has to take care of the ball this year. Turnovers are the Achilles’ heel of any football team, but it feels especially bad in Wisconsin. When you already have so few possessions due to the ground and pound game, you can’t afford turnovers. He also needs to raise his game overall. There’s a lot of talent at the skill positions this year and I’d like to see those guys show that. Graham has to consistently give them the ball and sustain the drives for that to happen. Lastly, with Chase Wolf going down, the Badgers lack QB depth. If Graham goes down at any point while Wolf is out (the time for Wolf to come back is long), then the offense could be in serious trouble.

JJ: Since Nick and Tyler have already addressed special teams and quarterbacks, I’ll go with wide receiver. Because Wisconsin has a lot riding on the simple hope that someone, anyone, blows up. Chimere Dike seems like a natural choice to emerge as WR1, he’s been waiting in the wings for two years. But what if he doesn’t step forward? There will be plenty of responsibility in a pair of redshirt freshmen in Markus Allen and Skyler Bell, a transfer with a minimum 2021 production in Keontez Lewis and a converted cornerback in Dean Engram. That’s not exactly a deep group with a ton of backgrounds.

Which player will emerge as a surprise producer in your eyes?

Tyler: Offensively, I don’t know if you can call it a surprise, but I think Chez Mellusi is going to have a great year. Other than that, I’ll pick Jack Eschenbach at tight end. Someone will have to emerge as a security blanket for Mertz, and I think Eschenbach is ready to take on that role. Also, I’ve been on the Eschenbach train since his first year, so there’s no point in him stopping now. LET’S GO JACK!

Nick: I think wide receiver Dean Engram could be the one. He’s been featured as a guy who has the ability to get open from the slot and it would be great to see that transition from CB to WR benefit him. The other guy would be RB Isaac Guerendo. We have seen some glimpses here and there. If he stays healthy, then he has a chance to be a really fun player who would scare a lot of other Big Ten teams with his speed.

JJ: Who knows how many opportunities he will have with Allen, obviously being an all-American talent, but I expect Isaac Guerendo to have a very good year relative to the opportunities he has. I’m not sure if he’ll be a special teams weapon or a regular in the running back stable, but he showed innovative ability in the open field last season that I think will be too tempting for Badger’s staff to ignore.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCTOBER 27 Wisconsin at Northwestern

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Which game scares you the most on the Badger calendar?

Tyler: You could put Ohio State, Michigan, Alabama, LSU and Clemson on the schedule and a road trip to Evanston, IL would top them every time. I don’t care what they looked like last year or how they project for this year, that’s the scariest game on the schedule when it comes out.

Nick: I think just about everyone will be scared of the Badgers playing Ohio State this year, so I’ll pick another team. In Iowa it feels like the game that could determine the West this year. While I don’t think Iowa is going to be in contention for the West this year because of their offense (see Big Ten Roundtable Predictions), I do think this is a tough game and could make or break the team’s chances. Badgers win the West. The game is the week before Wisconsin travels to Nebraska and if Wisconsin loses, I’m concerned that the momentum to finish the year strong could shift in a bad direction.

JJ: Logically, Ohio State in Columbus. Morally, Northwestern in Evanston. As I wrote two years ago in my first B5Q roundtable as a freshman, if someone could present evidence of a credible campaign to demolish Ryan Field in a parking lot, I would send the first donation.

What do you think this team’s record will be at the end of the season?

Tyler: I think the road trip to Colon is a waste. After that, I don’t know what games at the moment, but I think they’ll release a couple more. I’d be thrilled with 10-2, but I believe in my heart that 9-3 is the most likely record and what I’ll go with.

Nick: Despite my previous pessimism, I’m going to be optimistic here, so I’m going to say 10-2. I think the Badgers lose to Ohio State and lose to one of the many contenders in the West. I think Wisconsin beats Michigan State on the road, but the final leg of Iowa, Nebraska and Minnesota at Camp Randall looks like it’s going to be very tough, especially with injuries.

JJ: 9-3 feels like the most likely pick. I won’t do a game-by-game analysis, but Ohio State on the road is an almost certain loss, and I see Wisconsin losing two somewhere in the three-game stretch to @Northwestern, @Michigan State and an underrated Purdue. team, as well as @Iowa, @Nebraska and then Minnesota stretch out to finish the year. I don’t know which 2 of those 6 games the Badgers lose. But that’s my instinct.

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