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Wide receiver questions could doom Wisconsin's playoff hopes

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The Badgers' wide receivers have faced incredible pressure since Jared Abbrederis graduated. They could be the key in taking Wisconsin's offense to a new level.

Mike McGinnis

The inaugural College Football Playoff is nearly upon us, and many have touted the Wisconsin Badgers as a dark-horse candidate to be one of the four participants. A strong running game combined with a relatively painless Big TEn schedule will certainly help the team's chances.

But the Badgers also had to address several flaws this offseason, most notably replacing the entire front seven as well as trying to fill a gigantic void at the wide receiver position due to the departure of Jared Abbrederis. That group stands out as the Badgers' foremost vulnerability.

Wide open

The absence of Abbrederis leaves the Wisconsin offense searching for answers at wide receiver. Last season, the Green Bay Packers rookie, who tore his ACL on July 31, gained 1,081 receiving yards, which accounted for 42 percent of the 2013 Badgers' total. The next three leading receivers from the 2013 squad (Jacob Pedersen, James White and Jeff Duckworth) have also moved on from Madison, which places the 2014 Badgers in a tough spot.

The returning receiver with the most career production is redshirt junior Jordan Fredrick, who has caught 27 passes for 302 yards and a single touchdown in his two years with the program. Going down the list from there, the outlook becomes even bleaker: senior Kenzel Doe has tallied just 182 career receiving yards, redshirt sophomore Alex Erickson has caught nine passes for 127 yards, sophomore Robert Wheelwright has made just two receptions for nine yards, Jazz Peavy redshirted his first season in Madison and redshirt sophomore Reggie Love has amassed 19 yards on a lone reception. Those meager numbers should alarm Wisconsin fans, but Gary Andersen has remained upbeat.

"We have to replace [Abbrederis] with two or three players," Andersen said during Big Ten Media Days. "The challenge is for the youth to step up. If those kids that are in the program that have experience at wide receiver have made the strides I believe they've made... we can replace Jared by the numbers."

Replacing those numbers, however, will be a daunting task. During his college career, Abbrederis exceeded the combined production of the current Badger receivers by 138 receptions, 2,501 yards and 22 touchdowns -- all while playing in 42 fewer games.

Paling in comparison

In vying for a playoff spot, Wisconsin will face stiff competition from top-tier BCS teams like Florida State, Oregon, Auburn and Alabama. Taking a glance at these teams' receiving talent should make Wisconsin fans squirm, as each one is returning at least one established wideout. In fact, the top wide receiver on each of the aforementioned teams produced more in 2013 than Wisconsin's current top six receivers have in their combined college careers:

REC YDS TD
Rashad Greene (Florida State, 2013) 76 1,128 9
Bralon Addison (Oregon, 2013) 61 890 7
Sammie Coates (Auburn, 2013) 42 902 7
Amari Cooper (Alabama, 2013) 45 736 4
Wisconsin's top six returning receivers (career) 64 639 1

If the entire 2014 Wisconsin receiving production came from a single player, he would've ranked 152nd in the country. This less-than-inspiring wideout situation sets the Badgers far behind the top BCS contenders, and even while playing a less rigorous conference schedule than teams in the SEC and Pac-12, it will be tough for them to earn a spot in the playoff while having such a glaring deficiency at wide receiver.

Quarterback limbo

Since spring practice, Joel Stave and Tanner McEvoy have battled for the starting quarterback spot, and this ongoing question mark has stunted the development of the crucial rapport between a quarterback and his receivers.

Late last week, reports emerged that McEvoy would be the starter vs. LSU on Saturday. Andersen then cooled those talks at his Monday press conference, and the Badgers' first depth chart of the season also co-listed Stave and McEvoy as the starters.

Stave has suggested that, if he does get the nod, he won't be worried about his receivers' abilities.

"They're good athletes. They're good players," Stave told Mike Lucas of UWBadgers.com earlier this month. "There's obviously a lot of room for improvement, but they know that and coach [Chris] Beatty knows that and they're working hard to get better and where they need to be. I think they're going to be good players for this team."

Despite Stave's guarded optimism, inexperience at the receiver position mixed with quarterback uncertainty has the potential to bring the Badgers' offense to a standstill.

Backfield bailout

How can offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig and the Badgers rise to the challenge? The simplest and most plausible solution is the combined rushing attack of Melvin Gordon and Corey Clement. This wouldn't be the first season in which Wisconsin relied on a powerful ground game to cover up an underachieving receiving corps. In 2010, the 11-2 Badgers shared the Big Ten championship and made their first Rose Bowl appearance in 11 years. During that successful campaign, Wisconsin wide receivers totaled only 1,448 yards. By comparison, in 2013, five individual FBS receivers surpassed that figure.

The 2010 Badgers thrived thanks to a three-pronged rushing attack featuring John Clay, James White and Montee Ball. That season, Clay and White both ran for over 1,000 yards, and then-sophomore Ball finished merely 4 yards shy of that milestone. The trio finished the season with 3,285 total combined yards.

Thanks to their top-15 ground game, the 2010 season was a triumph for the Badgers despite the team's shortcomings at wide receiver. If the 2014 squad wants to achieve a comparable level of success and make the playoff, Gordon and Clement will have to carry the load in both the rushing and passing games in order to keep the offense rolling.

"I want to get our team to the playoff," Gordon said in an April interview with ESPN.com. "I have a paper posted on my wall of the College Football Playoff. ... The goal right now is a national championship."

The Badgers aren't considered a long shot to reach the playoff -- they're in the mix. But Gordon and his teammates will need to surmount a major hurdle at the wide receiver position if they plan on suiting up on New Year's Day.