Another season opener against an SEC opponent, another loss and yes, another round of "Wisconsin's just not nationally elite." Aside from the Badgers losing their undisputed defensive leader on the third play of the game and then losing their already-hobbled top offensive player for all of the second half (sounds eerily familiar), is there anything that was truly surprising from this season's opener?
Most fans and observers understood the implications of the marked talent advantage that Alabama would bring to this game. True to form, its wasn't difficult to see where these advantages played out: along the line of scrimmage when either team had the ball and just as much as the Tide worked against the middle of the Badgers' defense.
When Wisconsin finishes with 40 yards rushing -- with 25 coming from a fourth-quarter jet sweep by Alex Erickson -- it's pretty clear where this game was won. When Alabama's primary running backs average 9.7 yards per carry on 23 rushing attempts, it's not hard to see how Wisconsin failed to cover 13 points eventually given by professional handicappers. Go back and read nearly all the pre-game analysis (actually, don't do that) and you'd see that this one played to the script almost to the letter.
We knew going in that a top-three team would be a more accurate measuring stick for this team than an FCS team or MAC bottom-feeder. The injuries to senior safety Michael Caputo (who was cleared to play against Miami (Ohio)) and junior running back Corey Clement make things a little difficult to fully evaluate, but most of the takeaways are fairly obvious.
The offensive line needs work -- no surprise there. This Alabama defense will expose every flaw in every offensive line it plays against this season, but the lack of game experience was apparent with Walker Williams and Hayden Biegel on the right side, and (even!) with Michael Deiter at left guard. The 15 yards gained on all but one rushing play show how much work needs to be done. The jury is probably still out as to whether the three sacks the unit surrendered is a good number or a bad one, but Chryst's concerns about pass protection prevented him from calling shots downfield.
The middle of the Badgers' defense also needs a lot of work -- no surprise there, either. Sophomore Conor Sheehy, who only outweighs Derrick Henry by about 35-40 pounds, didn't hold up too well. Before he was replaced by 330-pound true freshman Olive Sagapolu late in the game (the even bigger Jeremy Patterson must still be too limited by his own injury), Sheehy was unable to make things easier for the new inside linebackers, Leon Jacobs and T.J. Edwards -- until Jacobs himself reaggravated his toe injury and was eventually replaced by Chris Orr, another true freshman.
After Caputo was lost early on and replaced (partially) by sophomore safety D'Cota Dixon (in his first real playing time) and Leo Musso, Alabama capitalized on the soft middle both when it passed and ran the ball. Musso, another first-time starter and undersized himself, looked particularly lost on several plays. Whether it was because Alabama chose to work the soft middle, cornerbacks Sojourn Shelton and Darius Hillary had excellent games; neither gave up any deep balls and both made the stat sheet in the (impressive) pass break-up column.
On either side of the ball, though, how many Wisconsin's issues are NOT correctible? Inexperienced players will get more, well, experienced. Most, if not all of the green players have more than enough ability to equal or best the rest of the Badgers' schedule. Taiwan Deal and Dare Ogunbowale, Jazz Peavy and Robert Wheelwright, and the inside linebackers will have plenty of time to hone their games as the season goes on. Seventeen missed tackles by the defense sounds concerning, but that likely can be coached up and away. Facing less imposing fronts, the offensive line will definitely have the chance to come together as it plays more games.
Size, however, can't be coached even if it can be schemed around. We'll have to wonder what the future holds for Sheehy, who may be more at home at end. Musso has to be pushed by Lubern Figaro, who fell down the depth chart but has a more natural free safety body type. If Caputo is back and ready to play, so much the better, but if both safeties are less than 6'0, the Badgers will be a Power Five rarity. Senior Tanner McEvoy may yet figure into the position -- his height, ability and experience were sorely missed.
Regarding correctible (or corrected) issues, Joel Stave's play was notable. His final numbers were quite pedestrian, but he was 14-of-16 for 140 yards in the first half and played the whole game with a basically non-existent running game. Once the defenses fall off Alabama's level, Wisconsin's offense could very well find again the run-pass balance that's been missing for the better part of Stave's tenure as Wisconsin's top quarterback.
If the Badgers struggle in major facets during the remainder of non-conference play, it will be time to worry as Big Ten play begins. But this just doesn't seem likely based on what transpired in Dallas, for better or worse. Miami (Ohio) is a lower-level MAC team presently and Troy is at a generational low point. Hawaii can play defense (some) and have the cannon-armed (but inconsistent), former five-star Max Wittek at quarterback. The RedHawks should give the Badgers a game.
No, Wisconsin couldn't pull off the upset against Alabama. So much would have had to have gone right and a full-strength Badgers team would have had to have played a nearly perfect game in order for that to have occurred. It would have been a great win, but there's no need for panic at this point, in the aftermath of an almost unanimously-predicted loss in the first game of a season. Wisconsin's place on the national scene is a fully justified topic of debate and criticism, but this season, has only just begun.