I’ve got to say it. I’m not trusting the Badgers very much right now. And it’s not just because of the Purdue game. Purdue was a tough out before Wisconsin and they’ll be a tough out the rest of the way. And Maryland [...] But for an already bowl-eligible, top-five team that’s got another week to play a comfortably bad opponent, I’m absolutely convinced that there’s no College Football Playoff coming this season.
And amazingly, there’s little that would prove my hypothesis right. In fact, there are positives that can get even more positive. If I’ve taken you far enough from the headline you don’t remember it, surprise, sucker. You’re in a listicle.
True Freshman Heisman Candidate Jonathan Taylor
Of course we’re going with the most obvious reason first. Why? Because Jonathan Taylor is out-rushing everyone but Navy option quarterback Zach Abey and Stanford running back Bryce Love, who is only averaging a first down every time he’s received one of his 135 carries on the year. That’s how crazy good Taylor has been this year, even with an off-pace performance against the Terps.
And there’s still at least two more years for Taylor to grow as a player and a prospect. He’s going to be giving a lot of defensive coordinators nightmares before he moves on to the next phase of his career.
The Badgers’ passing game is in the best shape it’s been since the Russell Wilson year
Is it perfect? No. To be quite honest, Alex Hornibrook’s conference run has enough bad to it that it might make one wonder if the downy-soft schedule has something to do with it. That said, when it was Andy Ludwig calling the plays, if I told you that there was a quarterback coming down the pike who would complete two of every three passes and throw nearly two touchdowns for every pick? You’d take it. You’re lying if you wouldn’t.
I mean, the Badgers are on the positive end of the national leaderboard for passing. They’re currently 19th nationally in completion percentage and sixth in terms of yards per attempt. I’m not here to tell you it’s all sunshine and lollipops, but there’s enough here that even the spooky bad interceptions can’t hurt the optimism.
And why are we in the best shape since that transfer who ruined the expectations of Badger fans about quarterbacks? Look at it like this: unfortunately, Jazz Peavy hasn’t been able to build on his good junior year when he led the Badgers in receiving yardage and touchdowns. And yet the passing game is mostly clicking.
Short story longer, this is the first year the Badgers have had this much talent to throw to that you can fade a lost season from a real talent. Troy Fumagalli’s the glue that makes the passing game click. I am going to say that Quintez Cephus is the best Badger receiver since Lee Evans until I’m wrong or he threatens to be the next Al Toon. And between Danny Davis being deadly on play-action and flashes of brilliance from A.J. Taylor, there’s a reasonable excitement for the 2018 season.
Jim Leonhard knows what he’s doing
I hope you sat down as you read that. Honestly, considering the way the Badgers have played in recent seasons on the defensive side of the ball, you could see a slight slip in terms of quality and still call the Badgers’ defense quite good. But the third defensive coordinator in three years and one who has experience more theoretical than practical at this point has the unit living at the luxury that it’s accustomed to.
I’m not going to bore you with all the statistics, just give you the three facts I find most fun.
One, the Badgers are currently allowing the fewest touchdowns per red-zone appearance. Opponents have got into the red zone 22 times. They’ve only scored six touchdowns. That’s a .272 TD average.
Two, their highest average allowed is rushing yards per attempt. They stand 11th in the nation. They are still allowing under three yards per rush to their opponents. They are also one of five teams to allow two rushing touchdowns or less.
Three, safety D’Cota Dixon is the team leader in tackles with 43. In and of itself, it’s not a fun stat. But when you consider that why a member of the secondary usually leads the team in tackles is because people are getting into the secondary? The fact that the Badgers are tied for fourth in terms of fewest plays of 10 yards or more is pretty fun. At least to me.
Yeah, but the Badgers play a really sloppy brand of football right now
The brand of Wisconsin football has always been one where the Badgers don’t make many mistakes. Sure, the Joel Stave era was one where there were plenty of interceptions. But the Badgers protected and pounced on the ball if it was loose. The six fumbles lost for the Badgers they have currently is as many or more fumbles lost than they have all season besides the dystopian nightmare of 2008, 2009, and 2014. It’s not just Hornibrook as to why Wisconsin is currently tied for 82nd in turnovers lost.
At the rate things are going, the Badgers can find themselves getting the ball back more often than losing it. What really worries me are the penalties. In the grand scheme, 6.1 penalties for 54 yards per game isn’t terrible. It’s tied for 62nd nationally. The problem is that the Badgers are built on staying on the proverbial down-and-distance schedule, and this is their worst performance for the decade. If they stay on their average pace, they will surpass the number of penalties committed all last year in 14 games against Illinois.
So what does it all mean?
In the grand scheme? Very little. Disaster has to strike for the Badgers not to win the Big Ten West. There needs to be a 59–0 blowout in the Big Ten title game for the Badgers to slide out of New Year’s Six bowl consideration. The Badgers are a really good team, but they could easily, in college football parlance, pull a Clemson.
Nebraska is currently 73rd in the S&P+ ranking, and if it wasn’t for Chris Orr getting a pick-six in the first quarter, the Badgers would have gone into the fourth quarter tied with the Cornhuskers. Of course they pulled away, but this is the sort of game Wisconsin can easily lose to a better team.
In November, the Badgers will play four teams that are all better than Nebraska. They’re all offensively flawed enough that there’s a chance the Badgers just survive another 17–9 slog and find themselves playing for the Big Ten and a playoff berth in December. But sports is designed to break your heart. We’ve seen Hornibrook make some terrible throws, we’ve seen the Badgers threaten 10 penalties in a game on multiple occasions, and if a team like Indiana or Iowa, let alone Michigan, gets one break too many?
The Badgers will get got.