My wife and I strolled down State Street last year with our three kids, a slightly different audience from what we had during our college days at UW-Madison. I used to live a block north off the prominent, mile-long extension that connects the eastern campus to the state capitol.
Like a good chunk of alums, we stayed in Madison after graduating from the university. We have taken the campus and downtown area for granted for the most part, honestly, in not getting down for events or taking advantage of the fact Dotty Dumpling’s Dowry and its amazing burgers is seriously just 15 minutes away from our house (so good).
We traveled down there, strollers in hand, bargaining with our oldest son to behave in exchange for some donuts from the Farmer’s Market (I’m not above that). My wife stopped on one of the corners just blocks off the capitol, saying “There’s so much that’s changed, but it still looks so similar.”
“Yeah, the more things change, the more they stay the same,” I replied.
That’s probably the best way to describe Wisconsin football currently, and what it will be years from now. Since Barry Alvarez took over in 1990, the program has been reinvigorated. Since the 1993 season, UW has only recorded losing seasons twice. With the exception of Dave McClain’s tenure in the 1980s, ending the year above .500 in the 1960s and 1970s was mostly a novelty.
Despite the winds of change in recent years with three head coaches over a four-year span—one with possibly a different philosophy than the precedent set—the program has continued success. The motto “Smart. Tough. Dependable.” during Paul Chryst’s tenure at Wisconsin rings through Camp Randall Stadium, with the team building towards not just staying entrenched in the upper echelon of the Big Ten, but working on something greater.
Amazing group of guys that put in the effort and were truly SMART-TOUGH-DEPENDABLE. On Wisconsin! pic.twitter.com/92tUwMqINR— Coach Marlatt (@CoachMarlatt) January 17, 2017
Here are B5Q’s five predictions for the Wisconsin Badgers over the next five years.
Wisconsin will continue to win recruiting battles for the best in-state recruits, and they will contribute
It was one of the staples of Alvarez rebuilding Wisconsin, to retain the best prep players within the state rather than allowing Iowa, Michigan, or Notre Dame to land them. Under Bret Bielema, the formula continued to work. Under Gary Andersen, recruiting in-state talent in the form of extending offers fell off but he still utilized recruits like Melvin Gordon, Marcus Trotter, Vince Biegel, Joe Schobert, and countless others who hailed from within state borders. Heck, Andersen even secured the likes of highly-touted recruits Jon Dietzen and Jaden Gault before bolting to Oregon State, despite the latter not taking a snap for the Badgers.
Chryst, a former player, assistant, and now head coach at UW, offered the likes of now-fullback Alec Ingold, then a dual-threat quarterback from Green Bay. Originally heading to Northern Illinois, Ingold flipped to Wisconsin. He’s proceeded to score 10 touchdowns in two seasons on the way to possibly becoming one of the next great, versatile fullbacks in Chryst’s offensive scheme.
Yes, there will be some players that fall through (recently, Michigan’s Ben Bredeson), but Wisconsin retained four-star offensive linemen Cole Van Lanen, Kayden Lyles (yes he lived in Arizona for a few years but is a Wisconsin legacy), and Dietzen. They’ve also kept prep standouts like Ingold, 2017 tight end Jake Ferguson, and Zack Baun, among others, from leaving the state.
The walk-on tradition will continue to thrive
These players are the “glue in the foundation” of the program, as one former player put it. This upcoming season alone, tight end Troy Fumagalli and inside linebacker Jack Cichy are two walk-ons who will in all likelihood play huge roles on offense and defense, respectively, if injuries or other circumstances don’t arise. They will follow in the footsteps of former captains like Jim Leonhard, Dare Ogunbowale and Schobert, and significant contributors like Jared Abbrederis and J.J. Watt, in stepping out of obscurity and becoming the names fans will remember. In 2017, inside linebacker Ryan Connelly, tight end Zander Neuville, kickoff specialist P.J. Rosowski and safety Joe Ferguson will be that glue, earning playing time and not allowing the team to skip a beat.
Down the line, players like redshirt freshman inside linebacker Mike Maskalunas—who impressed while playing significant snaps this spring with four of the projected contributors limited or not practicing due to injury—possibly a converted running back like Garrett Groshek, or someone we don’t know yet will step in when opportunities present themselves.
The Wisconsin offense will rebound to the levels seen in 2010 and 2011
The past two seasons have been a rebuilding of Chryst’s offense since philosophies differed under the Andersen regime. Last year’s team showed glimpses of a re-emerging power running game and potent pass catchers. This year’s should continue to push the potential for the offense into something special.
Though the Badgers must replace left tackle Ryan Ramczyk, there are significant starters returning to the line led by redshirt junior Michael Deiter. Along with Fumagalli, Jazz Peavy and Quintez Cephus should be key weapons in the passing game, and the combination of Bradrick Shaw and Pitt transfer Chris James at running back provides some game-breaking potential as well. Quarterback Alex Hornibrook could make a giant leap forward in his second year as starter.
Hornibrook, Shaw, Cephus, wide receivers A.J. Taylor and Kendric Taylor, along with tight end Kyle Penniston all have multiple years of eligibility left after 2017. The offensive line doesn’t have a senior in its projected two-deep. There’s talent being molded currently behind all of them. This is a bold take, but be excited.
Prediction 3B: Hornibrook breaks Joel Stave’s school record for career wins by a starter.
The Badgers will continue to develop talent from in-state and around the nation, and add some even bigger pieces in recruiting down the road
Wisconsin’s coaching staff knows what works in Madison. Look at the staff—quite a few were former players here or coached here previously and know the formula for winning here. The two coordinators, Joe Rudolph (offense) and Jim Leonhard (defense), are former captains and standout contributors. All the graduate assistants and quality control coaches wore cardinal and white. Chryst played at UW.
Outside of that, the assistants brought in by Chryst know how to recruit out-of-state and also develop players. Two stand out immediately. Wide receivers coach Ted Gilmore has found recruits in Texas and other states (Missouri and Georgia with Taylor and Cephus, respectively) and with his NFL experience and vast resume is bringing results to that position group and setting his players up for success.
Outside linebackers coach Tim Tibesar mentored the likes of Schobert, Biegel, and T.J. Watt into NFL draft picks—the latter only having a mere 18 months or so at the position before being drafted 30th overall by the Pittsburgh Steelers on Thursday. Tibesar should continue to do so with Garret Dooley, Baun, and a relatively young position group for the foreseeable future provided a better opportunity (defensive coordinator) doesn’t come along.
Wisconsin may not get the flashy recruits due to geography, like most of the Big Ten, or the higher academic standards set forth by the university. However, the Badgers continue to find a way to get the most out of their players, and that won’t change. They’ll continue to win, and because of their track record of success, I feel they’ll pull off some bigger wins on the recruiting trail in the coming years like we’ve seen recently with Arrington Farrar (2015) and Danny Davis (2017).
Despite stiffer competition from other Big Ten West programs, Wisconsin will continue vying for division championships and make a name for itself in the College Football Playoff
No one expected UW to play in a New Year’s Six bowl, let alone hear talk about the College Football Playoff, last season with the paper schedule it had to face. Eleven wins and three losses by a combined 21 points later, the needle is pointed upward heading into 2017 for an even bigger year.
The division is getting stronger, though, and will continue to grow in years to come. Mike Riley has Nebraska moving up, Northwestern will always be solid at the very least with Pat Fitzgerald leading it, and Minnesota wants to become “ELITE” with P.J. Fleck. Heck, Lovie Smith and Jeff Brohm could turn Illinois and Purdue around, respectively.
But that won’t stop Wisconsin from doing what it knows best with its winning philosophy. Expect Wisconsin to continue to be in contention for not just the division title for years to come—the Badgers should be able to rival Big Ten East foes Ohio State, Michigan, and Penn State. Though losses against those programs stung in 2016, they could only serve as fuel to get over the hump and win against those powerhouses.
BOLD PREDICTION: The question then comes if UW can qualify for the College Football Playoff. In the next five years, building off that “Smart. Tough. Dependable.” mantra, they should at least once.