Like any Badger fan, I'm looking forward to the college football season and believe that the Badgers have a legitimate shot at making the playoffs this year. There are many reasons to be optimistic that the Badgers could join the CFP Final Four extravaganza this season, but there are very realistic risks as well. While it's tempting to continue riding the post-Orange Bowl TCMFA victory wave, ignoring the potential risks the Badgers face this season could result in grave disappointment for anyone who refuses to take off their rose-colored glasses.
Someone check my facts, but as far as I can see, no team has made the playoffs with 2 losses in the four years of its existence. Could the Badgers conceivably lose two games? The simple answer is yes. In most years a 10-2 record would be a reason to celebrate, yet the rising tide of expectations also has the potential to disappoint, and let's face it, two conference losses and the Badgers probably would not have a shot at the playoffs. Obviously, injuries could change the calculus dramatically (potential exhibit 1: defensive line injuries) but putting aside the constant challenge of staying healthy there are three other areas in which a couple of hiccups could derail their CFP campaign.
The potential of the offense is spectacular with the best overall receiving core I've ever seen at UDub, a legitimate Heisman candidate in the backfield and an offensive line that has NFL scouts drooling. So why the worry? I'm a big Alex Hornibrook fan and he got more flack that he deserved last year. He generally played well under pressure and brought them from behind a number of times. However, there is a huge level of expectation that he will make a big jump in consistency this season based, at least in part, on his performance in the Orange Bowl. While it's a realistic expectation that he will progress as he enters his junior year, no one should expect the nearly flawless Orange Bowl-level performance every week. The law of averages says everything regresses to the mean. While Alex is totally capable of shifting his mean, he's not going to be perfect. He doesn't need to be perfect to be successful, but the heightened expectation that Wisconsin's offense could be historically good could be overstated if there is too much regression from the Orange Bowl performance. Alex could have a great season and still not live up to the near perfection of the Orange Bowl, and that will no doubt have his critics howling.
The defense will again be tested and they will have a lot of new faces moving into the starting lineup. I'm hoping they can survive the injury losses on the DL, but I worry about breakdowns in scheme and coverage. As we saw in the last two B10 Championship games, a few minor coverage breakdowns can result in catastrophic big plays. Stanley showed flashes at Iowa last year and playing at Kinnick they will throw everything they have at the Badgers this year. Iowa is also an early season game, so the new starters will still be learning and probably untested at that point. It's hard to predict the impact of the QB transfer at Michigan, but it creates a lot of unknowns and makes it a bit harder to study and game plan. I most worry about Penn State - McSorley can pressure a defense and if the youngsters have any hesitation he will likely punish them. The sky is not falling...having savvy veterans like Dixon, Edwards and Sagapolu will help tremendously. If this defense can survive the season relatively unscathed Jim Leonard will have done perhaps his most spectacular coaching job so far in his young career.
The challenges they face this season will be magnified because of the schedule...with conference games at Iowa, NW, Purdue, Michigan and Penn State they haven't had a road schedule this tough in a long time. Iowa will be gunning for them, especially if they arrive in Iowa a top-10 ranked team (quite likely). Iowa showed what they can do at home on "any given Saturday" when Stanley embarrassed OSU last season. Evanston has always been a hell-hole for Wisconsin and Purdue is on the rise and looking for a signature win to signal their arrival as force in the West. Michigan is Michigan, always tough and will be eager to showcase their shiny new QB transfer. And last but not least, PSU. If you've ever been to a game at Happy Valley you know it's a tough place to play and while Barkley is gone, McSorley is as dangerous as ever. The road is always difficult and strange things can happen, and that includes the sometimes unbelievable officiating that happens on the road. The Badgers are capable of winning every one of these games, but this is one of the toughest B10 road schedules I can remember.
On the positive side, with their challenging schedule the Badgers can lose one of these games and still have a shot at the playoffs, but they would probably need to win the B10 Championship game, unless something inexplicable happens like another team winning the West. They can't afford two losses. Every one of the personnel challenges they face can be overcome and the coaches have shown the ability to get the team ready to play. There will be breakdowns, make no mistake. If they lose a couple of games, don't implode and the world won't end, just be realistic about the challenges ahead - a lot of things have to go right to make the playoffs...only four teams will get there. BUT, if the offense makes another jump and becomes dominant, if they manage to get a few breaks even when the breakdowns happen, if they manage to avoid the usual pitfalls on the road, then maybe, just maybe, they will take the next step that has eluded them thus far. So settle in for an exciting season and watch as Chryst and Leonard try to lead this team to the promised land.