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What Wisconsin needs to do to become a legit College Football Playoff contender

Let’s talk about how close or far Wisconsin really is to being a legitimate player.

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NCAA Football: Minnesota at Wisconsin Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

So here I was, just minding my own business watching Clemson boat race Alabama in a result that literally everyone predicted, and it got me thinking.

What does Wisconsin truly have to do to be considered among those consistently in play for the College Football Playoff?

Now, before we get started, there are the obvious:

  • Get better recruits
  • Get a dominant quarterback

As much of a cop-out as it sounds to say so succinctly, it all boils down to recruiting. Wisconsin will never consistently recruit at the level of Michigan or Ohio State, but Wisconsin consistently ending up between Nos. 20-25 nationally and really being efficient and making the most of its classes will be paramount for making another run at an undefeated season and ultimately the College Football Playoff.

However, I’m here to primarily look at some of the things on the periphery. Watching Clemson and Alabama, if you look past the number of four and five-star recruits and different schemes employed, you see the things Wisconsin needs to do to enter that tier.

You can say, “Well, Owen, Wisconsin is fourth in the country in wins over the past few years. Doesn’t that put them in that tier?”

In a word: No.

Wisconsin has won a ton of games, and that shouldn’t be taken for granted, but the fact remains that until the Badgers “win the big one” and win the Big Ten championship, they’ll be on the outside looking in. (I know they’ve won the Big Ten Championship Game before, but not in the playoff era).

I truly believe Wisconsin doesn’t have to drastically change its identity or scheme to really compete and win against the highest of competition in college football—the staff wouldn’t, anyway—but there are certainly specific dynamics Wisconsin will need to continue to develop and obtain for it to become a worthy contender for college football’s highest honor.

With that, I was able to identify a few things Wisconsin needs to develop or acquire to truly put itself in a position to make the College Football Playoff on a year-in-year-out basis.

1. Better quarterback play (duh)

This is an obvious one, but I wanted to expand on it a bit.

People are going to look at Alabama and Clemson and see Tua Tagovailoa and Trevor Lawrence, and the extremely evident thing is that both schools have a huge talent advantage at the position over Wisconsin right now.

Could Graham Mertz be the answer to this question? Maybe, but there’s more to it than that.

Wisconsin needs to not only hope Mertz pans out as he is projected to, but it needs to have an adequate backup as well in the case of injury, or a successor when Mertz decides to leave Madison.

The other thing is Wisconsin doesn’t need its quarterback to be a superhero. Its offense for the past two decades has been, and will continue to be, a run-first scheme. However, Wisconsin’s quarterback needs to be able to attack the defense rather than simply act as an alternative to the running game.

If you watch Clemson and Alabama, you can say, “Look at those freshman quarterbacks succeed! Why can’t Wisconsin do that?” Well, the biggest thing is the surrounding talent.

Clemson, for example, can throw Lawrence, a phenom of a recruit in his own right, into the fire because of the supporting cast. He’s got a future NFL back in Travis Etienne. He’s got two future top-50 picks in receivers Tee Higgins and Justyn Ross, both of whom are 6’4 and simply more dynamic than any receiver Wisconsin has. Anyone Lawrence can get the ball to on a regular basis is likely headed to the NFL. That helps! Which leads to the next point:

NCAA Football: College Football Playoff National Championship-Clemson vs Alabama Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

2. Wisconsin needs a dynamic wide receiver, or more separation created by the ones they have

Even if Wisconsin isn’t able to recruit those true difference-makers on the outside (it simply plays in a different ballpark when it comes to recruiting when compared to most of the top teams in college football), it needs to be able to make the quarterback’s job easier.

There seems to be this odd narrative that playing quarterback for Wisconsin should be easy due to the running game and play-action. Want to know what Jack Coan’s passer rating was on play-action passes during the regular season? Per Pro Football Focus: 6.0. As in six. Like the score SpongeBob got on his boating test when he needed a 600 to pass.

While Wisconsin’s quarterback isn’t asked to make the car drive, the car certainly doesn’t drive itself. When the run game isn’t working, it forces the passer to be extremely precise, which really makes his job harder. Even when the run game is working, Wisconsin’s receivers often don’t create a ton of separation, which, again, forces the quarterback to be extremely accurate. A stark contrast from the quarterbacks I mentioned earlier, who often have their receivers make incredible adjustments to the ball (some of which is created by their schemes).

Nonetheless, a priority for Wisconsin should be making the job of the quarterback easier. If the program can’t recruit 6’4 receivers who are supreme talents, an emphasis needs to be made on scheming receivers open more often.

3. Two legitimate tight ends

Now, look. This piece is about Wisconsin. Did you really expect to get out of here without some mention of a fullback or tight end?

Wisconsin’s offense features the tight end position more than most in college football. However, it also asks the tight ends to do more than most in college football. Wisconsin’s tight ends, first and foremost, need to be—at worst—competent blockers. Their importance in the run game is paramount to their ability to catch the ball and run after the catch.

This is cool, but if Wisconsin wants to truly be able to threaten the top defenses in college football, it needs multiple tight ends it can get the ball to. For this to happen, they both need to be on the field, which means they both need to be able to block. It’s completely fine if one is primarily a receiver and the other a blocker, but both have to be able to do both at an at-least-baseline level in order to force a defense to be honest.

Right now, Jake Ferguson is in this stratosphere—not a killer as a blocker, but a willing one and one who will continue to improve. Who’s the blocker that’s also a receiving threat? Still to be seen. Regardless, this is a major area Wisconsin will need to continue to improve at.

NCAA Football: Brigham Young at Wisconsin Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

4. Field a more athletic offensive line

Here come the jokes. “Wisconsin linemen are athletic?” Hardy har.

The reality is Wisconsin has played offensive line with, like, five right guards, and you’ve seen the fruits. In the run game, they can be lethal. In the pass game, however? They haven’t been able to negate the pass rush from the dominant defenses in college football, and that’s a major issue with Wisconsin being able to compete against those opponents.

Typically, those are the defenses that are able to make Wisconsin one-dimensional and get the Badgers into passing situations, which leads to the pressure giving the pass game issues.

In the 2019 class, Wisconsin has five-star tackle Logan Brown and four-star tackle Joe Tippmann signed. Both players are above-average athletes for the position. In the 2020 class, Wisconsin has four-star tackles Trey Wedig and Jack Nelson currently committed, along with three-star offensive guard Dylan Barrett. If you’re willing to hypothetically connect the dots here, there are only two tackle spots and four kids committed to play them.

This could lead to Tippmann playing inside, something that would be advantageous to Wisconsin in theoretically having more athletic linemen on the field. If they don’t sacrifice any effectiveness in the run game, that widens the margin for error significantly.

5. More depth and talent throughout the defense

For the sake of wrapping this article up before I lose all of you whomst have made the journey this far with me, I’m going to consolidate the whole defense into this section.

Wisconsin’s base defense is a 3-4. The fewer defensive linemen you have on the field, the better they need to be. Wisconsin felt this the hard way in 2018, as it lost three multi-year contributors and was ravaged by injuries. At one point, the Badgers were starting a former walk-on and a converted offensive lineman at the defensive end spots. That is ... not good.

Wisconsin is bringing in at least three defensive linemen in this cycle, but accumulating a healthy amount of 6’4, 290-pound humans along the defensive line can’t be the only priority. You need defensive linemen who are able to make plays both at and behind the line of scrimmage. 3-4 defenses are predicated on their linebackers making a majority of the tackles, but when those units have defensive linemen make plays on their own, it can be a completely different animal.

In their 3-4, the Badgers’ most dynamic front-seven players need to be their outside linebackers. Because typically your defensive linemen aren’t primary pass rushers in odd fronts, it puts a premium on your edge rushers’ ability to get to the quarterback.

Wisconsin has struggled to recruit this position in the past few seasons. Don’t confuse this with Wisconsin not having a bunch of NFL talent at this spot (Joe Schobert, Vince Biegel, T.J. Watt, Leon Jacobs, Garret Dooley). Rather, take a look at the position right now. Zack Baun is the only player at the position who’s shown any penchant for getting after the passer.

If Wisconsin is to make a run at the big boys consistently, it needs to continue to stockpile fearsome outside linebackers. This defense simply is not built to succeed without a pass rush with as much pressure as it places on the secondary.

Speaking of the secondary, Wisconsin is currently on the right track to begin competing with the premier teams in the country. While the unit is absurdly young—no losses due to graduation after the 2018 or 2019 seasons—the talent the Badgers have continued to stockpile at the position will set Wisconsin up to have a chance to attempt to cover these supreme athletes at the receiver position.

The Badgers have some dudes in the back end currently, and as long as Jim Leonhard’s NFL pedigree and ability to develop defensive backs remains intact in Madison, the Badgers should continue to have a surplus of athletic, talented defensive backs to allow Leonhard to get exotic in the front seven.