RUNNING LIKE CLOCKWORK
At most programs, coaching turnover is due to lack of success. Yet Wisconsin has continued to win despite two changes over the last three years. Gary Andersen, who replaced Bret Bielema in 2013, left for Oregon State, so in steps Paul Chryst, a former Badgers offensive coordinator under Bielema who should keep the program rolling after three seasons as Pitt's coach.
Expect Chryst to stick with Wisconsin's run-oriented offensive identity. The Badgers lost record-breaking tailback Melvin Gordon to the NFL, but junior Corey Clement is primed for a breakout. He gained 949 yards last year as the backup and spent the off-season improving his endurance in preparation for a bigger workload. To ensure defenses can't key on Clement, Wisconsin will need consistency from a passing attack that ranked 12th in the Big Ten. Senior quarterback Joel Stave showed signs of improvement toward the end of 2014, and Chryst says he's been impressed by Stave's approach over the summer.
The Badgers need to fill holes in the defensive front, but they can lean on one of the Big Ten's top secondaries. If that group performs as well as expected and the ground game continues to wear teams down, Wisconsin should contend for its second consecutive West division title.
Wisconsin can't afford a slow start; it faces Alabama at a neutral site in Week 1. After that, the Badgers should coast through nonconference play, and they avoid East division heavyweights Ohio State and Michigan State in crossovers. If they can survive an Oct. 10 game at Nebraska and a Nov. 28 tilt at Minnesota, the Badgers should run the table in conference play.
Three of the top five receivers departed this off-season, but senior Alex Erickson, who had a team-high 772 yards on 55 catches in 2014, is back. Erickson is consistent and physical, and if he can help quarterback Joel Stave stretch defenses, that could open up running room for Corey Clement. "You've got to be balanced," coach Paul Chryst says.
OPPOSING COACH'S TAKE
They find ways to run the football, and can control the pace and the flow of the game. They've been great at developing offensive linemen, and the number of guys who have gone on to the NFL is a reflection of that.... What they've done in the running game—with multiple blocking schemes and the use of multiple tight ends—isn't something you see every week.... I was impressed with their defense overall. We were high on a couple of the guys in the secondary. Some of their corners were exceptional coverage guys, especially Sojurn Shelton.... [They're] very physical up front, very fundamentally sound. They really force you to find ways to move the football.
MIKE MCGINNIS/GETTY IMAGES (ERICKSON)
JOE ROBBINS/GETTY IMAGES (STAVE)