Wisconsin Football: The State of the Program After 2013-14 Season

Dave Radcliffe@DaveRadcliffe_Contributor IIIDecember 11, 2013

Wisconsin Football: The State of the Program After 2013-14 Season

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    Mary Langenfeld-USA TODAY Sports

    Another year of college football, save for bowl season, is in the books for the Wisconsin Badgers, and for the first time in four years, it didn't result in a trip to Pasadena to play in the Rose Bowl.

    Wisconsin knew it was going to face an uphill battle after undergoing several coaching changes over the offseason, and with Ohio State eligible for postseason play once again, the path to a Big Ten title became complicated.

    That was especially true following a loss in Columbus, Ohio, and that came two weeks after the debacle in the desert that left many Wisconsinites dazed and confused. But after climbing back into contention for a fourth consecutive BCS bowl, a befuddling loss to a mediocre Penn State team on Senior Day left the Badgers reeling.

    On Sunday evening, the Badgers learned they would still be playing in a Jan. 1 bowl—just not the one they had hoped. Wisconsin will play South Carolina in the Capital One Bowl, as the Badgers look to win at least 10 games for the fourth time in five seasons.

    Many would say Wisconsin's season being a success hinges on the result of its bowl game, although all things considered, the Badgers have had the type of season many expected coming in and now face a staunch challenge on New Year's Day.

    Until then, let's peer into the future while examining the state of Wisconsin football.

Returning Players

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    Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

    Key returners

    RB: Melvin Gordon

    There is no guarantee that the sophomore tailback returns to Wisconsin, as he has already spent three years in college and has rushed for 1,466 yards this season. But back on Nov. 5, Zack Miller from BadgerBlitz.com tweeted a source close to Gordon said it would be "shocking" if Gordon entered the 2014 NFL Draft.

    Gordon also saw his production tail off rather dramatically in the second half of the season as teammate James White emerged. Should Gordon return, it would be his turn to be the No. 1 back, and he would also generate some Heisman Trophy buzz entering next season.

    CB: Sojourn Shelton

    It's been awhile since the top cover corner at Wisconsin was a true freshman. In fact, that's a rare occurrence no matter where you go in college football. But that's exactly what Sojourn Shelton accomplished in his first season at Madison.

    Shelton was the leading tackler among cornerbacks for Wisconsin and also led the way in interceptions and passes defended. That sounds a lot like No. 1 corner material, and there are at least two more years of Shelton to look forward to at Wisconsin.

    QB: Joel Stave

    So, will Joel Stave be the starting quarterback for Wisconsin next season?

    The sophomore will have plenty of competition in the coming offseason, including Tanner McEvoy, Bart Houston and incoming freshman D.J. Gillins. This season, Stave improved his completion percentage, yards per game and touchdown total, but there were still some glaring holes in his game that need fixing.

    Missing open receivers and staring down his intended targets are the two most pressing issues, and while Stave has experience on his side, that might not be enough come next fall.

    Other returnees: S Michael Caputo, CB Darius Hillary, NT Warren Herring, LB Derek Landisch, WR Alex Erickson, TE Sam Arneson, FB Derek Watt, OT Tyler Marz

Recruiting Primer

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    Here, we'll examine the top three players the Badgers must attempt to land from the class of 2014. You can view the entire class here and other current targets here, courtesy of 247sports.com.

    RB: Joe Mixon

    On Dec. 3, the Badgers learned that 5-star running back Joe Mixon had them among his top four schools. Mixon is expected to make his decision during the US Army All-American Bowl, and should he choose Wisconsin, that would make him the most prized commitment in program history.

    It's a huge testament to Gary Andersen and his staff that the Badgers have made it this far, and while they already have a stellar tailback commit in Taiwan Deal, adding Mixon could boost Wisconsin into elite company when it comes to their stable of running backs and recruiting class.

    WR: Jamil Kamara

    It's no secret that after Jared Abbrederis, the Badgers don't have much of a threat at wide receiver. That's bad news because Abbrederis will be playing his final game in a Wisconsin uniform on Jan. 1.

    That would make landing a 4-star receiver like Jamil Kamara a pretty high priority for the Badgers, a team that desperately needs somebody to step up after Abbrederis' departure. There is a chance the recently committed 4-star athlete Dareian Watkins winds up at receiver for Wisconsin, but that doesn't mean the push for Kamara, who has the Badgers in his top three (via Jared Shaker of ESPN.com), should subside.

    OT: Frank Ragnow

    The Badgers have been making a late push for 4-star offensive tackle Frank Ragnow out of Minnesota. He has a trip to Madison scheduled on Jan. 24 and was also recently visited by offensive line coach T.J. Woods.

Stars of the Future

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    Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

    RB: Corey Clement

    James White will be moving on after his senior season, which means we'll be seeing plenty more of true freshman running back Corey Clement in 2014. In limited action, Clement still managed to rush for 515 yards, 7.8 yards per carry and seven touchdowns in his rookie campaign.

    There is plenty of incoming talent at running back—that includes the return of redshirt freshman Vonte Jackson from a torn ACL—but Clement has earned the right to be the primary backup to Melvin Gordon next season and should turn into something special for the Badgers.

    LB: Vince Biegel

    Wisconsin is essentially losing its entire front seven to graduation following the season, which means several players will need to grow into feature roles. One of those players will be redshirt freshman linebacker Vince Biegel.

    This season, Biegel leads all non-starting outside linebackers in tackles, tackles for a loss and sacks, and he should expect to start at outside linebacker as a sophomore in 2014. He was one of the most prized Wisconsin recruits from the class of 2012 and could grow into a Chris Borland-like player for the Badgers.

    WR: Rob Wheelwright

    Who will step up at wide receiver next season without the security blanket known as Jared Abbrederis around? It's really a crapshoot—anyone from sophomore Jordan Fredrick to redshirt freshman Alex Erickson to an incoming recruit could be the guy to become the new No. 1.

    A young receiver will need to emerge as a star for the Badgers to have any sustained success in the passing game, and it just might be true freshman Rob Wheelwright. He only caught two passes this season, but he has the most upside among returning wideouts and could eventually blossom into a No. 1 receiver down the road for Wisconsin.

Coaching Staff

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    The general mindset regarding the new Wisconsin coaching staff was positive this season. The switch to a 3-4 defensive formation resulted in the Badgers having the No. 6 overall defense in the FBS, and the dominant running game remains, as Wisconsin had a top-10 running attack.

    It was on defense where we saw the most change—more blitzing, a new formation and constant rotating. Despite all that change, the defense actually improved from a season ago, and that's a testament to a veteran front seven as well as defensive coordinator and linebacker coach Dave Aranda.

    Aranda, who was nominated for Defensive Coordinator of the Year by FootballScoop.com, could very well be a head coaching target following his impressive debut at Wisconsin. What he has been able to do with the Badgers in just one season has been nothing short of remarkable.

    Plenty of credit also goes out to offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig, who staved from drastically altering the Wisconsin offense he inherited and played to its strengths, instead.

    The close losses remained, however, as Wisconsin went 0-3 in games decided by seven points or less. Of course, one of those games was handled poorly by the officials, to say the least, but for some reason, the Badgers continue to either win by a comfortable margin or fall just short of victory.

    Hopefully that is a trend that Gary Andersen is able to buck sooner rather than later, but most can agree that a 9-3 record in his inaugural season as head coach was more of a success than a disappointment.

2014 Outlook

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    Mary Langenfeld-USA TODAY Sports

    It's an odd way to look at it, but the Wisconsin Badgers will be playing back-to-back games against SEC opponents—South Carolina in the Capital One Bowl and LSU in the 2014 season opener.

    That opening week matchup at Reliant Stadium in Houston could very well wind up being the Badgers' biggest challenge of the season, as their 2014 schedule is absent of marquee teams like Ohio State, Michigan State and Michigan, following division realignment.

    The timing couldn't work out much better for Wisconsin. Losing talent like James White, Chris Borland and Jared Abbrederis as well as so much experience in the front seven could result in a bit of a rebuilding year for the Badgers.

    Even so, an extremely manageable schedule outside of the opener against the Tigers could still get the Badgers into the B1G Championship Game. In fact, there's an excellent chance they are named the favorite to win the West division next season—the West also features Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska, Northwestern and Purdue.

    That quest would be greatly aided by the return of Melvin Gordon at running back as well as an experienced offensive line, and with Aranda back at defensive coordinator, Wisconsin can expect to have a top tier defense yet again despite having to plug in some younger, inexperienced players.

    Still, a significant drop off in talent and a weaker schedule could be enough to keep the Badgers from another Big Ten title or BCS bowl, but the 2014-15 season should start off with a bang against LSU.