The college football season came to a thrilling conclusion courtesy of the final BCS National Championship Game, but for Wisconsin football, a bitter taste lingers.
Not only did the Badgers trip up in their final home game, eliminating any chance of reaching a BCS bowl, but they also failed to cap off the season with a victory, falling to South Carolina in the Capital One Bowl. While it was head coach Gary Andersen's first year at the helm, a season that held so much promise ended acrimoniously.
But the great thing about sports is you get to come back and do it again with a chance to wipe the slate clean. For Wisconsin, there are plenty of reasons for optimism heading into 2014, including the return of Melvin Gordon, an opening test against LSU and a relatively manageable schedule.
Before we get to that Aug. 30 showdown at Reliant Stadium, the Badgers need to address areas of need and find solutions. Here are the four biggest concerns for Andersen and his staff heading into the offseason.
Bad news, Wisconsin football fans—Jared Abbrederis has run out of eligibility and will not be returning to play for the Badgers next season.
For the past two years, Abbrederis has not only been the unquestioned No. 1 receiver for Wisconsin, but really the only true threat in the passing game for quarterback Joel Stave. This season, he doubled the next closest receiver in yards, Jacob Pedersen, who will also be leaving Wisconsin, and surpassed 1,000 receiving yards.
Not only is the departure of Abbrederis a major hit, but the Badgers are losing their top four receivers heading into the offseason. Youth will need to step up so that Wisconsin avoids anything short of a catastrophe at wide receiver in 2014. Returning players like Alex Erickson, Jordan Fredrick and Robert Wheelwright will be counted on to do so.
Replacing Abbrederis won't be a task for any one individual, but rather a team effort. Gone are the days where Wisconsin can rely solely on Abbrederis—it will take a group effort to replicate his production and keep the Badgers from becoming one-dimensional on offense.
It's time to start getting used to hearing the name 'Rafael Gaglianone,' Badger fans.
The last two years in the place kicking department have been ones to forget in Madison. Kyle French performed so poorly that he is leaving the program, and his replacement, Jack Russell, also left a lot to be desired this season, fittingly ending the season with a miss from 42 yards out.
Combined, French and Russell went an egregious 24-of-39 on field goal attempts over the past two seasons, including 4-of-12 from 40 yards and beyond, making folks long for the days of Phillip Welch and Taylor Mehlhaff.
But just like Welch, Gaglianone has an opportunity to be a four-year contributor as a field goal kicker at Wisconsin. Gaglianone, a member of the 2014 recruiting class, is a 3-star commit according to 247sports out of Chattanooga, Tenn. and will have an opportunity to win the job away from Russell during the offseason.
The Badgers are desperately hoping he will, as the last two years have been unacceptable from a kicking standpoint and cost Wisconsin dearly.
This season, it was the secondary that suffered from a drastic turnover after losing three starters to graduation. In 2014, it will be the front seven getting what essentially amounts to a complete overhaul.
The Badgers will lose a whopping eight players with starting experience that played either linebacker or defensive line—Chris Borland, Ethan Armstrong, Beau Allen, Ethan Hemer, Conor O'Neill, Brendan Kelly, Tyler Dippel and Pat Muldoon. You can throw safety Dezmen Southward into that mix, as well, meaning Wisconsin doesn't have much experience returning on defense as a whole.
In all, the Badgers are losing 45 percent of their tackling.
Fortunately, with how much defensive coordinator Dave Aranda liked to mix and match, rotating players in and out on a frequent basis, several returning players have at least some game experience. The most notable returnees include Derek Landisch, Warren Herring, Vince Biegel, Joe Schobert and Marcus Trotter.
Even so, Wisconsin will need to count on several inexperienced players to fill the giant shoes of Borland, Allen and others. It took a total team effort in Aranda's 3-4 scheme to be one of the top defenses in the country last season, and it will take just that and then some to come anywhere close to repeating that performance in 2014.
The massive blow Joel Stave endured from South Carolina's Victor Hampton in the third quarter of the Capital One Bowl was essentially the last we saw of the sophomore quarterback, and along with Stave went any chance the Badgers had of pulling off a victory.
Watching Curt Phillips enter and promptly go 7-of-12 for 37 yards and two interceptions made you wonder what could have been in last year's Rose Bowl if Stave had played all four quarters. But here's another legitimate question—where was Bart Houston?
It was the redshirt freshman who took all the garbage time snaps last season—not Phillips. And it was Houston who would have given Wisconsin the best opportunity to win. But instead, the sixth-year senior was given an opportunity to go out with a bang, and instead went out with a dud.
So perhaps the Badgers didn't have it so bad with Stave this season, but this offseason, the quarterback battle will be wide open, with as many as five players in the running to start in 2014. That includes incoming 4-star recruit D.J. Gillins (via 247sports), Tanner McEvoy, and of course, Houston and Stave.
This will mark the fourth straight offseason the Badgers have a competition for the starting quarterback position. Will Andersen and his staff make the right choice?