Power Ranking Wisconsin Football's 2014 Schedule from Easiest to Toughest
After three straight Rose Bowl appearances, the Wisconsin football team came back down to earth last season. While 9-4 is nothing to shake a stick at, the home loss against Penn State coupled with the debacle in the desert and an implosion in the bowl game gave Badger fans cause for pause.
Returning just 10 total starters from last year's team, including just three on the defensive side of the ball, while facing uncertainty at the quarterback and wide receiver position, the Badgers should still find themselves the favorites in most games thanks to a favorable schedule in the Big Ten.
After a season-opening tilt against LSU in Houston, the rest of the Badgers' nonconference schedule shouldn't trouble them too much as they continue to work out the kinks of their passing game while giving their relatively inexperienced front seven some much-needed playing time.
Once the Badgers get into the meat of their Big Ten schedule, save for a game at Northwestern, it takes until mid-November for things to really get more difficult, as the final trio of games against Nebraska, at Iowa and a season-ending matchup for Paul Bunyan's Axe against Minnesota will determine whether or not the Badgers can get back to Indianapolis for the Big Ten Championship Game.
Without further ado, here are the Badgers' opponents, ranked from worst to first.
12. Western Illinois Leathernecks
While Barry Alvarez was at the forefront of the charge against scheduling FCS opponents, something which should go into effect throughout the Big Ten in 2016, here come the Western Illinois Leathernecks into Madison on Sept. 6.
The Leathernecks went 4-8 last season, including a 2-6 record in the Missouri Valley Conference, which has churned out some great basketball teams; however, the same can't be said about their football prowess.
With that being said, the Leathernecks have travelled to Madison twice before, losing both to the Badgers. Their most recent visit came in 2006, when they lost to the Badgers 34-10.
The Badgers should coast to victory in this early-season matchup. With the LSU game in their rearview mirror and a week off ahead, this may be just what the doctor ordered, though it won't make the most thrilling television.
11. South Florida Bulls
To say South Florida was bad last year would almost be an understatement. Of the 123 FBS teams, the Bulls were 121st in yards per game and 123rd—that's right, dead last—in points per game. While they did manage to eke out two wins, they also lost 53-21 to FCS McNeese State in their opener.
Even the Badgers' retooled front seven should be able to slow down this not-so-prolific offense, while the Badgers offense should be able to run roughshod over the Bulls defense.
Though there's no history between these two teams, I'd expect a big Badger win in this one as late-arriving students can show up in the second quarter with a multiple-touchdown lead.
10. Purdue Boilermakers
Purdue was horrible last season. While one could remark that the prior sentence is worthless on its own, looking beyond their 1-11 record, which saw them lose their final 10 games including all eight in the Big Ten, you see that they were second to last in points for and in the bottom 10 in points allowed.
Wisconsin has won their last eight against the Boilermakers, and the Badgers should make it nine in a row, even if the Badgers run the ball on every single play.
9. Illinois Fighting Illini
When Chris Borland left last year's matchup between these two teams, defense became optional for the Badgers—or so it seemed, as the game turned into something of a shootout. While credit must be given to the Illinois offense, I wouldn't expect a repeat performance this season of last year's 56-32 matchup.
The last time the Fighting Illini won in Madison was 2002 and I fully expect the Badgers to walk out of this one unscathed, as Nathan Scheelhaase is finally gone from Champaign and the Fighting Illini sort out their messy quarterback situation.
8. Rutgers Scarlet Knights
In their first season in the Big Ten, Rutgers will have some difficulty adjusting to the constant battles they will face. By the time they get to this Halloween weekend matchup in Piscataway, the mental and emotional drain of a full Big Ten season will likely be setting in as the Badgers ramp up to the meat of their schedule.
Many Badger fans were likely snickering last year after the school from New Jersey took down Bret Bielema's new Arkansas team, setting off a flurry of losses by the Razorbacks and in turn causing Badger fans to be filled with glee.
Paul James, Rutgers' running back, had a nice season last year; however, while Gary Nova had a good season last year, the step up in competition could provide a myriad problems for the Jersey native.
While Rutgers will have a good turnout for their homecoming game, with a sizable alumni population from the tri-state area for the Badgers, much of the home-field advantage could be negated. Either way, expect this one to be all Badgers in the first-ever matchup between these two teams.
7. Bowling Green Falcons
Some may be surprised at Bowling Green being ahead of three Big Ten teams. Don't be. The Falcons went 10-4 last season, winning the MAC title game over Jordan Lynch and his Northern Illinois team. Furthermore, the Falcons return many of those players from last year's team, including quarterback Matt Johnson and running back Travis Greene.
They have an offense that scored nearly 35 points per game last season to go along with a stingy defense that finished fifth in the nation, allowing 15.9 points per game.
With that being said, the way Bowling Green performed against Indiana last season—a 42-10 loss in Bloomington—coupled with the fact that this game is in Madison leads me to believe that the Badgers shouldn't have too much trouble with this MAC foe.
6. Maryland Terrapins
Welcome to the Big Ten, Maryland. In a six-week stretch, they play Ohio State, Iowa, at Wisconsin, at Penn State, Michigan State and at Michigan. Maryland doesn't have a bad team, but they also don't have a very good one. Not helping things is the fact that they lose quarterback C.J. Brown this season.
For the Badgers' homecoming game, I'd expect nothing less than a blowout in this one, though a win at home against Iowa would certainly help their confidence.
5. Minnesota Golden Gophers
While the Gophers may historically hold the lead in the series between them and the Badgers, for the past decade, it's been all Bucky. The past 10 times these two teams have met, the Badgers have walked away victorious, though under Jerry Kill, the Gophers have closed the gap a bit.
Quarterback Mitch Leidner was solid in the team's bowl game and comes in with some experience, while David Cobb provides a strong option in the backfield. With this game being played at the end of November in the unfriendly climate of Madison, expect a lot of running in this one.
For a prediction, you have to go all the way back to 1994 to find a Gopher win at Camp Randall. This year's not the year that will change, and Buckingham U. Badger and Co. should walk away with the W.
4. Northwestern Wildcats
Venric Mark is back for Northwestern, and the matchup between these two teams should be considerably closer than last year's homecoming nightmare for the purple Wildcats. In easily the most talked-about game around campus, the Badgers pulverized the Wildcats to the tune of 35-6 last season in Madison.
But Venric Mark and the continued growth of Trevor Siemian coupled with the fact that this game's being played at Ryan Field in Illinois should certainly help the Cats' chances in this one. I'll still take the Badgers in this one, as they have more talent up and down the field, but I wouldn't expect another 29-point drubbing.
3. Iowa Hawkeyes
In 87 games between these two teams, the Badgers are 43-42-2 against the Hawkeyes. This also marks the third straight trip to Kinnick by the Badgers without a return, though that is on the schedule for 2015 in this now-annual rivalry game.
Both teams, on paper, look incredibly similar from last year, as they feature strong run games to go along with a good defense and an equally poor passing attack to boot.
Early predictions in this one have it at roughly a coin-flip with a slight edge going to the Badgers. I'll side with the Badgers in this one, as last year's Chris Borland-less matchup showed what Bucky can do without their man in the middle.
2. Nebraska Cornhuskers
The Badgers" final three games of the regular season represent a steep step up in competition, starting with this game against fellow West Division rival, Nebraska. The Cornhuskers have had a lot of trouble with the Badgers since they moved to the Big Ten, losing their first Big Ten game under the lights in 2011 48-17.
After winning the first matchup of the two teams in Lincoln in 2012, the two faced off in Indianapolis with a Rose Bowl berth on the line. In that game, the Cornhuskers looked confounded at every turn, getting thoroughly blown out by a score of 70-31.
The teams didn't play last season; however, with both teams vying for the top spot of the newly-formed division, this now-annual matchup will always draw extra eyes, as this game could be the tiebreaker for whom the division winner is.
Seeing as how this game is being played in Madison, I'll take the Badgers in this one, as by mid-November, their inexperienced defense will have played numerous games while their passing game continues to develop.
1. LSU Tigers
On the opening Saturday of the season, the Badgers face off against LSU in the closer-to-LSU neutral-site game in Houston. The Tigers return the favor when in 2016, they make the trek up to Lambeau Field in Green Bay, Wisconsin for the other end of this "neutral-and-neutral."
The Tigers, like the Badgers, need to reload, but that doesn't change the fact that they are LSU. While LSU has to replace many pieces, quarterback Zach Mettenberger included, they also bring in ESPN's top-rated player out of high school, Leonard Fournette, a running back.
While one could argue that the Badgers are catching LSU at the best time to play them, as inexperienced players will be thrust into starting roles, the same could be said about LSU catching Wisconsin at the right time, as there is still a question mark at quarterback for Bucky.
Venturing a guess at this game is fool's work until a quarterback is named for the Badgers, but I expect a litany of mistakes to be made by the two typically sound teams. This game will live up to its billing though, as this is a matchup of season-ending Top-15 teams.