Wisconsin Football: Final Game-by-Game Schedule Predictions
Coming into 2014, there is plenty of optimism between Lake Mendota and Lake Monona for the Wisconsin Badgers. Last season, the Badgers won most of the games they were supposed to, lost the ones they were underdogs in and fell apart at home against Penn State.
This season, despite heavy losses on both sides of the ball including linebacker Chris Borland and wide receiver Jared Abbrederis, both of whom will be recognized in the coming years for their outstanding achievements while wearing Cardinal and White, there are plenty of signs of hopes for the Badgers.
The biggest thing for the Badgers is their relatively soft strength of schedule, though it is of no fault of their own. In their non-conference schedule, the Badgers are playing a game in Houston against LSU and taking on the MAC champions in Bowling Green.
Their Big Ten schedule, which is scheduled by the league and not the teams themselves, have them playing Big Ten newbies Maryland and Rutgers in their "crossover" games, avoiding heavyweights Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State and Penn State.
All of this adds up to Phil Steele's 72nd-ranked strength of schedule, which should mean a good shot at double-digit wins and a bowl berth locked up halfway through their Big Ten schedule. Beyond that, the Badgers have a realistic chance to play in the inaugural College Football Playoff.
With all of that being said, let's take a look at game-by-game predictions for each of the Badgers' 12 regular-season games, starting at NRG Stadium in Houston.
Aug. 30 vs. LSU
Before their bowl game loss to South Carolina, the last time the Badgers faced off against a SEC team was all the way back on January 1, 2008, when they lost 21-17 to the Tennessee Volunteers in the Outback Bowl.
Now, to open their 2014 slate, the Badgers get their second SEC team in as many games when they travel to Houston to take on the LSU Tigers at NRG Stadium.
This game, which is a part of a neutral-and-neutral series where the Tigers travel up to Lambeau Field in Green Bay, Wisconsin to open the 2016 season, should be a good barometer for both teams.
Last year, LSU boasted a 3,000-yard passer (Zach Mettenberger), a 1,000-yard rusher (Jeremy Hill) and two 1,000-yard receivers (Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham Jr.). All four of those players are gone.
Neither team has announced a starting quarterback, though plenty of Badgers fans likely watched Anthony Jennings, one of the two potential quarterbacks for LSU, sub in for an injured Mettenberger and complete 4-of-7 passes for 76 yards and a touchdown to defeat Arkansas, coached by Bret Bielema.
Though head coach Gary Andersen refuses to announce a starting quarterback, I'll do some projecting on my own for this game and name Joel Stave the starter with Tanner McEvoy seeing the field quite a bit for a backup. Though I don't believe it will be a 1a and 1b situation, McEvoy will definitely have multiple packages.
Stave will throw for 150 yards with a touchdown and an interception while McEvoy runs for 30 yards and completes his one pass attempt for a first down. On the ground, the duo of Melvin Gordon and Corey Clement combine for 200 yards, with Gordon breaking the century mark while Clement chips in a touchdown.
Unfortunately for the Badgers, their rebuilt front seven can't handle stud freshman running back Leonard Fournette, who gallops all over the inexperienced defense for more than 100 yards and two scores en route to a 21-17 win for the Tigers.
While this is obviously not the result the Badgers were looking for, the strong run game against a tough defensive front that routinely puts eight men in the box gives the team positives to look back on the negative result.
Projected Record: 0-1 (0-0 Big Ten)
Sept. 6 vs. Western Illinois
Last season, the Western Illinois Leathernecks—seriously, that's their nickname—started the season 2-0, winning their first two games by scores of 42-9 and then 34-6. In those games, they played Hampton University and Quincy University, the latter of which enrolls as many students as there are in a University of Wisconsin-Madison freshman survey course.
The Leathernecks ended the season with a 4-8 record, losing big to Minnesota and UNLV, their two FBS opponents. This season, they get to come to Madison, where they can experience the lovely farmer's market, tour the state capitol and lose by upwards of 50 points.
Last season, they conceded more than 25 points per game while giving up 156.3 yards per game on the ground. I wouldn't be surprised if both of those totals were doubled as Gordon and Clement both eclipse the 100-yard mark by the time House of Pain's "Jump Around" comes on to signal the start of the fourth quarter.
Notable in this game is the battle for the important third running back spot. Both Taiwan Deal and Caleb Kinlaw get carries, with Kinlaw breaking off a big one while Deal caps off a drive quarterbacked by Bart Houston with a score as the clock wanes down.
Projected Record: 1-1 (0-0 Big Ten)
Sept. 20 vs. Bowling Green
Some of you may see Bowling Green on the schedule and think, "this is another guarantee game where we will steamroll them by 70 and I can flip to Iowa losing to Paul Chryst and Pittsburgh at halftime." You would be mistaken.
The Falcons went 10-4 last season including a win over their only ranked opponent, Northern Illinois, in some really high quality MACtion in the title game.
Their quarterback, Matt Johnson, may very well be the best signal-caller the Badgers face all season—Big Ten title game included now that Braxton Miller is out of the equation and Christian Hackenberg can't make it; sorry, Connor Cook.
While Bowling Green was really good in conference—not only did they go 7-1 but they outscored opponents 176-17 in the month of November—they were not the best non-conference team. Pretty far from it actually.
In their five non-conference tilts (bowl game included), they went 2-3, with wins over UMass and Murray State and losses coming to Indiana (by 32), Mississippi State and Pittsburgh. While Mississippi State is a middle-of-the-pack SEC team and they only lost by three to Pittsburgh in the bowl game, losing to the Hoosiers by 32 hardly strikes fear into the hearts of Badgers fans.
This will be the first real test for the improved Badgers secondary as Sojourn Shelton, Darius Hillary and Devin Gaulden will all have their hands full for the first time.
Meanwhile, the Bowling Green defense that conceded only 15.9 points per game last season, good for fifth-best in the country, gave up more than 150 rushing yards per game, which puts them in the middle of the pack.
Gordon and Clement will run all over the Falcons and, in typical Wisconsin fashion, will wear their front seven down until Gordon finds a seam to snap off a touchdown of 40-plus yards in the late second quarter. Badgers win and fans can watch the last few minutes of the Fightin' Ferentz's playoff hopes.
Projected Record: 2-1 (0-0 Big Ten)
Sept. 27 vs. South Florida
South Florida was really bad last season. Well, it started 2-0 in conference, so it could've been worse, but a season-opening 32-point loss to FCS McNeese State was definitely not the way it wanted to start, nor were its six consecutive losses to end the season.
If the Bulls had one thing going for them, it was that their rushing defense was in the top third for yards allowed. The bad news: They were 123rd in points for (of 124), 121st in rushing yards and 111th in passing yards in the FBS.
While the Badgers may not hang 50 on South Florida and both Gordon and Clement may not break 150 yards each, the Bulls will probably struggle to get any points on the board. With a tough-ish game looming, this is just what the doctor ordered for the Badgers as they finish out their non-conference slate 3-1.
Projected Record: 3-1 (0-0 Big Ten)
Oct. 4 at Northwestern
The Badgers' first true road game of the season comes at Ryan Field in Evanston, Illinois, against the Northwestern Wildcats. Ryan Field has not been the easiest place for the Badgers to play, with Wisconsin dropping their last three meetings with the Wildcats in Evanston.
Northwestern will be shorthanded as Venric Mark's departure robs the team of far and away their most dynamic player. While they have running backs to fill the void, no one has quite the same quickness nor home run ability that Mark had, nor do they have anyone who can return kicks and punts like he could.
Kain Colter is gone from last year's team, making it just Trevor Siemian as the sole quarterback. Siemian wasn't very good last season and was downright awful against the Badgers—13-of-34 for 163 yards.
For the Wildcats to have a shot, Siemian will need to be much, much better than last season, though he will be doing it without the help of Christian Jones, who hauled in 54 passes last season and is now down with a knee injury that will keep him out for the season.
Another good game from the two tailbacks will secure this victory; however, after Northwestern jumps on the opening possession with a touchdown drive, it is the quarterbacks who lead the charge as the Badgers put up two touchdown passes in the first half plus a touchdown scamper by McEvoy.
Projected Record: 4-1 (1-0 Big Ten)
Oct. 11 vs. Illinois
Things got a little more interesting under the lights in last season's matchup between the Illinois Fighting Illini and the Badgers after Chris Borland went down with an injury and the Badgers defense looked like they were on the field for the first time.
Fortunately for the Badgers, while the 32 points they allowed were an aberration, the 56 they put up led them to a comfortable victory. To steal an old cliche, the Illini rush defense couldn't stop a nosebleed, allowing 238.6 yards per game (119th of 124).
That kind of rushing defense won't fly against Gordon—by now firmly cemented as a Heisman candidate—and his trusty sidekick Clement, both of whom will eclipse the 100-yard mark in this game. They will be able to jump around from the sideline as the freshmen kill out the clock on this one.
Projected Record: 5-1 (2-0 Big Ten)
Oct. 25 vs. Maryland
Homecoming for the Badgers means all sorts of fanfare that might not otherwise surround a game against recently added Big Ten foe Maryland. While Maryland may not be bad, I don't think they are ready yet for Big Ten football.
The Terrapins have a member of the Robbie Hummel All-Stars (i.e. someone who has been in school forever) at quarterback and a pair of really good receivers, both of whom suffered nasty leg injuries last season.
Making matters worse for the Terrapins is that this game falls right in the middle of a stretch where they face off against Ohio State and Iowa and then after this matchup at Camp Randall, they travel to Happy Valley before taking on Michigan State and then Michigan at the Big House. A single win in that stretch would be something to build off.
Defensively, Maryland had a solid defense; however, ACC teams are not nearly as physical as Big Ten teams are and after getting punched in the mouth by Iowa for 60 minutes the week before, at least the Terrapins will know what's coming. Gordon and Clement will run wild en route to a 3-0 start in Big Ten play.
Projected Record: 6-1 (3-0 Big Ten)
Nov. 1 at Rutgers
The folks in charge of scheduling must really not like Maryland and Rutgers. The Scarlet Knights' matchup against Wisconsin closes a four-game stretch where they play Michigan at home, followed by trips to Ohio State and Nebraska before coming back to New Jersey to take on the Badgers.
The Scarlet Knights beat all the teams they were supposed to last season and stole a win against Arkansas and former Badgers coach Bret Bielema at home to send them to a bowl game, where they lost to Notre Dame.
Rutgers, like Maryland, is unprepared for how physical the Big Ten is, only the Scarlet Knights are much worse off. Rutgers did boast the fourth-best rush defense, allowing 100.8 yards per game last season on the ground, though a piece of that can be chalked up to the spread offenses they played in the AAC.
This game would be tough if it was at the beginning of their four-game gauntlet, but at the end, an exhausted Rutgers team will be no match for the two-headed monster of Gordon and Clement, while the quarterbacks have their best games of the year in a blowout in Piscataway.
Projected Record: 7-1 (4-0 Big Ten)
Nov. 8 at Purdue
Two true road games in a row? What is this! Fortunately for the Badgers, there will probably be more people in Cardinal and White than there will be at Ross-Ade Stadium when the Badgers take on the Boilermakers of Purdue.
Last season, when the Boilermakers came to Madison, Gordon ran for 147 yards and three scores, James White ran for 146 yards and a score and Clement even ran for 83 yards and a score en route to a 41-10 defeat at the hands of the Badgers.
Purdue's run defense was awful last season, giving up 235.4 yards per game, which was good enough for 117th in the country. While running the risk of beating a dead horse, if you can't stop the run, you can't stop the Badgers.
With a questionable offense to boot, this game will be over by halftime and the freshmen running backs (whomever wins the job between Kinlaw and Deal) will have a chance to see double-digit carries for likely the last time all season.
Projected Record: 8-1 (5-0 Big Ten)
Nov. 15 vs. Nebraska
After the LSU game, many Badgers fans will jump all the way to November 15 to find the next game that could cause the Badgers fits. Sure there are some quality teams in games two through nine on their schedule, but I feel fairly confident in predicting wins in each of their first five conference games plus the three non-LSU non-conference tilts.
Since Nebraska joined the Big Ten in 2011, the Badgers have really had its number twice and watched their matchup in Lincoln slip away. In Nebraska's first game as a member of the Big Ten, the Badgers won 48-17 in a matchup of Top-10 teams under the lights of Camp Randall.
In the two teams' last matchup, the Badgers pulled plays out of their seemingly vanilla playbook that no one had ever seen before, en route to a 70-31 victory in the Big Ten Championship Game and a third consecutive berth to the Rose Bowl.
This is a matchup of Heisman trophy candidate running backs, with Melvin Gordon compiling video game stats in the games since LSU, while Ameer Abdullah churns out game after game with 100-plus yards.
To show how consistent Abdullah was last season, he never rushed for fewer than 85 yards and broke the century mark in 11 of the team's 13 games (he had 98 in one more).
With the Badgers front seven coalescing over the course of the season, stopping Abdullah will be easier in mid-November than it would be in mid-September. Still, both team's rushing attacks (Gordon and Clement vs. Abdullah and Imani Cross) will trade punches like prizefighters on a cold Madison afternoon.
I think the Badgers will get the better of this matchup, though this will likely be the toughest test the Badgers will face. Furthermore, a loss here doesn't necessarily eliminate the Badgers from the Big Ten title game as the Cornhuskers face a trip to East Lansing, which should give them a tally in the loss column while the Badgers should go into the game unscathed in conference.
Projected Record: 9-1 (6-0 Big Ten)
Nov. 22 at Iowa
If the Nebraska game is the Badgers' toughest, their matchup with Iowa is probably the most important. Playing for the Heartland Trophy, this has to be one of the most even matchups of any trophy game. The Badgers lead the series 43-42-2 thanks to a two-game win streak.
In last season's matchup, also in Iowa City, Gordon struggled mightily, rushing 17 times for just 62 yards. With that being said, White and the rest of the Badgers picked up the slack, taking the game 28-9 and hoisting the trophy.
Gordon admitted the fans got to him, saying at the Big Ten media days (as reported by Pat Harty at Hawk Central): "I had such a hard time with Iowa, I’m telling you. Their fans, they really got to me. I was just so upset. I was just so mad that the Iowa fans got in my head that game."
Iowa also plays an incredibly soft schedule leading up to this game, with a chance to come into this game undefeated. Their crossover games are against Indiana and Maryland, avoiding the juggernauts of the East division, while their non-conference schedule hardly features heavyweights.
If both of these teams come in at 6-0 in the Big Ten, the winner here goes to Indianapolis, raising the stakes of an already hotly contested rivalry game to another level.
Stave and Jake Rudock are very similar quarterbacks, going so far as posting similar numbers last season. However, Rudock struggled horribly against the Badgers last season, going 12-of-24 for 109 yards and an interception, while Stave looked relatively sharp against the Hawkeyes, going 11-of-19 for 144 yards, two touchdowns and an interception.
I'll take the Badgers in this game as they are a better version of the Hawkeyes, though for fans of pretty football, this game is not for you. When the Big Ten is derided for playing ugly football, one can probably point to this game on a cold November afternoon as why.
Projected Record: 10-1 (7-0 Big Ten)
Nov. 29 vs. Minnesota
Minnesota may lead the series 59-56-8 in the battle for Paul Bunyan's Axe, a game which has been played annually since 1890 (except 1906—thanks, Teddy Roosevelt); however, for the past 10 years, it has been all Wisconsin. A college senior now would have been in seventh grade the last time the Gophers won.
Minnesota has a decent team this year, though they have an absolute murderers' row at the end of the season, starting with visits from Iowa and Ohio State before traveling to Lincoln and then to Madison to close out its season.
The Gophers will be a tough out week in and week out; however, that schedule will catch up to them. While their defense returns a lot of pieces, it loses arguably the most important one in Ra'Shede Hageman. With a relatively weak offense, I don't think their defense will be able to keep them in games as it did last season.
This year should make it 11 in a row for the Badgers as they continue their Sherman's March back to Indianapolis. Melvin Gordon will cement a trip to New York with yet another 100-yard game and a touchdown, while 12 total passes are thrown by the Badgers on a blustery and snowy, late-November Madison morning.
Projected Record: 11-1 (8-0 Big Ten)