8:00 PM EST, BIG 10 Network – Line: Wisconsin -19.5, Over/Under: 50.5
The Big Ten finally makes it’s grand return to the college football landscape as it begins to embark on an abridged, conference-only schedule, with the No. 14 Wisconsin Badgers playing host to the Illinois Fighting Illini from Camp Randall Stadium in Madison, Wisconsin. So much of building success in this sport is predicated on momentum, particularly when transitioning from one season to the next, from developing the talent on hand to scouting the fertile recruiting grounds, which is made all the more easier when armed with a positive sales pitch. Now imagine the damage done due to the disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, which caused the league to postpone it’s start by two months. And this is where we find Illinois (6-7, 4-5 in Big Ten in 2019), who after spending the last decade serving as the conference’s resident doormat, finally appeared to show some serious signs of life down the stretch, winning their four of their last six games of the campaign en route to becoming bowl eligible for the first time since 2014, and only the sixth time since the turn of the century. Now heading into his fifth season in Champaign, Lovie Smith looked like he was one more dismal season away from losing his job, having gone a miserable 9-27 (.250) in his first three years, including 4-23 (.148) within the Big Ten. However, it appears that the 62-year old has finally figured out to improve the talent base of his roster.
Of course, Smith spent eleven years as a Head Coach in the NFL, nine of which came leading the Chicago Bears, with the highlight of his tenure being a trip to Super Bowl XLI in 2007. However, upon returning to the state of Illinois to coach the Illini in 2016, it became very clear that the gap in talent is far wider within the Big Ten than he could have ever imagined, with a Coach’s recruiting skills proving to be far more valuable than his strategic chops. So after three miserable seasons, Smith made some inspired moves, including hiring Cory Patterson, a highly-regarded St. Louis High School Coach, to his Staff in an attempt to better cultivate the fertile recruiting fields in St. Louis, while also welcoming any and all comers on the transfer market, which has really made an impact in immediately improving the talent base of his team. Last year alone he added former Michigan Quarterback, Brandon Peters, Alabama Guard, Richie Petitbon, Georgia Tight End, Luke Ford, and a trifecta of talent from USC in the form of Receivers, Josh Imatorbhebhe, and Trevon Sidney, alongside Edge-Rusher, Oluwole Betiku. Furthermore, his 2019 Recruiting Class included a quartet of 4-Star Recruits, all of which redshirted, and will be available for tonight’s Season Opener at Wisconsin. And speaking of the Badgers, that’s precisely where the point in which their fortunes turned last season. Struggling at 2-4 and licking their wounds following four consecutive losses, Illinois trailed 20-7 midway through the Third Quarter, but the Defense managed to produce some huge plays, forcing three turnovers in the Second Half, scoring seventeen of the game’s final twenty points, capped by a 39-yard walk-off field goal to steal a much-needed 24-23 victory over the sixth-ranked team in the country, which served as the catalyst to a four-game winning streak that earned them bowl eligibility. The Offense battled through early injuries to get healthier down the stretch, while the Defense as a whole improved greatly during that period, particularly against the run, where they relegated five of their final seven opponents below 4.0 yards per carry. Now, the challenge becomes replenishing that talent base once your studs move on, which will undoubtedly be the key to their success in 2020. Smith must replace his top four Defensive Linemen, chief among them Betiku, who led the unit with nine sacks, along with leading tackler, Linebacker, Dele Harding, who was nothing short of productive roaming the middle of the field, totaling a whopping 149 tackles, fourteen of which were for a loss, a pair of forced fumbles, and five takeaways.
So rather than linger on what they’ve lost, let’s focus on what Illinois has returning to their ranks, shall we? Though he didn’t turn any heads (positively or negatively), the aforementioned Peters was simply steady in his first season in Champaign, making eleven starts in which he completed 55.3% of his attempts for 1,884 yards on 6.9 yards per attempt, with eighteen touchdowns in comparison to eight interceptions, and rushing for another 213 yards and three scores on seventy-four carries. With the majority of a veteran group of Offensive Linemen returning, there is reason for optimism that he will continue to improve, particularly when you consider the talent that he has to work with in the Receiving Corps. This could very well be the most underrated group of pass-catchers within the Big Ten, for Imatorbhebhe (33 REC, 634 YDS, 19.2 Y/R, 9 TD in 2019) has loads of potential, joined by the returning Sidney (16 REC, 123 YDS, 7.7 Y/R, 1 TD in 2019) and Ford, who was unable to play last year due to a denied waiver. Smith continued to bolster this unit with more transfers, with New Mexico State Receiver, Desmond Dan, and another Trojan, Tight End, Daniel Imatorbhebhe, who will be joining his older brother in Champaign. While the Illini could have really used the non-conference outings against Illinois State, Connecticut, and Bowling Green to build some much needed chemistry and confidence in lieu of their dates within the Big Ten, they’ll have to cope with the rest of the league sooner than Smith would have preferred, for we’re about to see if his work in the Offseason has helped to further close the talent gap, or if he and his charges are still lagging behind.
Meanwhile, what exactly can we expect from Wisconsin (10-4, 7-3 in Big Ten in 2019) this season? Sure, when discussing the Badgers there are always the constants of their consistently-productive rushing attack fueled by their stable of beasts along the Offensive Line, coupled with steady (if unspectacular play) from whomever is at Quarterback, while the Defense generally plays fast and aggressive, racing towards the football like eleven madmen with their hair ablaze. This formula for success has also made them into the safest annual bet in the Big Ten, at least when it comes to advancing to the Conference Championship, which they’ve done more so than any other team in the league of late, managing to accomplish that feat on six occasions since 2010. With that said, they’ve yet to get over the proverbial hump and earn a Big Ten Title since Paul Chryst took over in 2015, though he has put together a stellar record of 52-16 (.765) in five seasons in Madison, where he has led his charges to four ten-win campaigns, including a pair of West Division Titles, and a 4-1 ledger in bowls. With that said, the program lost A LOT of talent in the Offseason, leaving many wondering just what these Badgers are going to look like heading into this most unconventional of seasons.
First and foremost, Wisconsin said goodbye to arguably the best Tailback that has walked through Camp Randall Stadium in over a decade, as Jonathan Taylor took his considerable talents to the National Football League. The 41st Overall Pick in the 2020 NFL Draft was nothing short of dominant in his three-year stay in Madison, rushing for 6,174 yards (6th all-time in NCAA) and fifty touchdowns (5th all-time in NCAA) on a whopping 6.7 yards per carry, including back-to-back 2,000-yard seasons in 2018 and 2019. Needless to say, replacing him will be no small task, though given the track record at the program, we’re inclined to give them the benefit of the doubt in doing so; returning rushers, Nakia Watson (74 CAR, 331 YDS, 4.5 Y/A, 2 TD in 2019) and Garrett Groshek (42 CAR, 194 YDS, 4.6 Y/A, 2 TD in 2019) figure to get plenty of reps early on, while highly-recruited Freshman, Jalen Berger, should get his fair share of carries as well, as Chryst will likely employ a platoon approach until one of the aforementioned ‘Backs distinguishes himself. The Offense also parted ways with it’s leading Receiver over the past two years, Quintez Cephus (59 REC, 901 YDS, 15.3 Y/R, 7 TD), who hauled in eighty-nine receptions for 1,402 yards, and thirteen touchdowns from 2018 to 2019. Versatile Senior Wideout, Kendric Pryor (23 REC, 278 YDS, 12.1 Y/R, 0 TD in 2019) excelled against man coverage last season, and should step into the role of primary target on the strength of a wealth of experience, while also factoring into the running game on sweeps and reverses, adding 180 yards and a pair of touchdowns on thirteen carries. Furthermore, Junior Tight End, Jake Ferguson (33 REC, 407 YDS, 12.3 Y/R, 2 TD in 2019), will be counted upon to play a larger role in the passing game, after topping thirty receptions and 400 receiving yards over the past two years. Defensively, Chryst must also replace a pair of heat-seeking missiles at Linebacker, with Zach Baun and Chris Orr, moving on after combining for 153 tackles, 33.5 for loss, twenty-four sacks, and four forced fumbles in 2019, though the reasoning for optimism that applied to the running game applies here, as we’re confident that they’ll find someone to step up. However, you’ll notice that we haven’t touched upon the situation at Quarterback, for it just so happens that their most unexpected vacancy comes at the most important position on the gridiron.
If there was ever a program in which a Quarterback simply needed to be a Game Manager it’s certainly at Wisconsin, where Chryst doesn’t ask much of his single-callers so long as they play second-fiddle to the punishing, prolific ground game that the school has long been synonymous with. As a result, the top recruits at that position know this all too well, with most eschewing the advances from their scouts, preferring not to play someplace where they’ll be handing the football off over forty times per game. With that said, the Badgers very rarely acquire blue-chip recruits, with really the only notable figure being Russell Wilson, and he spent just one season in Madison as a Graduate Transfer from North Carolina State (2011). Well, we’re about to see what happens when Wisconsin deploys such a passer, as Graham Mertz (90.0%, 73 YDS, 7.3 Y/A, 0 TD, 0 INT, 151.3 RATE in 2019), has been named the starter for tonight’s Season Opener against the Illini. The Redshirt Freshman is replacing his Junior teammate, Jack Coan (69.6%, 2,727 YDS, 8.0 Y/A, 18 TD, 5 INT, 151.8 RATE in 2019), who unfortunately broke his foot during practice earlier this month, and (barring a miraculous recovery) will miss the entirety of the season, particularly when you consider that there will be no bye weeks in this abbreviated, full-speed ahead, schedule in the Big Ten. Mertz saw action in just two games last season, attempting a total of ten passes, so it’s really anyone’s guess as to how he’ll perform given the circumstances. Our guess is that Chryst would prefer to lean on the running game and have the youngster hand the football off until he becomes more comfortable with his Receiving Corps, but with the Backfield a question mark as well and the fact that the Badgers must find more production through the air if they wish to come out of a crowded Big Ten Western Division, it’s a proverbial catch-22.