The Wisconsin Badgers Football program has done a 180 in a matter of months. A program that looked lost following the home loss to Illinois, did the unthinkable when they hired Luke Fickell instead of homegrown Jim Leonhard. At the time, fans and college football pundits alike had mixed feelings. The old-school Wisconsin fans couldn’t wrap their heads around the idea athletic director Chris McIntosh went outside of the program for Chryst’s replacement. Those tired of the Wisconsin norm couldn’t have been more thrilled.
With the major shift in direction now in the review mirror, and the coaching staff being close to set after a myriad of changes, we can look forward to bigger things. The hiring of offensive coordinator Phil Longo has turned the off-season excitement up a notch. The opinions around the changes have gone from “we’ll see if there’s really that much difference” to “will the Badgers be able to contend in 2023?”.
I want to take a look at what the roster may look like over the next couple of years (with what we currently know) and see if there is a window where the Badgers may truly be able to contend. We already know the program is heading in a direction we’ve never seen before, but will that be good enough to compete with the likes of Georgia and Alabama?
What’s fueling the excitement?
The Fickell hire for many was already a home run, but the addition of Longo may be the biggest difference maker. We’ve seen the Badgers’ recruiting struggle for as long as I can remember. As a run-first team, and proud of it, it was difficult for the coaching staff to sell the idea of evolution on the offensive side of the ball.
Immediately upon Longo being hired, and bringing his version of the air raid offense, that perception changed. There have been countless articles written on who has transferred/ committed and how many stars they have so I won’t beat you over the head with that. With that said, we’ve seen the top teams in the country consistently be able to put up points. Wisconsin, for years, have relied heavily on a dominant defense and power running game.
Even with some of the most dominant defenses in the country, Wisconsin was never viewed as a true threat on the National stage. Their inability to win the big game killed them year after year. Their inability to trust the offense seemed to be one of the culprits. When facing the best teams in college football, you need to be able to win in more than one way. With the current staff, we have the potential to see what that looks like.
Could 2023 Be The Year?
I, and a lot of those that cover the Badgers at a high level, were elated to see Fickell get hired. He had a great track record, a connection to the Midwest, and seemed to have the personal values that fit in perfectly at Wisconsin. With that said, I don’t think anyone was predicting an immediate push to the top of the national rankings. There’s always a chance of players leaving through the portal, it takes time to bring in the HS prospects you like and the new systems take time to implement.
Instead of the portal hurting the team, it has become a major beacon of hope. Although Fickell said it’s not something he wants to rely on, he used it in a big way to revamp two of the weakest parts of the roster. Not only did Fickell add depth, but he added a player that will come in and improve the offense from day 1.
The addition of Tanner Mordecai from SMU makes the passing attack prolific from the get-go. He is familiar with an air raid offense and Longo has a long track record of his offenses putting up yards and points. Not only will we see Wisconsin quarterbacks put up yards with their arms, but we’ll see a lot more success on the ground moving forward as well. Luke Fickell has been very vocal about wanting QBs that can extend plays with their legs.
Tanner didn’t run for a ton of yards at SMU but showed the ability to keep plays alive. With a revamped wide receiver room, giving the playmakers more time to get open will be huge. The offense is going to look completely different and will modernize a system that has been stuck in neutral for years.
Even though we can all agree the offense will be more well rounding with a much higher ceiling, I still don’t see this being the year they truly compete. I expect them to win the west division, but I think the defense will hold them back a bit. This isn’t me saying the defense will be bad, or even average. The losses of Nick Herbig and Keeanu Benton are going to be felt in a big way as there aren’t players ready to immediately fill those shoes, at least not at that level.
Even though there is a lot of potential on the defensive depth chart, there is a lot of youth and not a lot of proven commodities. The youth movement doesn’t stop on defense either. Adding a proven passer on offense is great, but the receiving room is also very young. The elder statesman in the position has a history of running the incorrect routes as well. Even though the potential is through the roof, I expect there to be some early struggles from the receiving group.
On the flip side, the new offensive schemes and talent outside will give Braelon Allen more space to run. That’s not something he’s had much of over his first 2 seasons. He lead college football last year in yards against 8+ man boxes. As impressive as that is, imagine the kind of success he’ll have against 7, or even 6 man boxes.
As exciting as the 2023 season will be, the roster has holes and there will be growing pains. If everything goes right, they should breeze through the west and compete in the B1G Championship Game. If there are hiccups, we are looking at a 9-10 win season which is by no means a disappointment. If the offense clicks right away, they give themselves a chance to make it to Indy and compete for the B1G championship. Unfortunately, the 12-team college football playoff doesn’t start until 2024 so the margin for error is slim. With that said, we’ll get a good idea of what this new look program is capable of in year 1.
2024: Which Quarterback Emerges?
With Tanner Mordecai using his last year of eligibility in 2023, Badger fans will potentially see their quarterback of the future in 2024. With two previous 4-star recruits transferring to Wisconsin this season, they’ll get a whole year to learn the playbook and improve ahead of what could be a huge opportunity in 2024.
The battle for the starting job in 2024 will be key as to whether this program will have the chance to sniff a deep college football playoff run in the near future. With Braedyn Locke transferring in from Mississippi State and Nick Evers from Oklahoma, you expect one of these two to grab the starting job and run with it. If either one truly separates as the top option, the Badgers would be set at QB for at least 2 years. With Cole LaCrue on board as well, there is plenty of potentials for the signal caller to be a position of strength next season.
The biggest opportunity will come from the receiver room. Wisconsin has added a ton of competition in the portal this year and seeing who takes the jump will be key. I think we are all expecting CJ Williams to grow into an impact player, but we can’t overlook players like Markus Allen, Skyler Bell (who had a very solid 2022), and 2022 transfer Keontez Lewis. The addition of Bryson Green out of Oklahoma State may be the biggest of all as he’ll be ready to go from day 1. The receiver room is deep for the first time in recent memory with TE now being a position of focus.
The growth doesn’t stop on offense. The secondary has added some exciting playmakers to the 2023 recruiting class. With that being an area of concern, the growth of the players currently on the roster, and those coming this spring/fall, will be huge. The linebacker group should be experienced and will be able to stabilize the unit overall. I expect the other main area of focus for recruiting to be on the DL. Wisconsin will need to cast a wide net to reload that position and may need to rely on the portal again for immediate support.
Overall, I don’t think 2024 is the year where this program takes the big leap. I think QB play will be similar, if not a touch worse than in 2023 unless either Locke or Evers reach their potential early. I’m by no means ruling it out, but it feels like the offensive and defensive timing isn’t quite ready to line up for a true title push. Even though the college football playoff will have 12 teams for the first time, 2024 feels more like a set-up year for something special in 2025.
It All Comes Together in 2025
Year 3 under the new regime is where I expect everything to come together. The longer Fickell and Longo stick together, the better. If there’s a year for the team as we know it to make a push, it’ll be 2025. This still greatly hinges on Locke or Evers taking the jump in 2024. If they show signs of being the guy, there is no reason to think they won’t take another leap in 2025. With QB play being so crucial to team success, a bump in play from 2024 to 2025 could be the difference between being competitive, and being a true contender.
The receiver group, which has been more or less rebuilt, will be deep and experienced. With two years in Longo’s system, we’ll see the potential in the pass-and-run game. This isn’t even taking into account what other high-end high school recruits may commit or transfers that may see an opportunity in Madison.
The defense will be comfortable with the Mike Tressel schemes and experience shouldn’t be an issue. It also looks like they’ll be loaded with playmakers in the secondary. We can’t overlook the addition of kicker Nathanial Vakos this season either. By 2025, he’ll be in his senior year and will have years of experience making big kicks. For a team like Wisconsin, having reliable special teams could be the difference.
The Badgers still need a lot to go their way to potentially compete for a national title, but the signs are there. The fact they had 1-3 years under Chryst that would have qualified them for a 12-team playoff gives me all the confidence in the world they’ll be able to get there consistently under Fickell. As the Wisconsin brand continues to grow and evolve under his leadership, there is truly nothing holding the program back anymore.
McIntosh made the tough decision to take a leap of faith. Even though it’s looking less like a leap and more like a tiny, it took guts to make that call. We are now seeing why it was the smart move. Still, the quarterback position is the key. If Locke or Evers become the guy in 2024, the Badgers are in great shape, especially with 4-star Mabrey Mettauer hopping on board as well.
The beauty of the program now is the ability to bring in high-level recruits and transfers on both sides of the ball. The team will be more well-balanced and should be able to win games in multiple ways. The future is bright in Madison and I don’t think we are that far away from something special.