The Wisconsin Badgers walk onto the field before the game against the Minnesota Golden Gophers of the game on November 25, 2017 at TCF Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, Minnesota. (Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images)

Football

Our 10th annual Top 25 countdown: No. 6 Wisconsin’s 10 returning offensive starters ready to state case for CFP

Late road conference games hold Badgers' hopes of advancing to conference title game

Posted July 23rd, 2018

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Sure, it’s July. But it’s never too early to talk college football. Here’s your daily fix — our annual countdown of the preseason Top 25, as selected by the American-Statesman sports staff. Last year’s eventual CFP semifinalists were ranked Nos. 1, 5, 8 and 14 on our 2017 list.

Our Top 25 — so far:

No. 25: Texas is building — but are we there yet, are we there yet?

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No. 24: LSU has a tough schedule, questions at key spots

No. 23: Oregon welcomes a new coach — again and again and again

No. 22: Central Florida is out to go unbeaten (ahem, again)

No. 21: There’s a new coach, offense and direction for Florida State

No. 20: Their big names gone, USC is reloading … or is that rebuilding?

No. 19: For West Virginia, when there’s a Will there’s a way

No. 18: For Boise State, the Mountain West sky is the limit

No. 17: Mississippi State is breaking in a new head coach

No.16: Virginia Tech’s chances hinge on an up-and-down quarterback

No. 15: TCU has been the model of consistency, but there are 2018 concerns

No. 14: Love is all you need, at least if you’re talking about Stanford’s Bryce Love

No. 13: Notre Dame is on the brink of a real springboard season

No. 12: Michigan has said goodbye to John O’Korn, hello to Shea Patterson

No. 11: With just about everyone back, Michigan State looks for a 2017 encore

No. 10: Penn State bids goodbye to Saquon Barkley, but Trace McSorley’s still there

No. 9: Talented Auburn should be considered a CFP possibility coming out of the SEC

No. 8: Oklahoma has reloaded, eyeing a possible first-ever fourpeat in the Big 12

No. 7: Miami’s dreams of ACC titles and CFP berths have to go through Clemson again

Today’s team: No. 6 Wisconsin

The Badgers’ best-case scenario: Junior quarterback Alex Hornibrook, who threw for 2,607 yards and 25 touchdowns in 2017, cuts back on his 15 interceptions from a year ago, and a dynamic and balanced offense propels the Badgers to a Big Ten Conference title and their first appearance in the College Football Playoff.

Their worst-case scenario: An inexperienced defense can’t match last season’s success, when it allowed a conference-low 262 yards and 13.9 points per contest. Those defensive lapses will cost the Badgers either during a difficult road slate or the Big Ten title game.

RELATED COVERAGE: Unfazed by changes, Badgers think 2018 can be a championship season

RELATED COVERAGE: A Q&A with Wisconsin coach Paul Chryst

Inside the Badgers

Coach: Paul Chryst (fourth year, 34-7; 53-26 overall at Pittsburgh and Wisconsin)

2017: 13-1, 9-0 in the Big Ten (beat Miami 34-24 in the Orange Bowl)

Returning starters: 10 offense, 3 defense

Goodbye: CB Nick Nelson (4th, Raiders); TE Troy Fumagalli (5th, Broncos); S Natrell Jamerson (5th, Saints); LB Garret Dooley; DE Alec James; LB Jack Cichy (6th, Buccaneers); OLB Leon Jacobs (7th, Jaguars)

Spring cleaning: Graduation sapped both quantity and quality from the Big Ten’s best defense in 2017. The Badgers welcome back just three starters, and don’t overlook the departure of linebackers coach Tim Tibesar, who mentored an assembly line of future NFL linebackers such as Joe Schobert, T.J. Watt and Vince Biege. Offensively, replacing all-conference tight end Troy Fumagalli looks like the top — and darn near only — priority.

Quintez Cephus (87) of the Wisconsin Badgers runs after a catch in the second quarter of a game against the Indiana Hoosiers at Memorial Stadium on November 4, 2017 in Bloomington, Indiana. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

Returning leaders

PASSING: Alex Hornibrook, 198-318-2,644, 25/15 (1st)

RUSHING: Jonathan Taylor, 299-1,977-13 (1st); Bradrick Shaw, 96-365-4 (2nd)

RECEIVING: Quintez Cephus, 30-501-6 (2nd); A.J. Taylor, 31-475-5 (3rd); Danny Davis III, 26-418-5 (4th)

TACKLES: ILB Ryan Connelly, 88 (1st); ILB T.J. Edwards, 81 (2nd)

SACKS: OLB Andrew Van Ginkel, 6.5 (T-2nd)

INTERCEPTIONS: ILB T.J. Edwards, 4 (T-1st)

Returning All-Big Ten players (11)

Offense: RB Jonathan Taylor (1st team); OG Beau Benzschawel (1st); OT Michael Deiter (1st); OT David Edwards (2nd); C Tyler Biadasz (3rd); WR Quintez Cephus (hon. mention); QB Alex Hornibrook (hon. mention)

Defense: ILB T.J. Edwards (1st); S D’Cota Dixon (3rd); ILB Ryan Connelly (hon. mention); NT Olive Sagapolu (hon. mention)

Special teams: K Rafael Gaglianone (2nd)

FYI

Stalwart OL returns all 5 starters: It’s hard to improve offensively after averaging 33.8 points and 415 yards per contest in 2017, but expect even better things from this pack of Badgers. The offensive line — always a stalwart of the Wisconsin program — returns all five starters as well as running back Jonathan Taylor, who set the single-season freshman FBS rushing record with 1,977 yards and 13 touchdowns last season. Oh, and quarterback Hornibrook welcomes back his top four receivers.

Late road woes for Badgers? The biggest obstacle between the Badgers and the CFP may just be a brutal conference schedule that includes trips to the Big House at Michigan as well as that November visit to Penn State. Win those games, and nemesis Ohio State may be waiting in the Big Ten title game.

Chap could be ready to pound Wisky foes: Nakia Watson, who signed with the Badgers after running for 1,938 yards and 27 touchdowns as a senior at Westlake last year, may redshirt considering the depth Wisconsin has at running back. However, Badgers running backs coach John Settle said earlier this year that the 6-foot, 230-pound Watson has the body type to endure a Big Ten season and compete immediately.

2017 national rankings

Scoring: 28th (33.8 ppg) — right above No. 29 TCU, right behind No. 27 Auburn

Points allowed: 3rd (13.9 ppg) — sandwiched near the top of the country between two ACC schools, right above No. 4 Virginia Tech, right behind No. 2 Clemson

Passing: 92nd (192.1 ypg) — right above No. 93 Iowa, right behind No. 91 (and defending national champion) Alabama

Rushing: 23rd (222.9 ypg) — sandwiched between two Sun Belt teams, right above No. 24 Georgia Southern, right behind No. 22 Appalachian State

Total offense: 51st (415.0 ypg) — right above No. 52 Utah, right behind No. 50 Connecticut

Total defense: 2nd (262.1 ypg) — right above No. 3 Michigan, right behind No. 1 Alabama

Quarterback Alex Hornibrook #12 of the Wisconsin Badgers looks to the bench before a play against the Nebraska Cornhuskers at Memorial Stadium on October 7, 2017 in Lincoln, Nebraska. (Photo by Steven Branscombe/Getty Images)

The schedule

DATEOPPONENTLAST YR'S RESULT (IF PLAYED)
Aug. 31 (8 p.m., ESPN)Western Kentucky
Sept. 8 (11 a.m., BTN)New Mexico
Sept. 15 (2:30 p.m.)BYUW, 40-6 in Provo
Sept. 22at Iowa*W, 38-14 in Madison
Oct. 6Nebraska*W, 38-17 in Lincoln
Oct. 13at Michigan*W, 24-10 in Madison
Oct. 20 (11 a.m.)Illinois*W, 24-10 in Champaign
Oct. 27at Northwestern*W, 33-24 in Madison
Nov. 3Rutgers*
Nov. 10at Penn State*
Nov. 17at Purdue*W, 17-9 in Madison
Nov. 24Minnesota*W, 31-0 in Minneapolis
* Big Ten game

The key game: at Penn State, Nov. 10. Expect foul weather, high stakes and more than 100,000 full-throated fans in this brutal, late-season road trip for the Badgers.

The last 5 years

YEARW-L (CONF.)RANKINGSBOWL, RESULT
20139-4 (6-2)23rd / 22ndCapital One, L
201411-3 (7-1)14th / 18thOutback, W
201510-3 (6-2)20th / 21stHoliday, W
201611-3 (7-2)— / 9thCotton, W
201713-1 (9-0)9th / 7thOrange, W
Total54-14 (25-7 Big Ten)4-1 in bowls

Note: Ranks are that year’s preseason/final ranking

Our Top 25, by conferences

4 schools:

Big Ten — No. 6 Wisconsin, No. 10 Penn State, No. 11 Michigan State, No. 12 Michigan

Big 12 — No. 8 Oklahoma, No. 15 TCU, No. 19 West Virginia, No. 25 Texas

3 schools:

ACC — No. 7 Miami, No. 16 Virginia Tech, No. 21 Florida State

SEC — No. 9 Auburn, No. 17 Mississippi State, No. 24 LSU

Pac-12 — No. 14 Stanford, No. 20 USC, No. 23 Oregon

1 school:

Independents — No. 13 Notre Dame

Mountain West — No. 18 Boise State

AAC — No. 22 Central Florida

Coming tomorrow: Our No. 5 team

Want a hint?

This school’s coach was the first two-time winner of the Paul “Bear” Bryant Award — but not at his current school.

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