Quarterback Alex Hornibrook (12), after starting 32 games for Wisconsin, has moved on to Florida State as a graduate transfer. That means the Badgers' offense will be led by either Jack Coan and Graham Mertz. (Steven Branscombe/Getty Images)

Football

Our 11th annual Top 25 countdown: No. 20 Wisconsin — A new QB, but the same great running back

Jonathan Taylor rushed for 2,194 yards last year and won the Doak Walker Award. The Badgers need another big season from him in 2019.

Posted July 8th, 2019

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We’re 52 days away from the 2019 season opener, but it’s never too early to talk college football. We kick off our 11th annual countdown series of our preseason Top 25 as selected by the American-Statesman sports staff. Last year’s eventual CFP semifinalists ranked 1st, 2nd, 8th and 13th in our 2018 poll.

Our No. 20 team: Wisconsin

The Badgers’ best-case scenario: Wisconsin needs running back Jonathan Taylor to remain in the Heisman Trophy discussion, but it would be beneficial if receivers Danny Davis III and A.J. Taylor step up and also snag some highlights. Wisconsin went from fourth place in last year’s AP preseason poll to receiving a total of two points in the final rankings, so maybe the Badgers will be better suited as the hunters instead of the hunted.

And their worst-case scenario: Worst case? If last season’s turnover problems — the Badgers’ 24 giveaways ranked 107th nationally — turn out to be a trend instead of an anomaly, then Wisconsin could be in for a bigger disappointment this season. A turnover turnaround could depend on whoever replaces Alex Hornibrook at quarterback, but are junior Jack Coan and Graham Mertz ready for the spotlight?

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Last year, Wisconsin ranked 6th in our preseason poll. Before last season, the last time the Badgers finished unranked was at the end of the 2012 season.

Inside the Badgers

Coach: Paul Chryst (5th year, 42-12; 61-31 overall, 7 years at Pitt and Wisconsin)

2018: 8-5, 5-4 in the Big Ten (beat Miami in the Pinstripe Bowl). Wisconsin has finished first or second in the Big Ten West in each of Chryst’s four seasons.

Returning starters: 5 offense, 6 defense

Shoes to fill: QB Alex Hornibrook; ILB T.J. Edwards (led team in tackles, sacks, INTs); ILB Ryan Connelly (2nd in tackles), OGs Michael Deiter and Beau Benzschawel (both 1st team all-conference)

Spring cleaning: Wisconsin had four players drafted, but OL David Edwards was the only early departee. … The 2019 recruiting class ranked 28th nationally, with five-star OL Logan Brown was the big get. Quarterback Graham Mertz and OL Joe Tippmann were the only other four-star signees. … A coaching staff that includes five coaches who went to school at Wisconsin remained intact over the offseason. … Last year, Wisconsin failed to win three straight games for the first time since 2001. … The 4,171 rushing yards compiled over Taylor’s freshman and sophomore years is a FBS-level record.

Penn State cornerback Tariq Castro-Fields, left, pulls down Wisconsin’s Danny Davis on Saturday, Nov. 10, 2018, at Beaver Stadium in University Park, Pa. Penn State won, 22-10. (Abby Drey/Centre Daily Times/TNS)

Returning leaders

PASSING: Jack Coan (2nd on team), 56-93-515 yards, 5 TDs, 3 INTs

RUSHING: Jonathan Taylor (1st), 307-2,194-16

RECEIVING: A.J. Taylor (1st), 32-521-3; Danny Davis (3rd), 40-418-5

TACKLES: OLB Zach Baun (3rd), 63

SACKS: OLB Zach Baun (4th), 2.5

INTERCEPTIONS: CB Madison Cone (T-2nd), 2

Returning All-Big Ten (3)

Offense: RB Jonathan Taylor (1st team), C Tyler Biadasz (1st), TE Jake Ferguson (hon. mention)

Defense: None

FYI

Taylor’s throne: After running for an NCAA-best 2,194 yards, Taylor beat out Clemson’s Travis Etienne and Memphis’ Darrell Henderson for the 2018 Doak Walker Award. Since that award was first handed out in 1990, only Texas’ Ricky Williams and Arkansas’ Darren McFadden have won it in back-to-back years. Only six of the 29 winners came back to college, and three of the previous five returnees ran for more yards the following year.

Big shoes to fill: Taylor shined as a sophomore, but he wasn’t the only reason why Wisconsin’s 273.4 rushing yards per game were bested by only five other schools. The Badgers boasted one of the nation’s top offensive lines, but four of those starters have moved on from Madison. The line did retain some talent — junior Tyler Biadasz was an all-conference center and tackle Cole Van Lanen was a top reserve.

Home, sweet home: In the six weeks following its season opener at South Florida, Wisconsin has five home games and a bye on the schedule. Camp Randall Stadium was built in 1917 and Wisconsin claims it is currently the country’s fourth-oldest venue. All-time, the Badgers are 361-196-23 at Camp Randall and the team last failed to post a winning record in its home schedule in 2002.

2018 national stat rankings

Scoring: 61st (29.7 ppg)

Total offense: 36th (431.1 ypg)

Passing: 118th (157.7 ypg)

Rushing: 6th (273.4 ypg)

Red zone offense: 41st

Time of possession: 28th (32:04)

Scoring defense: 34th (22.6 ppg)

Total defense: 29th (344.2 ypg)

Pass defense: 22nd (189.1 ypg)

Rush defense: 54th (155.1 ypg)

Red zone defense: 77th

Turnover margin: T-63rd

The schedule

DATEOPPONENTLAST YR'S RESULT (IF PLAYED)
Aug. 30at South Florida
Sept. 7Central Michigan
Sept. 21Michigan*L, 38-13
Sept. 28Northwestern*L, 31-17
Oct. 5Kent State
Oct. 12Michigan State*
Oct. 19at Illinois*W, 49-20
Oct. 26at Ohio State*
Nov. 9Iowa*W, 28-17
Nov. 16at Nebraska*W, 41-24
Nov. 23Purdue*W, 47-44 (3 OT)
Nov. 30at Minnesota*L, 37-15
* Big Ten game

The key game? Sept. 28 vs. Northwestern. Whoever put together the schedule didn’t do Wisconsin any favors since Michigan, Ohio State and Michigan State are its three draws from the Big Ten’s East division. Wisconsin, though, needs to focus more on its standing in a West division that Northwestern won in 2018. Since 2000, Wisconsin is 6-7 against Northwestern, including a 31-17 road loss to the Wildcats.

The last 5 years

YearW-L/Conf.RankBowl
201411-3 / 7-114th / 18thOutback Bowl, W
201510-3 / 6-220th / 21stHoliday Bowl, W
201611-3 / 7-2— / 9thCotton Bowl, W
201713-1 / 9-09th / 7thOrange Bowl, W
20188-5 / 5-44th / —Pinstripe Bowl, W
Total53-15 / 34-95 bowl games (5-0)
Note: Ranks are that year’s preseason/final ranking.

Our Top 25 — so far

No. 25: Stanford will need its experienced defense to lead the way early

No. 24: Can Nebraska carry its end-of-2018 momentum into 2019?

No. 23: Was 2018 a one-time thing, or is Syracuse back as a program?

No. 22: A run to last year’s Big Ten title game has Northwestern wanting more

No. 21: Mike Leach hopes Clemson’s quarterback loss is Washington State’s gain

No. 20: Wisconsin

Our Top 25, by conferences

3 schools:

Big Ten — No. 20 Wisconsin, No. 22 Northwestern, No. 24 Nebraska

2 schools:

Pac-12 — No. 21 Washington State, No. 25 Stanford

1 school:

ACC — No. 23 Syracuse

Coming tomorrow: Our No. 19 team

Want a hint?

This school — the first SEC team on our poll — opens its season with a game in the state of Texas.

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