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Our 13th annual preseason Top 25: No. 17 Wisconsin wants to get back to winning ways

For the last 12 years, the American-Statesman's sports staff has spent July breaking down our own preseason Top 25 rankings. Last year's eventual College Football Playoff semifinalists ranked first, second, third and ninth in our 2020 poll.

No. 17 Wisconsin

It’s been 20 years since perennial Big Ten power puncher Wisconsin has endured a losing season. But the Badgers came dangerously close last year, finishing 4-3. So why the optimism? Last year marked a rare rebuilding effort for the program, and a bevy of youngsters led by quarterback Graham Mertz, tight end Jake Ferguson and linebacker Jack Sanborn garnered valuable experience. And several potential NFL prospects like wide receiver Danny Davis bypassed the draft to return to Madison. Ohio State isn't on the Badgers’ regular-season schedule, but don’t be surprised when the Badgers and Buckeyes meet up in the Big Ten title game with a potential College Football Playoff berth on the line. 

Wisconsin was ranked 13th in our preseason poll last year. The Badgers weren't ranked in any of the three major final polls.

Wisconsin prepares to snap the football at the line of scrimmage during last year's game against Iowa. The Badgers haven't had a losing season in 20 years but came close last year: a 4-3 season that ended with a Duke's Mayo Bowl victory.

About the Badgers

2020: 4-3, 3-3 in the Big Ten — third place in the West Division behind Northwestern and Iowa. The Badgers beat Wake Forest 42-28 in the Duke's Mayo Bowl.

Coach: Paul Chryst, 75-38 in nine seasons at Pittsburgh and Wisconsin. He's 56-19 with the Badgers, starting with the 2015 season. He was a Badgers quarterback in the 1980s and twice served as an assistant coach, including seven years as the offensive coordinator or co-offensive coordinator.

Returning starters: 16 (8 offense, 8 defense)

Shoes to fill: DE Isaiahh Loudermilk (Steelers, 5th round); CB Rachad Wildgoose (Bills, 6th); OL Cole Van Lanen (Packers, 6th); QB Jack Coan (transfer, Notre Dame); QBs coach Jon Budmayr (Colorado State OC)

Catching up

Aside from the usual draft departures and a mild shaking up of the coaching staff, the roster retains a lot of its 2020 form. One notable absence will be running back Nakia Watson, a 2018 Westlake graduate who has transferred to Washington State; he was Jonathan Taylor's backup in 2019 (74 carries for 331 yards and two touchdowns) but he lost carries to four-star recruit Jalen Berger last season and was listed as "unavailable" for the last two games. ... Running back is traditionally a strength for the Badgers, and it got stronger with the arrival of former Clemson back Chez Mellusi, who was Travis Etienne's primary backup. Mellusi also considered Texas during his transfer window. ... The 2021 recruiting class brought in another impressive group of offensive linemen, led by Pennsylvanian Nolan Rucci, a massive 6-foot-8, 295-pound five-star recruit who'll likely redshirt this season.

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Quarterback Graham Mertz returns for another season after leading Wisconsin last year.

Returning leaders

Passing: Graham Mertz 118-193-1,238, 9/5 (led team)

Rushing: Jalen Berger 60-301-2 (led team)

Receiving: TE Jake Ferguson 30-305-4 (led team), Jack Dunn 28-255-1 (2nd)

Tackles: ILB Jack Sanborn 52 (led team), ILB Leo Chenal 46 (2nd)

Sacks: ILB Leo Chenal 3 (led team)

Interceptions: S Scott Nelson 2 (led team)

Returning all-conference

Offense: G Logan Bruss (3rd team), OL Tyler Beach (hon. mention)

Wisconsin linebacker Leo Chenal celebrates a tackle made against Minnesota during their game last December at Camp Randall Stadium. Chenal led the team in sacks last year and was second on the team in tackles.

Big 12 notebook:Is the league hurt if Texas is winning in everything but football?

FYI

How the pandemic affected Wisconsin: Every quarterback on the team entered quarantine after a win over Illinois on Oct. 23, which led to the cancellation of games against Nebraska and Purdue in the following weeks. In fact, the offense never seemed to recover from that bout with COVID-19; after scoring 94 points in their first two games, the Badgers tallied just 82 points in their remaining five. 

Staying home: Defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard reportedly spurned an offseason offer to take over the Green Bay Packers' defense, which is good news for the Badgers faithful. Wisconsin led the Big Ten in total defense last season, allowing 299.9 yards per game, and had the No. 9 scoring defense in the nation with 17.4 points per game allowed. Sanborn and Chenal form arguably the best inside linebacker duo in the nation. 

Sixth time is the charm: Wisconsin rarely reaches into Texas on its recruiting forays, with local exceptions such as Watson and Lake Travis receiver Cade Green in 2017. However, Grand Prairie native Caesar Williams is taking advantage of the NCAA waiver that allows players to return for a sixth season due to the pandemic. A starter last season, Williams has 72 tackles, two interceptions, 14 passes defended and a forced fumble in his career and forms one of the conference’s best cornerback duos with Faion Hicks.

2020 national stat rankings

Where Wisconsin ranked nationally in various statistical categories last season — and how the Badgers ranked in 2019.

Scoring: 88th (2019 — 23rd, -65 spots)

Scoring defense: 9th (10th, +1)

Total offense: 103rd (38th, -65)

Total defense: 5th (4th, -1)

Passing: 108th (96th, -12)

Pass defense: 31st (12th, -19)

Rushing: 62nd (15th, -47)

Rush defense: 5th (6th, +1)

Sacks: 100th (69th, -24)

Interceptions: 46th (31st, -15)

Red zone offense: T-26th (47th, +21)

Red zone defense: 10th (11th, +1)

Turnover margin: T-60th (T-61st, +1)

Time of possession: 1st (1st)

Our Top 25 — so far

No. 25 Ole Miss: Rebels have plenty of firepower to work with

No. 24 Washington: Huskies back for more after 3-2 season

No. 23 Louisiana: Ragin' Cajuns out to prove that they belong

No. 22 Penn State: Nittany Lions want to keep the momentum going

No. 21 Oklahoma State: Cowboys have offensive questions, for a change

No. 20 Iowa: Hawkeyes hope this is the year to bump the Buckeyes

No. 19 Coastal Carolina: Chanticleers are here, ready or not

No. 18 Texas: Longhorns are starting over at coach, quarterback, offense, defenese

No. 17 Wisconsin

Coming tomorrow

Our No. 16 team. Want a hint?

This school's head coach is a former Texas defensive coordinator.