Wisconsin is quickly proving that 2018 was an outlier in the program’s history.
This past season was the worst year for the Badgers since 2012 — back in Bret Bielema’s final year as head coach. Wisconsin finished with an 8-5 record and missed the Big Ten Championship for the first time since 2015.
After a convincing win over then-No. 13 Michigan 35-14 last Saturday, the No. 8 Badgers showed they are to be taken seriously, especially in Big Ten title conversations.
Injuries to key players on defense coupled with an injury to former starting quarterback Alex Hornibrook were key reasons for 2018’s struggles. Hornibrook is no longer with Wisconsin though, having transferred to Florida State in the offseason, giving Wisconsin a new starter at quarterback for the first time in three seasons.
Junior quarterback Jack Coan took the reins for the Badgers after Hornibrook suffered a concussion against Illinois in Week 7 last year. Coan threw for 515 yards with a 60.2 percent completion rate and five touchdowns over the final five games of the season.
Coan has continued to improve through three games in 2019. He’s already completed more passes than he did in 2018 — from 56 to 58 — and has thrown for more yards with 692 in two fewer games. Wisconsin also returns several wide receivers who struggled in 2018, but have potential. Seniors Quintez Cephus and A.J. Taylor, redshirt junior Kendrick Pryor and junior Danny Davis are some of the options Coan has at his disposal.
The stabilization of the passing game makes an already potent running game that much more difficult to counter. Junior running back Jonathan Taylor led the country in rushing in 2018 with 2,194 yards. Through three games, he not only has rushed for 440 yards and seven touchdowns, but has thrust himself into the Heisman Trophy discussion after 203 of those yards and two touchdowns came in the first half against Michigan.
Defensively, Wisconsin has lost its top two tacklers in T.J. Edwards and Ryan Connelly, but still returns plenty of starters to make the Badgers strong on both sides of the field.
The linebacker position holds the most experience, with seniors Zack Baun and Chris Orr returning as starters. Baun in particular has gotten off to a strong start in 2019, second on the team with 12 total takedowns, five tackles for loss and three sacks.
The defensive line was a question mark for Wisconsin heading into 2019, with redshirt junior defensive end Isaiahh Loudermilk being the only starter with significant playing time in 2018. However, Wisconsin is leading the country in run defense, giving up only 27 yards per game.
The secondary has several returning starters, but is still a young group overall with plenty of former freshmen returning for their second year. Starting cornerbacks are sophomores Deron Harrell and Faion Hicks. Redshirt freshman Reggie Pearson is getting playing time at strong safety in his first full year. Redshirt junior Eric Burrell is the only upperclassman starting at a defensive back position.
Wisconsin has several upcoming tests to reach the Big Ten Championship, but the Badgers have the benefit of facing No. 25 Michigan State, Northwestern and No. 14 Iowa at Camp Randall.
Their biggest test will be the upcoming matchup against No. 5 Ohio State in Columbus Oct. 26, but even a loss there leaves Wisconsin as the favorite to win the Big Ten West division.
Wisconsin aced its first test against Michigan. It remains to be seen whether the Badgers can pass the remaining tests on their schedule.