Coming fresh off of a victory in the Cotton Bowl against Western Michigan, fans of the Wisconsin Badgers have many reasons to be pleased with their program’s future.
Once seemingly stuck just outside the contender level, the 2016 Wisconsin team played itself through one of the toughest schedules of the year, beating LSU in the opener. They fell short of beating both Michigan and Ohio State by just a touchdown. Looking at both the returning players and the schedule next year, there is no reason to believe this program can not continue to grow.
Of their 22 starters, 15 players are almost guaranteed to return, with two more possibly returning depending on if they enter the draft. Most notably, Wisconsin will for sure lose Corey Clement at running back, Sojourn Shelton at cornerback, Vince Biegel at linebacker and Leo Musso at free safety.
They are also going to lose Bart Houston at quarterback, but with Alex Hornibrook playing almost half the snaps this season, there is much less of a question mark at that position heading into the offseason.
Two players who could leave for the NFL Draft are left tackle Ryan Ramcyzk and linebacker T.J. Watt. On the offensive line, though, the rest of the starters are coming back and in the 2017 recruiting class is four-star, 323-pound lineman Kayden Lyles (brother of current redshirt, Karé).
At linebacker, where they will lose two starters, Wisconsin will be adding players who spent the 2016 season injured. Jack Cichy, who was well on his way to an All-American season, was sidelined for the latter half of the 2016 season. He should fill in nicely anywhere in the linebacking core in 2017. Chris Orr, who was hoping to build off of an impressive 2015 season but was injured in the opening game, will also come back and fill in on the inside of the linebacking core.
With running backs Corey Clement and Dare Ogunbowale both leaving, Bradrick Shaw, transfer Chris James, and Taiwan Deal will be set to replace. Deal, who got good playing time in 2015 but was limited in 2016 due to injury, has always been a good short yardage running back, using his natural power to blow over people. Shaw showed bursts of being the next star running back in a long tradition of the Wisconsin running game, and finished the season third on the Badgers’ rushing list behind Clement and just a couple yards short of Ogunbowale.
So in positions that players are leaving, the Badgers are set to replace them with comparable, if not better talent.
Who’s coming back, though? Their leading passer in Hornibrook. Their two leading receivers in Jazz Peavy and Troy Fumagalli. Their leading tackler in T.J. Edwards. And finally, they are getting their coach back for a third straight season. That last one is significant because of all the recent past coaching turmoil the Badgers have gone through. Losing Brett Bielema, then Gary Andersen within two years could have crashed any program. Not Wisconsin, though; since then, Chryst has brought the Badgers two winning seasons and two bowl wins.
This past season’s schedule was brutal. Wisconsin faced off against top-10 opponents (when the teams faced off) in LSU, Michigan State, Michigan, Ohio State, Nebraska, and Penn State, and another top-15 team in Western Michigan in the Cotton Bowl. In those games, the Badgers went 4-3, with losses coming by a touchdown at Michigan, at home against Ohio State, and in the Big Ten Championship to Penn State.
2017 will be kinder to the Badgers, as they are set to face their normal Big Ten West opponents, but will only draw Michigan in the crossover schedule. They have a tough schedule, but one that is clearly easier than theirs in 2016.
They could run the table, they could lose a handful of games. One thing is for sure, though: 2017 will bring higher expectations for the Badgers. But with a multitude of returning players, recruits and injured players filling in the roster and a tough (but not impossible) schedule, Wisconsin is set to meet – or exceed – any expectations that anyone sets for them.