The Wisconsin Badgers will begin the regular season ranked fourth in the AP poll, and even received one vote as the top team in the country. With the Big Ten West once again noticeably weaker than the East, the Badgers should be able to coast their way to Indianapolis for a third consecutive season.
A light non-conference schedule will see Wisconsin host Western Kentucky, New Mexico, and BYU at Camp Randall stadium before the team travels to Iowa City to play the Hawkeyes in what should prove to be their first true test of the season. The Hawkeyes finished 8-5 last season but will look to improve on that mark this season with just two ranked opponents on their schedule. Wisconsin should come to town for a matchup between early season unbeatens, and the Hawkeyes will be looking for revenge after last year’s 38-14 beatdown in Madison. Quarterback Nate Stanley returns for his junior season after throwing 26 touchdowns to just six interceptions (including one against the Badgers) in his sophomore campaign. However, he completed just 56% of his passes and lost his star running back Akrum Wadley, who is now fighting to make an NFL roster. With a much more potent offense and a defense that should rank among the nation’s best once again, few will expect anything other than another Wisconsin victory in this matchup.
If the Badgers are able to dispatch the Hawkeyes and improve to 4-0 on the year, they will have a bye week before a home matchup against the rebuilding Nebraska Cornhuskers. The following weekend, another challenge will lay in front of Paul Chryst’s team. Michigan has shown promise since the arrival of coach Jim Harbaugh and, despite quarterback woes, the Wolverines have been a tough beat thanks to their defense. Their defense loses just two starters after a strong year in 2017, and five starters have departed on offense. Ole Miss transfer Shea Patterson is an immediate upgrade at quarterback and looks to be an NFL talent. Michigan should be strong no matter where they play this season, but playing at the “Big House” will only further motivate them in what could be a top-10 matchup against Wisconsin on October 13th. After a 24-10 victory in Madison last year, the Badgers will need to stay defensively against what should be an improved air attack from the Wolverines. Barring any crucial injuries before kickoff comes, this could be one of the better games in the Big Ten in 2018.
Another if, but if Wisconsin survives their visit to Ann Arbor, they will be 6-0 and firmly in the driver’s seat in the Big Ten West with a weak remaining schedule other than one last big test. Illinois would be their next matchup and should prove to be no problem for Wisconsin to take care of at home. A road visit to Northwestern is never easy, but on paper the Badgers easily outmatch the Wildcats, and a home game against Rutgers will likely be a comfortable win if not a blowout.
The next circle on the calendar will be a road game at Penn State to take on Trace McSorley and the revived Nittany Lions football program. McSorley is being projected as a first- or second-round pick in next year’s NFL Draft and gashed the Badgers in the second half of a devastating Big Ten Championship game loss in 2016. With James Franklin inked into a handsome new contract, his team will look to overcome Ohio State and Michigan to win the Big Ten East and return to yet another BCS bowl game after a 35-28 victory against No. 12 Washington in last year’s Fiesta Bowl. Penn State has not lost to Wisconsin since 2011 and could be favored in this late-season matchup even without Saquon Barkley toting the rock this time around. The Badgers are a balanced team on both sides of the ball, but the Nittany Lions can boast the same argument. Expect nothing other than a gritty, never-say-die type of game from these two teams in a mid-November matchup that could have severe postseason implications for both sides.
The hype surrounding Wisconsin football in 2018 is as high as it has been since Russell Wilson transferred for what would become a magical run in 2011. Ranked the highest in the Big Ten, the Badgers will have a target on their back for the duration of the season, and will need to keep focused with such a choppy schedule in terms of quality of opponents. Even if they are not able to enter Indy undefeated this time around, a Big Ten Championship with just one loss could be enough to see the Badgers make their first ever College Football Playoff.