There is a divergence of opinion between the media and the markets on prospects for the 2018 Wisconsin football program. The Badgers are soaking in the media love—ranked fourth in the AP’s preseason poll and even snagging a single vote for the top spot. The Las Vegas market is more cautious—Wisconsin’s national championship odds are 25-1, which puts them more on par with re-tooling Penn State or up-and-coming Texas. Who’s right, the writers or the oddsmakers?
In situations like these, I have a pretty simple standard—I’m more likely to listen to the person who’s putting their own money behind their opinions. And in this case, that’s made easier. I’m a lifelong Wisconsin Badger fan who made his first trip to Camp Randall in 1980 (a bitter cold day where my ten-year-old feet froze because I didn’t wear an extra pair of socks). But I’m not seeing where the national championship talk is coming from.
In fairness to the writers, these votes were cast just before Wisconsin’s receiving corps was decimated by the suspension of Quintez Cephus and Danny Davis over a sexual assault allegation. But the Badgers have rarely relied on their wideouts, it’s possible Davis might be back before Big Ten play begins on September 22 (his alleged involvement is a little murkier than Cephus, whose suspension is indefinite). And the real reasons to be excited about this team are the rest of its offense.
Jonathan Taylor ran for nearly 2,000 yards as a freshman last year. He’s the best combination of power and shiftiness I’ve ever seen in a Wisconsin back and that includes Ron Dayne (1999 Heisman Trophy) and Melvin Gordon (2014 Heisman runner-up). Taylor comes back behind a veteran offensive line that returns all of its starters, with most projected to be 1st-team All-Conference. This offensive front can be the best Wisconsin has ever produced and that’s saying something for a program that’s turned into a regular supplier of NFL talent up front.
Alex Hornibrook is back at quarterback. His inconsistency was the biggest reason the Badgers’ bid for the College Football Playoff fell just short last year, but his raw talent and tenacity continued to impress, as he grew through his sophomore year. Hornibrook’s strong showing in an Orange Bowl win over Miami only added to the expectations he’ll face this year. If Hornibrook’s development continues, which means a reduction in mistakes, the Badgers will have no problem finding other receivers to step up.
All of that adds up to good reasons for excitement, but it’s the defense that has to raise skepticism. The Badger D was terrific last season and coordinator Jim Leonhard has all the appearances of a rising star in the ranks of assistant coaches. He still has to replace eight starters and at a program that does not recruit like a national power. Wisconsin’s recruiting classes consistently rank well behind Ohio State, and decisively behind Michigan, Michigan State, Penn State and even Nebraska.
The Badgers use the recruit-and-develop to fill a specific style of play as well as anyone in the country and it’s fun to watch develop. It also augers against sudden breakout years by underclassmen, which is what rebuilding units need if they’re going to make runs at a national championship.
That’s why my own view of the Wisconsin season is more in line with how Las Vegas sees it. As a fan, I’m excited, I think the Badgers are good and they should be thinking about a third straight Big Ten West title and at least having a shot to upend the champ of the more powerful East in the conference title game. A 10-win regular season is very doable.
But going 13-0 and making the College Football Playoff? How about we see if they sweep a three-game run of at Iowa, Nebraska and at Michigan from September 22 to October 13 before getting ahead of ourselves?