Can the Wisconsin Badgers survive one of the toughest schedules in the nation? Who will catch passes now that Alex Erickson is gone? FOX Sports Wisconsin's Dave Heller breaks down the six biggest questions for the Badgers heading in the 2016 season.
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel-USA TMark Hoffman/Milwaukee Journal S
One quarterback or two?
Bart Houston, a senior, won the competition against redshirt freshman Alex Hornibrook, but it isn't like he ran away with the thing. It was a close battle between the two in camp. In fact, many thought Hornibrook had the lead at the beginning of camp. Maybe it is the conspiracy theorist in me, but Wisconsin and Paul Chryst made sure to point out Houston was named to start the opener. How short will the leash be for Houston? The specter of Hornibrook could loom large all season if Houston isn’t gangbusters and we could have two of the most dreaded words in all of football: quarterback controversy.
What will Justin Wilcox's defense be like?
Dave Aranda turned Wisconsin's defense into a base 3-4 -- well, maybe in name only. While the Badgers did line up in that formation often, Aranda had a multitude of looks he would offer, sometimes with four down linemen, sometimes with two and even occasions with none. As a result (and maybe partly also due to some soft schedules), Wisconsin's defense was one of the best in the country under Aranda, who left for LSU this past offseason. Wilcox, fired from USC last year, takes over and keeps the 3-4 look. Will he be a multiple-formation guy like Aranda? How much will Wisconsin blitz? Just what are his philosophies?
Who will catch passes?
Gone is Alex Erickson and his team-leading (by a lot) 77 receptions from a year ago. Senior Rob Wheelwright, who had four catches in Wisconsin's bowl win over USC, is expected to shoulder the load along with Jazz Peavy. Wheelwright, though, has missed a lot of time due to injuries over the years, while Peavy seems dependable but was invisible in a lot of games last season (five games with no catches, two with one reception). Tight end Troy Fumagalli, who was third on the team in catches with 28 last season -- four less than Wheelwright -- could also help pick up the slack. Wisconsin surely would love to get anything out of its backup receivers, Reggie Love and George Rushing, who combined for four receptions in 2015.
Can they survive the schedule gauntlet?
Wisconsin has a stretch of games from Sept. 24-Oct. 22 which might just be the toughest in school history. Four games in five weeks, three on the road, and all against teams ranked in the top 17 in the preseason AP poll. And the one game at home might just be against the toughest of them all, Ohio State, although at least UW has an extra week to prepare for that one. The games away from Camp Randall are at Michigan State, Michigan and Iowa. We haven't even mentioned the opener against LSU. Worst case scenario and Wisconsin could be looking at a 2-5 start ... with games vs. Nebraska and at Northwestern, never an easy spot for the Badgers to play, up next. Of course, on the glass half-full side, if UW can make it through that rough stretch or even sweep it (hey, this is the optimist portion), the Badgers would be in great shape to play in a big-time bowl game.
What happens if Corey Clement is injured again?
Clement only played in four games last season and he was never fully healthy. When he did play, you saw a spark at running back. When he didn't … well, let’s just say the run game was pedestrian at best. Dare Ogunbowale is a great story, but he isn't a feature back and averaged just 3.7 yards per carry in Big Ten games. Freshman Taiwan Deal was a fine change-of-pace back, but that was about it. Deal has taken over as the No. 2 back this year and appears to have lost some weight so perhaps he has more game-breaking ability -- his long run last year was 17 yards. Clement is a future NFL back. Without him, combined with a new quarterback, and Wisconsin's offense is likely in very big trouble. Kind of like last year.
Which young players will step up?
Wisconsin has a number of freshmen on its initial two-deep depth chart, including four "true" freshmen (punter Anthony Lotti, who is starting, as well as backups nose tackle Garrett Rand, cornerback Caesar Williams and Patrick Johnson). Sophomore safety Arrington Farrar is a currently a backup but seems primed for a larger role. Redshirt freshman tight end Kyle Pennington could get involved in the passing attack, as might freshmen wide receivers Quintez Cephus and A.J. Taylor. The offensive line will feature just one upperclassman. Wisconsin natives Billy Hirschfeld, a sophomore defensive end, and redshirt freshman linebacker Zach Baun, an outside linebacker, are also on the two-deep and see significant time this season. The Badgers have a young team (only six starters are seniors) so there are a myriad of possibilities here.