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Bullseye: Wisconsin Badgers

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Just one month out from the start of the 2019 USF football season, we take a look at look at their first opponent on the slate: Wisconsin.

NCAA Football: Pinstripe Bowl-Wisconsin vs Miami Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

With exactly one month to go until the start of the 2019 USF football season, we figured this would be as good of a time as any to start familiarizing ourselves with each of the Bulls’ opponents for the fall.

These won’t be full fledged game previews per se, but rather a primer of who they are and where they could be as a team when going toe-to-toe with the Green and Gold this season.

First up, a name-brand Big Ten school with a Heisman trophy candidate opening the year at Raymond James Stadium on a Friday night.

Wisconsin Badgers

Narrative

Starting the 2019 season against an unfamiliar foe, Wisconsin will be kickstarting what they hope to be a bounce back campaign.

Following four straight 10+ win seasons (a stretch that included an excellent 13-1 campaign in 2017 where they narrowly missed the College Football Playoff), injuries and a lack of a consistent passing attack on offense hobbled the Badgers to a disappointing 8-5 season last fall.

With aspirations to get back to the Big Ten championship game, UW’s path back to Indianapolis appears to be trickier than before with the B1G West collectively improving as a division.

Jeff Brohm returned to Purdue to build upon the foundation he’s already laid. Scott Frost is showing signs of duplicating the quick turnaround job he pulled off in Oviedo at Nebraska. Pat Fitzgerald has established consistency at Northwestern of all places. Iowa is Iowa. P.J. Fleck has elevated recruiting at Minnesota and led his Gophers to their first win over the Badgers in 15 years last season. Even Lovie Smith has managed to recruit some talent to Illinois. Has the west caught up with the top-heavy east? Not quite. But it’s a far different landscape than, say, three years ago.

The Badgers do get both Michigan and Michigan State at home in cross-division play this season but have to travel to Ohio State on October 26 to go along with the rest of their west division schedule. We’ll find out if Chryst’s ballclub can hang tough late in the season.

Personnel

It’s no secret that the bulk of UW’s offensive production this season rests on the shoulders of junior running back Jonathan Taylor.

Leading the nation with 307 carries last season, the Salem, NJ, native ran for 2,194 yards on 7.1 yards per carry and 16 touchdowns on his way to claiming the Doak Walker Award and putting himself on odds boards for this year’s Heisman.

Out wide, the Badgers return their top three receiving targets in Danny Davis, A.J. Taylor and Kendric Pryor with highly touted redshirt sophomore Jake Ferguson returning at tight end for his second year of significant action.

With the transfer of veteran quarterback Alex Hornibrook to Florida State, UW will have a new starter under center in either junior Jack Coan or incoming five-star true freshman Graham Mertz.

As I’m writing this in late July, Coan seemingly has the slight edge to start in Tampa given his experience in starting four games for an injured Hornibrook last season. However, it wouldn’t be a shock to see Mertz, who threw a record five touchdowns in the All-American Bowl this past winter, emerge as the guy when his team heads south to Ray Jay.

The interesting position group that could make or break Wisconsin’s offense this season is the offensive line, which has to replace four starters including All-Americans Michael Deiter, David Edwards and Beau Benzschawel. 2018 First-Team All-Big Ten center Tyler Biadasz has the most experience with 27 consecutive starts under his belt.

Similar to USF on defense, Wisconsin’s young secondary was thrown into the fire last season with injuries forcing underclassmen to step into larger roles. Virtually the entire core returns in 2019, led by Faion Hicks, Caesar Williams, Eric Burrell and Scott Nelson.

Also similar to the Bulls at linebacker with Nico Sawtelle, Wisconsin will lean heavily on senior homestate product Zack Baun to provide leadership to the group. Sitting out the 2017 season with a foot injury, the Butkus Award Watch Lister returned as Wisconsin’s third-leading tackler in 2018 with 63 tackles, 7.5 tackles for loss, 2.5 sacks, a forced fumble and a pick.

Pass rush is where the Badgers can least afford attrition with defensive ends Isiahh Loudermilk and Garrett Rand missing significant action last season due to injury. 6’2”, 300 pound nose tackle Bryson Williams will plug the middle in defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard’s 3-4 defense.

Outlook

There will be a lot for both sidelines to iron out when their respective teams hit the field for the first time on Aug. 30. USF will be trotting out an entirely new offensive scheme while the Badgers will be figuring out the right personnel for their Big Ten title campaign going forward.

While outsized by Wisconsin’s massive offensive line, the major task for the Bulls will be exploiting its relative inexperience enough to disrupt the production of Taylor and company. If there were any time of the season for USF to trigger an upset of a potential B1G contender, Week 1 at home on a Friday would be the perfect place to do it.