Game week is finally here after a long offseason filled with anticipation and plenty of talk of Wisconsin running the West division once again.
But, it is just that — talk — and on Friday night, Paul Chryst and his Wisconsin Badgers get to go on to Camp Randall’s field and hit someone not in a red and white uniform for the first time since winning the Cotton Bowl on New Year’s Day.
Wisconsin’s first opponent is the Utah State Aggies, a familiar name given that is the school that gave us Gary Andersen and the one that put a real scare in to the Badgers last time around. That was 2012 though, and these two programs are in vastly different positions.
So, let’s take a look at the state of the Utah State Aggies offense heading in to Friday night’s game.
Biggest Weakness: Run Game
We’ll talk more about why the run game is a big weakness in a bit, but let’s just say this part of the game is a major weakness for two reasons. One is the offensive line, and we’ll get to that in a bit.
The second? It’s because there’s a lack of greatness at running back as well.
Utah State senior running back Tonny Lindsey rushed for just 763 yards and six touchdowns last season. Sure, a 5.2 yards per carry average isn’t too shabby, but this is a team that was used to putting up 1,000-yard rushers earlier this decade.
The consistency just hasn’t been there, and while the offensive line hasn’t been helpful it takes two to tango and I’m not sold on Lindsey being a great back. Dare I say running the ball is going to be a chore against the Badgers for the best of teams? I do dar say that.
Utah State doesn’t have one of the best rushing attacks by a long shot, so look for that weakness to be exploited.
Biggest Strength: Wide Receiver
While the run game is the weakness, there is a really exciting matchup that will happen on Friday night — Utah State’s young but experienced top group of wide receivers against Wisconsin’s experienced and dynamic set of starting cornerbacks.
Utah State saw two young players jump to the top of the receiving charts last season, as sophomore Ron’Quavion Tarver led the team with 46 receptions, 602 yards and three touchdown catches. Freshman Rayshad Lewis wasn’t far behind with 40 receptions for 476 yards and a pair of TD’s of his own.
Oh, and did we mention that David Yost, who has turned average quarterbacks in to great producers, is the new offensive coordinator at Utah State? Let’s just say this offense is going to rely a lot more on the passing game, so it is a good thing youth showed it was ready to step up last season.
I’m going to be keeping a keen eye on the matchups of Utah State’s Tarver vs. Wisconsin’s Tindal and the Aggies Lewis vs. the Badgers Nelson. You should too, because it likely will be the difference in Wisconsin’s defensive success or failures on the night.
Biggest Question Mark: Offensive Line
It is never fun starting over on the offensive line, but the Aggies are taking it to a whole new level in 2017. They are replacing the entire starting group this season.
However, what could be most telling is that there are two players — Preston Brooksby and KJ Uluave — who have started multiple games last season and aren’t listed as starters this season. Brooksby is the only one of those two listed on the two-deep released ahead of this game.
That is either a sign of strength for the entire group or a sign of real trouble recruiting at the position as a whole.
As it is, the latter seems to be true because four of the five new starters this season were playing football elsewhere in 2016. Four of the five starters also were transfers from the JUCO ranks over the past few months, and the fifth, junior center Quin Ficklin, is a transfer from BYU.
That’s putting a lot of pressure on a group that has never played together to get it right right out of the gate. It also means depth is a major concern and injuries happen frequently on the offensive line.
As for this game, Utah State’s biggest question mark doesn’t exactly have it easy in its matchup.
With a veteran and disruptive defensive line in place for the Badgers, the Utah State offensive line is going to find out a lot about itself and its personnel groupings early on in the season. That’s likely good news for the Badgers and terrible news for a team needing good news up front.
Player to Watch: Kent Myers, QB
One thing the Badgers defense hasn’t enjoyed much in the past few years are quarterbacks who are multiple threats. It hasn’t been easy to contain the likes of J.T. Barrett or Tommy Armstrong for large stretches.
While the name and game of Kent Myers doesn’t bring the fear that Chuckie Keaton did back in 2012, Myers is certainly a dangerous quarterback in his own right.
However, much like Alex Hornibrook for the Badgers, Myers has a lot to prove going in to 2017. After all, he only had 10 touchdowns to eight interceptions last season, while completing just 58.4 percent of his passes. Clearly there is plenty of room for growth, but that was just his first full season as a starter and in 2015 he threw 16 touchdowns to just three interceptions in nine games of action.
The question may be, which version shows up in 2017. If it’s the latter, the Badgers could have their hands full.
With new pieces in Wisconsin’s secondary, this matchup seems to hold a big key to how things will go down in Madison on Friday night.