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Wisconsin Badgers Football: Managing expectations for the 2016 season

Here we are, only a month remains before college football Saturdays are back in our lives. The national championship game between Alabama and Clemson will be seven months old in a week. It’s August, which means that season predictions are coming from every news outlet that wants to buy some attention from anxious college football fans who will read anything and everything that contains information about their favorite team.

Now, let’s take a look at some of these predictions and go from there:

Big Ten Media days were held a few weeks ago, and Cleveland.com (which conducts the most official preseason Big Ten poll) released its sixth annual Big Ten preseason football poll. In a survey of 39 writers who cover Big Ten football conducted by Cleveland.com, 27 predicted Ohio State as the Big Ten champ.

Here are the overall predicted rankings in the divisions, with point totals and first-place votes:

East Division:

1. Ohio State 260.5 (31)

2. Michigan 241 (14)

3. Michigan State 195.5 (1)

4. Penn State 155.5

5. Indiana 110

6. Maryland 81.5

7. Rutgers 52

West Division:

1. Iowa 265 (33)

2. Nebraska 206 (3)

3. Wisconsin 194.5 (2)

4. Northwestern 171.5 (1)

5. Minnesota 132 (1)

6. Illinois 76.5

7. Purdue 46.5

Big Ten Champion:

Ohio State (27)

Michigan (11)

Iowa (1)

Now, it’s worth noting that this poll has never correctly picked the Big Ten champion in its five previous tries. The Buckeyes got all 40 votes to win the league last year before Michigan State beat Iowa in the Big Ten Championship. The Iowa Hawkeyes, who went undefeated during the regular season, were picked fourth in the West in this poll a year ago.

With that being said, it certainly appears that the Badgers aren’t expected to do much this season. Finishing third in the B1G West behind Iowa and Nebraska, but ahead of Minnesota (who the Badgers have defeated 12 consecutive times), Northwestern, Illinois and Purdue? Bottom line: it’s the weakest endorsement of the Badgers in at least five years.

Dating back to 2011, when Cleveland.com began conducting their preseason B1G football polls, the Badgers were picked to win their division four times (2011, 2012, 2014, & 2015), and in 2011, 2012 and 2014 the Badgers proved the writers right by winning the Leaders division twice (2011 & 2012) as well as the B1G West division in 2014.

So why have the Badgers become somewhat of an afterthought this season? The schedule might have something to do with it. The Badgers are set to face Amway Coaches Poll No. 5 Ohio State, No. 6 LSU, No. 8 Michigan, No. 11 Michigan State and No. 15 Iowa. Wisconsin does not appear in the preseason top 25 poll, making them probable underdogs in all five of these games.

Expectations have always been a combination of a team’s talent alongside a navigable schedule.  In 2016, the Badgers, facing one of the most difficult schedules in the country, have to figure out a way to bounce back from losses, because no team in the nation would go unblemished against what the Badgers have in store for them.

Pick Six Previews, which has a reputation of being the most accurate BCS/Power 5 preview website in America since its launch in 2012, has the Badgers slated as #35 in the country as well as finishing third in the B1G West behind #24 Iowa and #23 Nebraska.

What should fan expectations be for Wisconsin in 2016? I’ll try to be as realistic as possible here.

A successful season for Wisconsin in 2016 would look like:

Finishing with a winning record in conference play.

This would mean that Wisconsin would need to defeat five of Ohio State, Michigan, Michigan State, Iowa, Nebraska, Illinois, Purdue, Minnesota and Northwestern. Getting wins on the road against Michigan and Michigan State in back-to-back games is going to be tough and that means the margin for error is small.

Winning two out of three games against B1g West “rival schools.”

The three rivals I am referring to are Minnesota, Iowa and Nebraska.  If Wisconsin drops two out of three against these opponents the season will be very forgettable for Badger fans.

Competing against more talented opponents (aka not getting blown out)

Wisconsin will face opponents with more talent (based on the past four years of recruiting rankings) five times in 2016 when they match up against LSU, Ohio State, Michigan, Michigan State and Nebraska. Wisconsin will likely only be favored in one of those games (Nebraska at home).

Before getting annihilated 59-0 by eventual national champion Ohio State in the 2014 B1G championship game, the Badgers had developed a reputation as a team that was very difficult to defeat by more than a single score.

59-0 was obviously an anomaly for UW (more on how impressive of a performance that was by OSU here). This season will be a big opportunity for Wisconsin to gain respect among national pundits who don’t watch Wisconsin as often as B1G fans do.

Development of the running game

We all know that Wisconsin isn’t going to finish with the 95th best rushing attack for the second year in a row. That will improve. The question is, by how much? In order for Paul Chryst’s pro-style offense to operate the way that he likes, the running game needs to be able to be productive enough to set up the play-action passing attack.  Whether Bart Houston or Alex Hornibrook is at quarterback for the Badgers this fall, the running game needs to be rolling in order for the offense to reach its potential.

Overall Analysis:

If Wisconsin can accomplish a winning record in conference play, win at least two out of three against B1G West rivals, compete in games against more talented opponents and develop the running game over the course of the season, I see no reason why the season shouldn’t be labeled as a “success” despite a record that will most likely be worse than last season’s 10-3 mark (against a laughably easy schedule).

My prediction for the Badgers this season remains 8-4. Whether that will be good enough to win the division remains to be seen.  Either way, it should be fun to watch unfold in the coming months.

Currently a Sophomore at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Journalism major. Big sports fan, especially football and basketball. I enjoy sports writing in my free-time.

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