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Badgers Opposition Research: Early look at 2018 Western Kentucky Hilltoppers

Wisconsin opens up 2018 with a visit from Western Kentucky, what do the Hilltoppers have to bring to the table in year two of the Mike Sanford era?

We are now 233 days away from the start of the 2018 Wisconsin Badgers football season, but it is never too early to break down what that season may look like.

In doing so, it is important to understand the opposition the Badgers will face. You can’t predict if you don’t know what’s in front of you.

So, after looking at the offense and defense that could be for Wisconsin, it’s now time to look towards what the schedule holds for UW. That’s where our crack staff of opposition researchers come in to play.

We give you an in-depth look at the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers after much computing, research and reading on the opening opponent on the Badgers schedule.

Profile:

Head Coach: Mike Sanford (6-7 2nd season at WKU and overall)
2017 Record: 6-7, 4-4 C-USA
Bowl Game: 27-17 loss to Georgia State in the Cure Bowl
Returning Starters: 4 (Offense), 8 (Defense)

Player to Watch:

Lucky Jackson, WR 

With a pass-happy offense still in place for Western Kentucky, this position being the pick shouldn’t be a surprise. However, picking Jackson is more about matchup than

If there’s been an Achilles heel for the Badgers secondary over the better part of the last decade it has been the propensity to give up big plays. Unfortunately for Wisconsin, the Hilltoppers have one of the better big play receivers it will see all season long in Lucky Jackson.

The soon-to-be junior wide receiver had himself a breakout sophomore season, but you may not know it by the straight numbers. Just 39 receptions, 600 yards and 3 touchdowns on an offense that put up 355.0 yards per game through the air? Ahh, but here’s the reason to highlight Jackson — he averaged a ridiculous 15.4 yards per catch. Oh, and he did have a 93-yard TD catch towards the end of 2017, so there’s that capability to watch out for in a major way.

Couple that with the fact that Western Kentucky is losing top receiver Nacarius Fant and top tight end Deon Yedler, who combined for 126 receptions, and you see a chance for Jackson to be a huge problem for the Badgers and plenty of other teams going forward.

Wisconsin’s Biggest Advantage:

The run game

Could it be any more obvious what the Badgers strength is going to be going in to this game? If not, try an offense that racked up 222.9 yards per game on the ground going up against a defense that sat just 7th in Conference-USA against the run? Giving up 170.3 yards per game in a league with pass-happy offenses everywhere you look isn’t a good look.

Wisconsin also returns all five starters up front on the offensive line as well as a Doak Walker award finalist, All-Big Ten and All-American selection in Jonathan Franklin at running back. Add in a hopefully healthy Bradrick Shaw and Chris James as well as the improving Garrett Groshek and the Badgers are deep at the needed positions to pound teams in to submission in 2018.

The Hilltoppers also weren’t very stout up front last season and Mike Sanford has tried to tackle that issue with his first full recruiting class. Will that help in a Week 1 matchup against a veteran Badgers squad? Look for Wisconsin to be versatile on offense unlike it was for much of 2017, but you can bet it will be game planning to ground and pound its way through this opening matchup and it should be able to do just that on paper.

On the flip side, even though Wisconsin loses some big pieces to the puzzle in the front seven, it will be going up against a Hilltoppers offense that nearly abandoned the run game last season. Western Kentucky ranked dead last in Conference-USA, averaging just 60.8 yards per game on the ground and only attempted 391 rushes as a team all season long. It’s a good way to help break in new starters at defensive end and both outside linebacker positions to say the least.

Wisconsin’s Biggest Worry:

Hilltoppers Passing Game vs. UW’s secondary

Jeff Brohm may have left Western Kentucky, but his offensive philosophy is alive and well in Bowling Green, Kentucky to say the least. The Hilltoppers averaged a healthy 335.0 yards per game passing last season — good enough to tie for 7th in the nation.

Wisconsin had a solid pass defense in 2017, taking advantage of veterans all over in the starting lineup. That won’t be a luxury for Jim Leonhard in his second year at the helm of the Badgers defense. Not only is UW replacing three starters, there are few players with any real game experience to replace them. Only Doynte Carriere-Williams has any meaningful experience of the cornerbacks on UW’s roster for 2018 and only D’Cota Dixon returns as a starter from 2017 at all.

Sophomore’s Madison Cone, Faion Hicks and Caesar Williams are likely to get first crack at big roles in the secondary, but don’t sleep on uber talented incoming freshman Donte Burton for a big role in the secondary.

The good news in this scenario is that the two teams may be on equal footing heading in to this game. Western Kentucky losses senior quarterback Mike White and his over 4,100 yards passing from this past season. Still, the Hilltoppers offense is all about system and losing White may not be as big of a deal as it would be for other teams. Someone is going to step in and someone is still going to be throwing the ball all over the place.

Can Wisconsin come out of the gates strong with a young secondary in 2018?

Andy Coppens is the Founder and Publisher of Talking10. He's a member of the Football Writers Association of America (FWAA) and has been covering college sports in some capacity since 2008. You can follow him on Twitter @AndyOnFootball

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