In the weeks leading up to the Minnesota Golden Gophers’ season opener on Thursday, Aug. 29, we are previewing each of the Gophers’ Big Ten West opponents by subjecting contributors from their respective SB Nation sites to an intense Q&A session.
Every team in the Big Ten West has question marks. But what are the areas of your team that have periods for punctuation or even exclamation points?
Drew Hamm: Well, you may have heard that Wisconsin produces a good running back every now and again. This year, like the last three dozen, is no different. Jonathan Taylor is the team’s best player, the country’s best running back, and possibly a Heisman Trophy finalist. He will, barring something terrible happening, be one of the most electric players to watch all season and someone even a Hawkeyes fan could enjoy despite not playing punter. The large adult sons blocking for Taylor will also be good. Center Tyler Biadasz is the best of the bunch and hopefully with no Sports Illustrated cover shoots to take up their time this summer they’ll be raring to knock some dudes over and open holes for Taylor. Tight end and wide receiver are better than they usually are for a Wisconsin team too.
On defense, the secondary was young and injury-riddled last season so, what seemed like one thousand different players lined up in the defensive backfield at some point for the Badgers in 2018. All of that experience will hopefully be used to create a deep and ball-hawking group of d-backs that will limit opposing teams’ passing games.
Okay, now I have to ask about the question marks. What are they?
DH: So... quarterback is a question mark. Grad transfer Alex Hornibrook has taken the Wisconsin Message Board Takes Industrial Complex with him to Florida State for his last year of eligibility and last year’s backup Jack Coan is the presumed starter. Coan was... ok in limited action last year. The Badgers also have the best quarterback they’ve ever recruited in Graham Mertz. There are many (maybe me, maybe not me but I will tell you that my phone autocorrects Mertz to MERTZ so take that for what you will) who want the talented true freshman to start but none of this will be decided until Paul “Coach Dad” Chryst sees how things play out during fall camp.
The front seven on defense will see a number of new faces from 2018 due to either injury return or backups replacing graduates. The defensive line should (???) be better while the linebackers will probably (???) be worse. It’s hard to say. Folk hero, dancing king and Brazilian dynamo Rafael Gaglianone has graduated so there will be a new placekicker and also the punting game was bad last year and no players have changed there soooo, who knows what’ll happen with them.
Is there a non-conference or early season game that will serve as a barometer for the rest of your season?
DH: The first game of the season is at South Florida. B1G teams rarely play G5 teams on the road because usually, only bad things can happen. Either you win and everyone says “duh” or you lose and everyone makes fun of you for the rest of the season. The Badgers will be favored to win and will have had all offseason to prepare and so they should win. They also should have beaten BYU at home last year and you probably remember how that ended up.
What game do you have circled on your calendar? It can be your most anticipated matchup or perhaps Wisconsin’s toughest test (or both).
DH: The most anticipated matchup will probably be Michigan. It is the first conference game. It is in Madison. Both teams should be 2-0 and the Wolverines should be a Top 10 (Top 5?) team. People will be jazzed up for that one and if the Badgers pull off the upset it could set the tone for a great season. If they lose? It hopefully won’t spiral into another disappointing season. Also, obvs, the Minnesota game is circled on the calendar since we didn’t even play you guys last year. So strange.
If you had to pinpoint a trap game on the schedule, what would it be?
DH: The Badgers have a tough schedule this year so there aren’t too many classic “trap games” because every game, pretty much, is important. HOWEVAH, if I have to pick one it would be the road game against Illinois on October 19th. The Badgers open the season on the road and then their next road game is... this one. They’ll have played Michigan State the week prior and have Ohio State on the docket the following week. Wisconsin has beaten Illinois nine straight times, all by double digits, and this could be one they overlook.
Make the case for why the Badgers will win the West.
DH: They have the best player in the conference running behind arguably the best offensive line in the conference. They get two of their three crossover opponents, Michigan and Michigan State, at home. The defense is young, hungry and talented. The quarterback, whoever that may be, steps in and makes teams pay for putting 11 in the box. The special teams are a net neutral.
Okay, now make the case for why the Badgers won’t win the West.
DH: The B1G West has quickly become one of the toughest, most balanced divisions in college football. Even though two are at Camp Randall, the Badgers still play Michigan State, Ohio State, and Michigan in crossover games. The defense is young, hungry, talented but can’t overcome that first part. The quarterback, whoever that may be, steps in and does not make teams pay for putting 11 in the box. The special teams are a net negative.
I can’t let you go without an actual prediction on the record. Who wins the West?
DH: The Badgers will win eight or nine games, I think. As long as Nebraska, Iowa, Minnesota, Northwestern, or Purdue doesn’t win the West I’ll be happy. Wisconsin or Illinois can win it. Or Rutgers. I’d be fine with Rutgers winning the B1G West due to the 69th tie-breaker scenario.