Wisconsin's first football game of the 2013 season is still more than 10 weeks away, and in the doldrums of summer, speculation sizzles about how personnel will be used. Will the Badgers pass more under first-year coach Gary Andersen? If so, which player will make those passes?
How will Wisconsin try and replace the production of running back Montee Ball, the all-time FBS touchdown leader? Will anybody catch enough passes to save receiver Jared Abbrederis from constant double teams?
Will the Badgers' 3-4 defense create matchup problems against other Big Ten teams? Can Wisconsin's defense continue to shine in games when the team's offense stalls?
Questions abound at this juncture with no clear-cut answers just yet. That doesn't mean we can't offer up some predictions on what may happen in 2013. Here's a Vegas-style overunder look at how the numbers could stack up compared to those of 2012.
Overunder 236.4 rushing yards per game: Under
Last season's mark of 236.4 rushing yards per game represented the 10th-best team total in program history. And it bettered the record-setting 2011 campaign, when Montee Ball became a Heisman Trophy finalist and Wisconsin averaged 235.6 yards rushing per game. To expect James White and Melvin Gordon to surpass those numbers without Ball in the mix would seem extreme.
Yes, it's true White and Gordon are both capable of averaging 100 yards rushing per game, and they probably should. But what made the team so successful last season was the three-running back option. It doesn't appear yet that there is a third tailback that can handle a big-time load. Perhaps Vonte Jackson or Corey Clement will surprise everybody in fall camp and earn more carries.
Both White and Gordon had a better per-carry average than Ball, though some of that comes from not being the featured back -- and therefore not absorbing punishment on a third-and-one surge up the middle, for example. The roles for White and Gordon will be substantially different this season.
It's also important to consider Wisconsin may actually throw the ball more and run the ball less. Wisconsin's 3,309 total rushing yards last season set a program record, surpassing the 3,305 rushing yards Wisconsin tallied in 1999 with Ron Dayne in the backfield -- although that season also included only 12 games. And Wisconsin's 635 rushing attempts a year ago were the third-most in program history.
The Badgers will still be a run-first team. But it's hard to imagine them passing any less than a year ago.
Overunder 156.9 passing yards per game: Over
Let's be brutally honest: Wisconsin's passing offense last season stunk. It certainly didn't help that the Badgers cycled through three quarterbacks, which didn't allow one to find a season-long groove. Still, the numbers show Wisconsin ranked No. 111 out of 120 FBS teams in passing offense, which means players and coaches all deserve a share of the blame.
Wisconsin will enter fall practices with a three-quarterback race for the starting job, just as it did a year ago. Two of those choices, Curt Phillips and Tanner McEvoy, are considered better fits for the Badgers' philosophy of having a dual-threat quarterback. Couple that with the fact a No. 2 wide receiver has yet to emerge behind Jared Abbrederis, and it's possible the passing game could fall flat.
From my vantage point, however, the Badgers are in better position to make gains through the air. After all, they can't be any worse than last season, can they?
Overunder 837 receiving yards for Jared Abbrederis: Over
As mentioned above, Abbrederis hasn't had much help from the rest of Wisconsin's receivers since Nick Toon graduated in 2011. A year ago, Abbrederis caught 49 passes for 837 yards with five touchdowns. But he also didn't catch a touchdown in the team's final eight games and averaged 2.8 catches per game and 40.1 yards during that span.
It doesn't take much to understand why Abbrederis' production stalled. Once defenses realized nobody else was a threat, they locked in on Abbrederis with double teams and forced the rest of Wisconsin's receivers to beat them. In total, all other wide receivers on Wisconsin's team caught 48 passes for 446 yards with two touchdowns during the season.
Abbrederis will likely be a double-team target again in 2013, but improved play from Jordan Fredrick and Kenzel Doe could be the difference in helping Abbrederis remain at an all-league level. He is simply too good to be shut out again as he was in the last eight games of the season. If Wisconsin devotes just a little more energy to the passing game, Abbrederis could close in on a 1,000-yard season in his senior year.
Overunder 29.6 points per game: Over
This one is tough to predict. By taking the over, we assume Wisconsin will produce one of the 10 best offensive seasons in school history. Of course, most of that history includes plenty of bad football. Four of the top 10 best points-per-game seasons have come since 2005.
When you take away the 70-point shellacking Wisconsin put on Nebraska in the Big Ten championship game last season, the Badgers' scoring average actually was only 26.4 points per game. And all of those numbers came with Montee Ball, who contributed 31.8 percent of Wisconsin's total points (132 of 414 points).
Even without Ball, expectations for this year's offense should be plenty high. Melvin Gordon is ready for a breakout year, and James White already has shown himself to be a great tailback -- he did, after all, win the Big Ten Freshman of the Year award three seasons ago.
Wisconsin still has tight ends Jacob Pedersen, Brian Wozniak and Sam Arneson, as well as wide receiver Jared Abbrederis. That should be enough weapons to surpass last year's average point total.
Overunder 19.1 points per game allowed: Under
Most people would consider Wisconsin's 8-6 record last season a disappointment, so it's easy to forget just how good the Badgers' defense was most of the way. Wisconsin ranked No. 17 nationally in scoring defense and held six opponents to two touchdowns or fewer.
Linebacker Mike Taylor and his 123 tackles are gone, and defensive end David Gilbert won't play because of recurring foot injuries. But the rest of Wisconsin's starting front seven returns for another season: Ethan Hemer, Beau Allen, Brendan Kelly, Chris Borland and Ethan Armstrong.
The big question mark, of course, is how a revamped secondary will look. Wisconsin returns only safety Dezmen Southward of the four starters last season. Reggie Mitchell opted to transfer, and junior college transfer Donnell Vercher has decided to commit to Fresno State. That leaves junior college transfer TJ Reynard, Darius Hillary and Peniel Jean in position to have to step up and fill a need in the secondary.
Overunder 31 sacks: Over
Wisconsin ranked 54th in the country in sacks per game last season (2.14), and all indications suggest the Badgers will be a much more aggressive defense in 2013. Under new defensive coordinator Dave Aranda's 3-4 defensive scheme, players should have more freedom to pick and choose when they rush the quarterback.
The presumption is that Wisconsin will create more confusion because the quarterback won't know which players will rush and which players will drop into coverage. And Aranda has had great success in the past with his style of defense. Last season under Aranda, Utah State recorded 42 sacks and tied for sixth nationally in sacks per game (3.23).
There is more good news for Wisconsin because of the Badgers' 31 sacks last season, 22 came from players who are returning this season: Brendan Kelly (5.0 sacks), Tyler Dippel (5.0), Chris Borland (4.5), Pat Muldoon (2.5), Beau Allen (2.5), Ethan Hemer (1.0), Michael Trotter (1.0) and Warren Herring (0.5).
Overunder 1,104 passing yards for Joel Stave: Over
If you take the over on this, it means you believe Stave will be Wisconsin's starting quarterback next season. Stave and Phillips are obviously the two frontrunners for the spot, and junior college transfer McEvoy will certainly have his opportunities to win the job as well.
Of the three players, Stave is clearly the best pocket passer. Even as a redshirt freshman last season, he delivered a smooth ball and was gaining confidence with each game. Former coach Bret Bielema said last year that Stave was having his best game of the season against Michigan State when he broke his collarbone and missed the rest of the regular season.
The question here is what kind of philosophy new coach Gary Andersen and offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig will choose to take. In years past, Andersen has preferred more of a mobile threat, and Stave is the least likely to provide that among the three quarterback choices.
Still, it would seem difficult to deny how much better Stave's arm truly is, and the Badgers will need to have a reliable passing game to have success with the run. Stave threw for more than twice as many yards as Phillips last season -- 1,104-523 -- and those numbers simply can't be overlooked.
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