Before he coaches his first game at Wisconsin -- and we’ll get to the difficult circumstances of the Badgers’ 2016 opener -- new defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox faces a series of challenges in Madison.
Expectations will be high for a group that led the nation in scoring defense last season and returns every piece from its front seven but All-Big Ten linebacker Joe Schobert.
Among the men whose faith Wilcox must earn is outside-linebackers coach Tim Tibesar, who guided Schobert and Vince Biegel to standout seasons in 2015 and was considered a candidate for the coordinator spot.
Wisconsin coach Paul Chryst instead picked Wilcox, who was fired at USC in December. Prior to his two seasons with the Trojans, he'd been defensive coordinator at Boise State, Tennessee and Washington.
Wilcox, reportedly a candidate at his alma mater, Oregon, before it hired Brady Hoke, replaces Dave Aranda at Wisconsin. And therein lies perhaps the greatest challenge for the 39-year-old coach.
Aranda brought a coaching charisma to Wisconsin that resonated with players and fans alike. After arriving with Gary Andersen before the 2013 season, Aranda helped usher the Badgers through a coaching change last year. And his defense didn’t miss a beat.
Over his three seasons, Wisconsin ranked No. 1 nationally in total defense, second in scoring, third in passing yardage allowed and fourth in rushing.
Not only that, he was clearly a rising star in the business. It’s not if, but rather when and where, Aranda lands a head-coaching job.
Can Wilcox live up to his predecessor while maintaining the 3-4 defensive system that has served the Badgers so well?
Yes, the challenge is great -- and further complicated if Wisconsin spent more to lure Wilcox than the $520,000 it paid Aranda, also 39, in his final year.
Wilcox made $800,000 at Washington in 2013. His USC salary was not disclosed, nor has the size of his contract yet been revealed at Wisconsin.
Salary concerns have long existed at Wisconsin. Aranda more doubled his pay to $1.3 million in moving to LSU this month. The Badgers can keep tabs on their former coordinator next season, starting Sept. 3, when the Tigers travel to face Wisconsin at Lambeau Field in Green Bay.
The opening game adds immediate pressure for Wilcox, who already faces a considerable task in keeping the Badgers on a level defensively that they’ve enjoyed in recent seasons.