2015 season preview: Wisconsin Badgers

Previewing the 2015 season for the Wisconsin Badgers:

2014 record: 11-3 (7-1 Big Ten)

Key losses: RB Melvin Gordon; LB Marcus Trotter; LB Derek Landisch; OT Rob Havenstein; TE Sam Arneson; DL Warren Herring; DL Konrad Zagzebski

Key returners: QB Joel Stave; RB Corey Clement; LB Vince Biegel; OT Tyler Marz; C Dan Voltz; LB Joe Schobert; S Michael Caputo; CB Sojourn Shelton; WR Alex Erickson; CB Darius Hillary; S Tanner McEvoy

Instant-impact freshman: We’re supposed to name only one prospect, but tight end Kyle Penniston, running back Bradrick Shaw and safety Arrington Farrar could all make arguments. Penniston has a chance to contribute early and often, and Farrar was a huge get for the Badgers out of California. Shaw doesn’t have a clear path at running back, but the way Wisconsin produces backs, he will probably be talked about sooner than later.-- Tom VanHaaren

Class of ’16 update: Wisconsin currently has the No. 37-ranked class, and it’s shaping up to be a very good one for new coach Paul Chryst and his staff. The coaches have held on to ESPN 300 running back Antonio Williams, who -- surprise -- could end up being an excellent running back in Madison. The staff has 16 commitments and has done a nice job landing in-state prospects, but also branching out geographically as well. There are six commitments in this class outside the normal footprint of the Big Ten from North Carolina, Florida, Arizona, Connecticut and Georgia. -- TVH

Biggest question mark: Can Joel Stave and the passing game find some consistency? Stave has won 21 games in his career, but he has had a tendency to miss open targets in key spots. Last year, he completed just 53.4 percent of his throws, with 10 interceptions in 10 games. He hasn't gotten a lot of help from his receivers, and the Badgers struggled to find a dependable second option besides Alex Erickson last season and now have some inexperience at tight end. Even with Melvin Gordon gone, Wisconsin should still field a formidable running game behind emerging star Corey Clement. In order to get to the next level, however, the offense will need to move the ball through the air consistently.

Most important game: Oct. 10 at Nebraska. Wisconsin has dominated the Huskers at home and on neutral fields since Nebraska joined the Big Ten but did lose its only league contest in Lincoln, in 2012. This game, coming so early in conference play, could shape the division race early on. If the Badgers can claim the road win, they will be in the driver's seat for yet another appearance in Indianapolis.

Upset special: It's hard to picture many teams on Wisconsin's schedule taking the Badgers down, besides Alabama, Nebraska and Minnesota. They have dominated programs such as Illinois and Purdue in recent years and were way too much for Rutgers and Maryland in 2014. But Northwestern should have some confidence coming into Camp Randall on Nov. 21. The Wildcats beat Wisconsin 20-14 in Evanston last year. This game arrives a week before a possible West title showdown vs. Minnesota, so the Badgers had better be wary.

Key stat: Dave Aranda's defense ranked No. 3 in the FBS in third-down conversion percentage defense, allowing a first down on just 28.4 percent of opponents' tries. Aranda's return as defensive coordinator was huge for new head coach Paul Chryst, and the back end of that defense should keep the Badgers among the best in the nation at stopping the pass.

Prediction: 10-2. Outside of the Alabama opener, Wisconsin could well be favored in every game. The two real toss-ups on the schedule are Nebraska and Minnesota, and while both games are on the road, those two teams need to prove they can catch up with the Badgers. Figure Wisconsin loses to the Crimson Tide and stumbles in one of those road contests. That should still be good enough to win the West.