There are still plenty of questions left this offseason about certain players and positions in the Big Ten. But no matter what the topic, the answer usually boils down to two options: Is the player or unit getting better -- or worse?
So this week we’ll be looking at pressing issues around the Big Ten and asking that one important question. Next up: Wisconsin's passing game.
Overview: I was initially going to examine the Badgers' running attack, but that topic has been written about extensively on this blog over the spring. Most of us agree that Wisconsin's ground game will be significantly better in 2016. Corey Clement finally being healthy changes the dynamic of the backfield, as does a more experienced offensive line. With Dare Ogunbowale's versatility and Taiwan Deal's punishing rushing style, it's no wonder Badgers running backs coach John Settle believes the group can be "scary" next season.
Last season was uninspiring on the ground. Wisconsin didn't have a 1,000-yard rusher for the first time since 2004 and ranked only 94th nationally in yards per game. All this coming after ranking in the top 15 in rushing yards for seven consecutive seasons, from 2008-14.
As a result of the Badgers' struggles on the ground, they took to the air more than any season in program history. Wisconsin attempted 419 passes, or 64 more throws than ever before. Quarterback Joel Stave produced some solid performances during games in which his passing was essential because the ground game was so lacking. I know some fans are probably chuckling as they read this because they assume anybody will represent an upgrade over Stave, whose penchant for interceptions could be maddening -- and whose statistics did not improve over his final two seasons. But it really isn't so simple.
Why it could be worse this year: For starters, we still don't know who the No. 1 quarterback will be for Wisconsin next season. Fifth-year senior Bart Houston was the presumed leader to begin spring because of his experience, but he didn't take control of the race during 15 practices. He needs to improve his accuracy and show he can be relied upon in key moments. Redshirt freshman Alex Hornibrook played well during the team's spring game, passing for 138 yards and two touchdowns. But he has never played in a college game, his arm strength could be an issue and he wasn't exactly mistake-free in spring, either. In one practice, he was intercepted five times. Stave was a four-year starter whom players trusted, and his ability to do the little things -- checks at the line of scrimmage, keep teammates confident -- were important and not easily quantifiable.
Wisconsin also loses one of the more underrated Big Ten players from last season. Receiver Alex Erickson, a former walk-on, finished with the second-most catches in school history last season (77) for 978 yards and was far and away the team's best pass-catcher over the past two seasons. He was a first-team all-league selection, and his presence will be missed. Sure, Rob Wheelwright says he wants to produce a historical senior season. And Jazz Peavy appears to be a solid No. 2 option. But there are still plenty of question marks about a receiving corps that hasn't really had two consistent threats on the field since 2011.
Finally, let's also consider the ridiculously brutal schedule Wisconsin faces this season. What type of success will the Badgers' passing game have against LSU, Michigan State, Michigan, Ohio State and Iowa, among others? Will the receivers be able to create enough separation? And will the quarterbacks be able to get them the ball even if they are briefly open?
Why it could be better this year: For all the good things Stave did during his career, we should remember that he threw 20 touchdowns and 21 interceptions the past two seasons. There are many factors at play in those numbers -- his infamous 2014 bout with the yips, playing under a new coaching staff, a poor running game last season, young offensive linemen -- but those numbers are still glaring. If Houston or Hornibrook can simply limit mistakes by making smart throws and understanding their limitations, the passing game could thrive in limited quantities.
There is no way Wisconsin will throw more than it did last season, and that's probably a good thing. Because the Badgers will return to their typically dominant rushing style (assuming Clement remains healthy) and possess a better offensive line, it means they'll have a more balanced offense. Ogunbowale could become even more of a safety valve out of the backfield for Wisconsin's quarterbacks, the tight ends should be involved plenty, and Wheelwright and Peavy have all the tools to form a formidable 1-2 receiving combo. If George Rushing -- who caught two touchdowns in the spring game -- shows enough improvement, the Badgers would have three trustworthy receivers in the group.
Prediction: I don't think inserting a new quarterback will automatically mean the team's recent passing issues will be solved. Stave completed 60.8 percent of his throws last season and ranked eighth in the league in passing efficiency. I'd expect the completion percentage to be lower in 2016, and perhaps even the efficiency. And, quite frankly, I wouldn't be surprised if Wisconsin's quarterbacks threw more interceptions than touchdowns (Stave had 11 of each last season), particularly considering the sheer volume of difficult opponents. That will ultimately be the real indicator of progress. A better running game will help, but the quarterbacks still have much to prove.