<
>

Big Ten season preview: Wisconsin Badgers

play
How crucial is Clement to Wisconsin's offense? (2:28)

Brendan Fitzgerald and Kevin Carter break down the importance of RB Corey Clement in Wisconsin's offense as well as break down the Badgers' 2016 schedule. (2:28)

Wisconsin kept right on ticking in coach Paul Chryst's first season in charge last season. Ten wins. A nice bowl game. One of the top defenses in the country.

But Year 2 of the Chryst era could prove to be especially challenging, even as so many pieces return from last season's successful unit. The Badgers must deal with the loss of the Big Ten's linebacker of the year, a new quarterback, a new defensive coordinator and three new players filling starting spots in the secondary. Throw in Wisconsin's difficult schedule, which has been discussed more than perhaps any other this offseason, and the Badgers could take a step back in 2016. Our preview series continues with the Badgers:

2015 record: 10-3 (6-2 Big Ten)

Key losses: QB Joel Stave, LT Tyler Marz, FB Derek Watt, TE Austin Traylor, WR Alex Erickson, DE Arthur Goldberg, LB Joe Schobert, CB Darius Hillary, FS Tanner McEvoy, SS Michael Caputo

Key returners: RB Corey Clement, RB Dare Ogunbowale, C Michael Deiter, RG Beau Benzschawel, RT Jacob Maxwell, TE Troy Fumagalli, WR Rob Wheelwright, WR Jazz Peavy, DE Chikwe Obasih, DE Conor Sheehy, LB Vince Biegel, LB T.J. Watt, LB Jack Cichy, LB Chris Orr, LB T.J. Edwards, CB Sojourn Shelton

Most important game: Any time Wisconsin plays Ohio State in Madison, it's a big deal. Four of the past five games played at Camp Randall Stadium have been decided by single digits, with the lone exception being Wisconsin's memorable 31-18 victory against the top-ranked Buckeyes in 2010. This time around, Ohio State will again be one of the top teams in the country. And if Wisconsin drops road games against Michigan State and Michigan to open league play, this will be one the Badgers absolutely need to win to stay in the Big Ten West race. Starting 0-3 almost eliminates Wisconsin from contention before it plays Iowa on the road one week later.

Key stat: Wisconsin finished last season without a 1,000-yard rusher for the first time since 2004. There were a number of factors that contributed, but the primary reasons were Clement's sports hernia injury and an inexperienced offensive line that struggled to hold enough blocks. With Clement now healthy and the offensive line more seasoned, the Badgers are in position to have a rusher eclipse the 1,000-yard mark again. Clement averaged 4.6 yards per carry in limited action last season, but his career yards per carry is 6.6. Anything near that mark means he'll have a huge season.

Best-case scenario: Wisconsin stuns the college football world against LSU at Lambeau Field with its most significant regular season nonconference victory in four decades. The Badgers vault into the national top-25 polls and enter Big Ten play 3-0. Wisconsin escapes its four-game league gauntlet at 2-2 or 3-1, with a road loss to Michigan. A victory against Iowa puts Wisconsin in the driver's seat to win the Big Ten West. The Badgers roll through November and close the regular season 10-2 -- the program's third consecutive double-digit win campaign -- to reach the Big Ten title game and a rematch with either Michigan or Ohio State.

Worst-case scenario: This is one at least a smattering of Badgers fans surely have considered in their minds this summer. There's no way around Wisconsin's brutal schedule, and as a result, the Badgers open the season 2-5. They compete in all five losses, but can't make enough plays to pull any of those games out. The season-opening loss to LSU is understandable. But losses to Michigan State, Michigan, Ohio State and Iowa drop Wisconsin to 0-4 in league play for the first time since 2008. Wisconsin rallies by winning three of the next four to reach five victories ahead of the regular-season finale against Minnesota. In the ultimate worse-case scenario, however, an inspired Minnesota team storms into Camp Randall and rips Paul Bunyan's Axe away, snapping the Badgers' 12-game winning streak in the series and denying them a bowl bid for the first time since 2001.