Yahoo Sports' Top 25: No. 6 Wisconsin

Yahoo Sports
Wisconsin’s <a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/college-football/players/281310/" data-ylk="slk:Jonathan Taylor">Jonathan Taylor</a> runs past Michigan’s Chris Hanlon during an NCAA college football game Saturday, Nov. 18, 2017, in Madison, Wis. Taylor ran for 1,977 yards to set the Bowl Subdivision freshman rushing record. (AP Photo/Aaron Gash, File)
Wisconsin’s Jonathan Taylor runs past Michigan’s Chris Hanlon during an NCAA college football game Saturday, Nov. 18, 2017, in Madison, Wis. Taylor ran for 1,977 yards to set the Bowl Subdivision freshman rushing record. (AP Photo/Aaron Gash, File)

Welcome to Yahoo Sports’ 2018 college football preseason top 25. A poll that’s guaranteed to be wrong like every other preseason poll out there. Every day in August we’re going to reveal a new team in our top 25 culminating with the reveal of our No. 1 team on Aug. 25. And yes, it’s a team from the SEC.

No. 25 South CarolinaNo. 24 UtahNo. 23 West VirginiaNo. 22 Central FloridaNo. 21 TexasNo. 20 USCNo. 19 Florida StateNo. 18 OregonNo. 17 Mississippi StateNo. 16 TCUNo. 15 MichiganNo. 14 Boise StateNo. 13 Notre DameNo. 12 AuburnNo. 11 Michigan StateNo. 10 StanfordNo. 9 Miami, No. 8 Penn State, No. 7 Oklahoma

No. 6 Wisconsin

2017 record: 13-1
Returning starters: 9 offense, 4 defense

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Jonathan Taylor and the best O-line in college football

Perhaps as much as any program in the country, Wisconsin has an established identity that has remained extremely consistent. The Badgers are going to have a pulverizing offensive line, and a running game to match. Entering 2017, we knew UW had a deep group at running back, but it was an unexpected member of that group who ended up bursting onto the scene as one of the best backs in the country.

Statistically (because bowl stats were not included for Ron Dayne in 1996), Jonathan Taylor produced the best freshman running back season in college football history with 1,977 yards, surpassing Adrian Peterson’s 1,925-yard effort in 2004. Taylor may have played one more game (14) than Peterson (13), but he finished the year with 299 attempts, 40 fewer than AP.

And in 2018, he will once again play behind arguably the best offensive line in college football. All five starters return, led by All-Americans Beau Benzschawel and David Edwards on the right side, all-Big Ten performers at left tackle (Michael Deiter) and center (Tyler Biadasz) and 20-game starter Jon Dietzen at left guard.

There were times last year when the opponent knew Wisconsin was going to feed Taylor, and still couldn’t stop it. There was really only one game where Taylor couldn’t get going, the Big Ten Championship. The 27-21 loss was UW’s only defeat, and Taylor was limited to 41 yards on 15 attempts.

He didn’t get much help from the passing game that day. Even an incremental improvement in the passing attack could pay major dividends for the Badgers in 2018 — a year where folks in Madison are thinking about the College Football Playoff.

The progression of Alex Hornibrook

Alex Hornibrook is a somewhat polarizing player. The way he throws isn’t the most aesthetically pleasing. The lefty has sort of a prolonged wind-up and doesn’t get a ton of velocity on the ball, but has shown tremendous touch and the ability to be very accurate.

Inconsistency has plagued him. Correcting that could be the key to Wisconsin going from the periphery of the Playoff to a participant in the Playoff.

As bad as Hornibrook was in the Big Ten title game — 19 for 40, 229 yards, 2 INTs — he was every bit as good in the Badgers’ 34-24 win over Miami in the Orange Bowl. That night, Hornibrook was brilliant. He threw for 258 yards and four touchdowns, spreading the ball to seven receivers in the process. Most importantly, he didn’t turn the ball over.

When Hornibrook plays like that, the Badgers are bordering on unbeatable.

He threw 15 interceptions last fall and could look overwhelmed with any pressure in his face. Notably, two of Hornibrook’s favorite receiving options — tight end Troy Fumagalli (NFL) and Quintez Cephus (suspension) — won’t be available to him, but A.J. Taylor, Danny Davis and Kendric Pryor all return.

If Hornibrook takes the necessary steps forward in his third year as Wisconsin’s starter, pairing with Taylor and the bruising rushing game, the Badgers’ offense has the chance to be really special.

Alex Hornibrook (12) was excellent in Wisconsin’s Orange Bowl win over Miami. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky, File)
Alex Hornibrook (12) was excellent in Wisconsin’s Orange Bowl win over Miami. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky, File)

Defense: Experience in the middle, inexperience on the outside

The forecast for the offense is overwhelmingly positive, but the Badgers have a lot to replace on the other side of the ball entering year two with Jim Leonhard as coordinator.

Four of the team’s top seven tacklers are gone, but the two leading tacklers, Ryan Connelly and T.J. Edwards (169 tackles combined) will be back leading the way at linebacker. Additionally, Andrew Van Ginkel will move into the starting lineup after 10 tackles for loss and six sacks as a key reserve.

Those returnees are the positives, but defensive end and cornerback are positions with a significant lack of experience. It looks Leonhard will have to rely on youth at both spots while relying on seniors Olive Sagapolu (defensive tackle) and D’Cota Dixon (strong safety) to lead the way on the line and in the secondary, respectively.

Impact players: A.J. Taylor and Danny Davis, WR

With Cephus out of the picture for an unknown period of time, it’s time for Taylor and Davis to take over at receiver. When Cephus was injured last fall, they showed they showed what they can do, especially in the Orange Bowl. Taylor, a junior, led the team with eight catches for 105 yards and caught one of Hornibrook’s four TD passes. Davis, a sophomore, caught the other three, finishing the day with five catches for 56 yards.

Game to watch: Nov. 10 at Penn State

Being in the Big Ten West gives Wisconsin an advantage schedule-wise compared to the top teams in the East, but this year two cross-division road tests will likely be make-or-break for the Badgers. The first comes Oct. 13 at Michigan, but the bigger test will be later in the year against Trace McSorley and the Penn State Nittany Lions. McSorley will be a huge test for the UW defense.

Best-case scenario

The Badgers marched through the regular season without a loss last fall. The schedule is tougher in 2018, but going 12-0 again would not be a surprise. This time, though, UW needs to finish the job in the Big Ten title game. The Badgers have lost the conference title game three times in a row and have yet to reach the College Football Playoff.

Worst-case scenario

The Badgers are the class of the West, so it’s hard to envision anything less than another division title. But the trips to Michigan and Penn State will be huge tests and could end up putting UW out of the CFP mix.

Prediction

Unfortunately for Badgers fans, we see 2018 playing out like 2017 did: another undefeated trip to the Big Ten title game, another loss in Indianapolis and a finish outside the top four.

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