MADISON, Wis. (AP) — No. 19 Wisconsin’s uncharacteristic recent struggles have led to a dramatic makeover.
The Badgers have a new coach and offense as the team attempts to bounce back from a 7-6 season and win the Big Ten West in the conference’s last year of divisional competition.
“The pressure’s really on for this team as a whole to start producing,” offensive tackle Jack Nelson said. “We’re excited for that.”
Wisconsin has finished just a game above .500 two of the last three years. Former coach Paul Chryst was fired midway through last season despite owning a 67-26 record. Wisconsin made a splash by landing new coach Luke Fickell, who led Cincinnati to a College Football Playoff berth two seasons ago.
“It has a lot to do with being back in the Big Ten,” said Fickell, a former Ohio State player, assistant coach and interim head coach. “It has to do with the respect I’ve always had playing against and preparing for Wisconsin. Understanding and recognizing what the culture, what I assumed the culture was like from afar. Felt like something that would be really, really in my wheelhouse.”
The head coaching switch is only one of the changes to hit Wisconsin.
A team that traditionally has focused on running the ball should have a much more balanced offense under new coordinator Phil Longo, who succeeded in the same role at Ole Miss and North Carolina with an Air Raid attack. Wisconsin has also added 17 transfers.
New quarterback Tanner Mordecai threw a school-record 72 career touchdown passes at SMU. The arrival of Longo and Mordecai ensures the Badgers won’t have the same old grind-it-out offense they’ve had in years past even as they return running back Braelon Allen, who has rushed for over 1,200 yards both of the last two seasons.
All these changes add plenty of intrigue to a program known for its traditional reliance on smashmouth football.
“Is Wisconsin boring?” Nelson asked. “I wouldn’t say so, but I’ll tell you what isn’t is winning football games. And that’s something we plan to do this year.”
The identity of Wisconsin’s offense is one of the most interesting stories in the Big Ten.
Longo repeatedly has said throughout the offseason that Wisconsin will continue to run the ball. He’s cited the success running backs had during his North Carolina tenure.
Wisconsin has one of the nation’s top returning running backs in Allen and will have a formidable running back tandem if Chez Mellusi stays healthy after injuries limited him to nine games both of the last two seasons.
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Wisconsin boosted its receiving depth in the transfer portal by adding Bryson Green from Oklahoma State, C.J. Williams (Southern California), Will Pauling (Cincinnati) and Quincy Burroughs (Cincinnati).
Mordecai says nobody should overlook Wisconsin’s returning receivers. Chimere Dike heads that group after catching 47 passes for 689 yards last season.
“The guys who have been here kind of have a chip on their shoulder,” Mordecai said. “The media’s written them off as much as anyone else as far as their productivity or what they’ve put on the field, but I don’t think the offense they were in gave them a fair chance to show what they have. I’m especially excited to see those guys perform.”
Wisconsin no longer has longtime defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard, a former All-American safety for the Badgers who went 4-3 as the interim head coach after Chryst’s dismissal last season. Leonhard instead is working as an analyst at Illinois.
The Badgers annually had one of the nation’s top defenses under Leonhard, who was passed over for the head coaching job when Wisconsin hired Fickell. That puts pressure on new defensive coordinator Mike Tressel, who followed Fickell from Cincinnati.
Wisconsin opens Fickell’s tenure by hosting Buffalo on Sept. 2. The Badgers begin Big Ten competition by visiting defending West champion Purdue on Sept. 22. Their only meetings with preseason Top 25 teams are home matchups Oct. 14 vs. No. 25 Iowa and Oct. 28 vs. No. 3 Ohio State.