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What you need to know about Wisconsin before Ohio State plays them

This might be the year the Badgers take a step back.

NCAA Football: Holiday Bowl-Southern California vs Wisconsin Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

The Ohio State football season will be here before you know it, and even if you’ve only been paying semi-close attention this offseason, you’re probably aware of the major storylines with the program. This is going to be an exceptionally young, but talented and athletic team. There’s a lack of proven production at wideout, running back, and defensive back. They return the best QB in the conference, and should at least compete for a Big Ten title.

But you may not know a lot about the specific teams on Ohio State’s schedule. We’ll get into a lot more detail before the actual games, but you may want a primer so you can sound smart at the bar, or at the barbecue, or in the grocery store checkout line.

So take a look at Ohio State’s opponents this year. Next up, perhaps Ohio State’s first big game in the Big Ten, a road trip to Wisconsin

Okay, refresh my memory. What was the deal with Wisconsin last year?

In their first game of the season, the Badgers got dump-trucked by Alabama and then promptly fell out of the public consciousness. Wisconsin finished with perhaps the quietest 10 win season in the country, and even knocked off USC in a bowl game. But close losses to Iowa and Northwestern, and a failure to beat anybody even remotely interesting, kept Wisconsin’s success mostly forgettable.

Wisconsin’s standard of play fell off a little bit last year too, thanks to injuries. Even their normally super reliable running game fell off a little bit. And that’s not a good sign, since after years of some of the easiest schedules in the country, the proverbial chickens are coming home to roost. Plus, Wisconsin needs to replace a lot of importance faces, perhaps none more important than defensive coordinator Dave Aranda.

If nothing else, Wisconsin will certainly be battle tested this coming season.

Yeah? Who do they play?

They open the season against Aranda’s new employer, SEC and likely playoff contender LSU, in Green Bay. Then, after two creampuff games, the Badgers plunge into a gauntlet of the Big Ten’s best, traveling to Michigan State and Michigan, hosting the Buckeyes, traveling to Iowa, and then hosting Nebraska. That’s a tough stretch for anybody.

What’s Wisconsin’s offense going to look like?

That’s a good question. Joel Stave completed what felt like his 400th year of collegiate eligibility, so the Badgers will be looking for a new quarterback. Senior Bart Houston will get first crack at the job, having been recently named the starter for the LSU game, but don’t sleep on redshirt freshman Alex Hornibrook. Houston was the higher ranked recruit and is more experienced, but Hornibrook has apparently looked better in practice. Given how difficult Wisconsin’s early schedule is, Houston getting the nod isn’t shocking, but don’t be surprised if Hornibrook is taking snaps in the Ohio State game, especially if LSU just drills Wisconsin.

The rest of the offense looks like a typical Wisconsin offense. You have your load-carrying running back, Corey Clement, who was poised to have a monster season last year, but couldn’t stay healthy. If he can’t stay healthy again, the Badgers have plenty of options behind him. They’re mostly lacking in high level recruits at the skill positions, and they lose their top wideout. But Columbus product wide receiver Robert Wheelwright returns, and there are some underclassmen with some potential.

The key will be whether the Badgers can manufacture any explosive plays (they were horrible at this last year), and what their offensive line will be like. They’re already losing their All-Big Ten left tackle, and now starter Dan Voltz recently had to retire due to injuries. The Badgers will need to work in some inexperienced hands to make sure they’re getting enough of a push for Clement.

What about their defense?

That’s typically been Wisconsin’s calling card, and there are things to like, and dislike, about this unit. Perhaps the biggest departure is Dave Aranda, who built dynamite units out of a lot of three-star personnel. New Wisconsin DC Justin Wilcox has had quite an up and down career as a coordinator, and while he has some quality pieces to work with, depth could be an issue.

The Badgers return key parts of their front seven, like linebacker Vince Biegel, and defensive end Chikwe Obasih. There’s also another Watt, T.J. Watt, who can cause some trouble at outside linebacker. But the top three defensive backs from last year are gone, and safety, especially playmaking ability in the back, may be a question mark. This probably won’t be a bad unit by any means, but there’s reason to think it might not be a lock-down solid as it was under Aranda.

What’s the Ohio State-Wisconsin series look like historically?

Probably more one-sided than you’re thinking, even in relatively recent memory when Wisconsin has been a solid team. Ohio State owns a 57-18-5 all-time advantage, and has also won seven of the last eight meetings. Outside of brief runs in the early 1980s and the early 2000s, Ohio State has mostly dominated this series.

Is Wisconsin going to be good this year?

Wisconsin might not be bad, but their record is almost certain to take a hit. Facing their most difficult schedule in years, the Badgers don’t have a quarterback yet, don’t have many candidates for explosive offensive plays, and have questions with defensive coaching and their secondary. Even if they find satisfactory answers for many of those questions, a regression seems almost certain, given their Michigan trips, a battle with Ohio State, and tricky road trips in Big Ten play.

Missing a bowl would be a bit of a surprise, but a 7-5 season seems very much on the table, even if Wisconsin isn’t that much worse of an actual team compared to last year.

How worried should Buckeye fans be about this game?

Madison is always a difficult place to play, but it shouldn’t be stupid cold there yet. Wisconsin’s style of play makes it a little hard to completely blow them out (2014 Big Ten championship game notwithstanding), but if you want to make a road trip to Wisconsin, this seems to be the year to do it. Ohio State should get a bit of a test, and it’s not impossible they lose. But there are probably better Big Ten candidates to spring an upset on the Buckeyes this year.