The 2022 season has come to an end. It was a great season that leaves many questions to be answered as we enter the 2023 offseason. Michigan won the Big Ten for the second year in a row, taking the crown from Ohio State.
Ohio State enters the new year a field goal away from a national championship appearance, but now has to replace C.J. Stroud. Will this be the first time in almost a decade that the best quarterback in the conference doesn’t wear scarlet and grey?
Nebraska, Purdue, and Wisconsin enter 2023 with new coaches while Northwestern’s Pat Fitzgerald and Indiana’s Tom Allen enter on the hot seat. Penn State has high expectations, Illinois will try to rebound from a late-season collapse, and Minnesota is trying to replace four of the best players in program history.
This is the final offseason before USC and UCLA enter the conference and the new TV deal starts. Teams must build a foundation that will last in the ever-changing landscape of college football. The 2023 offseason is essential for every team, so let’s dive in and see which five questions each team must answer before the 2023 season begins.
How smooth is the transition to the Air Raid?
Since at least 1990 when Barry Alvarez was hired as the head coach of the Wisconsin Badgers, they have been a three-yard and a cloud of dust offense. That is at least 32 years of one style of offense. It is a style dominated by big and strong offensive linemen, game manager quarterbacks, and star running backs who carried the ball 25-plus times a game.
That style is no more, as after firing Paul Chryst, the Badgers went out and hired Cincinnati head coach Luke Fickell.
At initial hiring it seemed like Fickell, a Jim Tressel disciple, would continue the style of play. But Fickell broke rank and hired Phil Longo from the University of North Carolina to serve as offensive coordinator. Longo is an air raid disciple, his quarterbacks throw the ball often, and while unlike some air raid coaches, Longo does have a pretty potent running game, though it is not the focal point of the offense.
Wisconsin players were recruited for a specific style, and their success is going to depend on them adapting. The offensive line will have to get used to a different style of blocking and a much higher tempo. Fickell and Longo revamped the offense with transfers to help ease the transition, but if they are not able to connect it could be a rough transition.
Braelon Allen came to Wisconsin to be a workhorse and has served as that for the past two seasons. He will benefit the most from the air raid by getting to run into light boxes, as teams won’t stack them so much without the threat of the pass. While the boxes will be lighter, so will his carries, so he will have to work on a more efficient basis. Offensive transitions usually take a couple of years, Wisconsin will be hoping for a smooth transition.
Can they fix the offensive line?
Since 2018, Wisconsin has only had five offensive linemen taken in the NFL Draft, with the highest drafted player going in the third round. In that same time frame, they have recruited two five-star offensive linemen and seven four-stars. Their recruiting has ascended their development, and their draft output has taken a hit. If you ask the players — and they were asked — they would talk about having to block in heavy boxes and unblocked players getting in to make tackles, but quarterback Graham Mertz was their highest rated quarterback recruit.
Wisconsin has always faced heavy boxes, but was able to dominate in the run game no matter what. That has not been the case the last few years, and has resulted in Wisconsin not winning the West in three-straight years after winning it in six of the previous nine.
As mentioned previously, the Badgers line will benefit from the air raid where they throw the ball more and won’t have to see as many heavy boxes but that also means they have to pass block more often than usual. For Wisconsin to reach its ceiling, it will need to develop its players and remember their dominant ways, as the Big Ten is only getting harder and harder to win.
Who is the starting quarterback, and is he an upgrade?
Graham Mertz was the highest-rated quarterback in Wisconsin history, rated as the 65th-best player and the third-best quarterback in the 2019 class. Mertz was followed with a lot of hype that reached a fever pitch after his debut in the 2020 season. Mertz never lived up to the hype leading to his decision to transfer after the 2022 season.
One of Fickell’s first moves was to hit the transfer portal and they brought in three transfer quarterbacks. Former SMU starting quarterback Tanner Mordecai threw for 3,524 yards and 33 touchdowns in 2022. They also brought in Nick Evers and Braedyn Locke from Oklahoma and Mississippi State, respectively.
Wisconsin beat writer Jesse Temple of The Athletic reported that the Badgers may have already named Mordecai the starting quarterback for the 2023 season. In theory, it makes sense, he has the most starting experience and the other transfer quarterbacks are younger. I still think an open competition would have been better, as it’s hard to wrap my head around handing the job to a transfer before seeing him practice during spring ball or fall camp.
Mordecai has had success for SMU, but this is a jump in competition and there is no guarantee he will be successful. If the job is his, Longo will need to ensure he’s an upgrade because if Mordecai struggles and Mertz has success at Florida there are sure to be some upset Badger fans.
Does the transfer portal jump start success or cause internal strife?
Wisconsin was built to be a three-yard and a cloud of dust type program. Changing the offense and defense requires an infusion of talent. Plus, after going 7-6 in 2022, it’s likely there are some players on the roster who can’t play to the level Luke Fickell expects.In that regard, they hit the transfer portal hard, bringing in three quarterbacks, four wide receivers, and two offensive linemen from Cincy.
On the defensive side of the ball, they brought in two defensive linemen and a defensive back. Including a kicker from Ohio University, they brought in 13 total transfers. Wisconsin is hoping that these transfers lead to a resurgence such as the 2021 Michigan State team that went 11-2, winning a New Year Six bowl game.
The downside is 2022 MSU went 5-7. The transfer portal giveth and it taketh away. Led by Tanner Mordecai and former top 100 wide receiver CJ Williams from USC, there is a lot of excitement surrounding these transfers. One area of concern, Wisconsin kept all of the wide receiver production from last year, new wide receivers coach Mike Brown will need to manage his room to ensure there is not any internal strife.
Culture is not a useless term thrown around in sports. The teams who win consistently usually have the best culture and that’s hard to create and maintain with transfers. The hope is that the infusion of talent leads to success and this is a one-time type dip in the portal but if it is not Wisconsin could be looking at another season where they have to claw to reach bowl eligibility.
How does the defense look?
The offensive change is well noted, but there will also be a major change on the defensive side of the ball. Fickell and former Wisconsin defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard decided to mutually part ways, as Fickell brought Mike Tressel with him from Cincy to coordinate the defense.
Under Leonhard and for the last few decades, Wisconsin has been a 3-4 defense that transforms into a 2-4-5 nickel defense in passing situations. This means Wisconsin has three defensive linemen, two in passing situations, four linebackers, and four or five players in the secondary depending on if they are in base or nickel personnel.
In a 3-4, you have two stack linebackers lined up in the gaps and two linebackers on the line of scrimmage as pseudo defensive ends who rush the passer on most plays. In a 3-3 you have three linebackers instead of four but they are stacked directly behind the defensive line instead of in the gaps and on the line of scrimmage.
This is a major structural change to the front seven. A 3-4 defense versus a 3-3 defense requires entirely different players. If this was the NFL, a bunch of players would be traded or their contracts would not be renewed as the defense went through structural changes. In college football, you can use the transfer portal, but Wisconsin did not hit the transfer portal hard on the defensive side of the ball.
This is not to say that Wisconsin’s current defensive players can’t adjust to the new scheme but it is a significant change and worth paying attention to. Tressel’s defenses are usually some of the best in the group of five and I expect that standard to stay the same at Wisconsin but there is no guarantee we will see a smooth transition as players learn new positions, and techniques, and receive varying levels of responsibility based on their new roles.
2023 could be a down year for the Badger defense. Expect to see Wisconsin shift their recruiting strategy and hit the transfer portal to remake the roster to their liking.