While the Badgers and Badger nation celebrated a bowl victory for the first time in six years, the reality is Jan. 2nd marks the start of a new season and a new era in Wisconsin Badgers football.
As the Badgers kiss 2014 goodbye with fond memories of how it ended, the reality is there are plenty of questions to be answered as Paul Chryst takes over the program. Most of the questions wouldâ€™ve been there had Gary Andersen stayed too, and thatâ€™s because UWâ€™s roster is set for a major turnover once again.
Such is the nature of college football and the four-year life cycle of players. Positions that were strengths become weaknesses overnight, young players suddenly turn in to starters and the world of the unknown awaits for the next eight months.
For the Badgers there are plenty of questions to be answered, but here are five that will hold the key to what the 2015 season will ultimately look like.
5. Can Offensive Line Replace Three Starters and Not Miss a Beat?
Wisconsin turns out offensive lineman like they turn out beer â€” in mass quantities. However, the Badgers are about to face life without three of their long-time starters and major contributors on the line.
That means an offseason of working to find a rotation and a group of five starters that meshes well as a unit. UW will also be replacing itâ€™s rock in the run game and unquestioned leader on offense in Rob Havenstein, and that loss canâ€™t be overstated.
Neither can the fact that the Badgers donâ€™t have a lot of game experience to help replace the loss of Havenstein, left guard Dallas Lewallen and right guard Kyle Costigan.
Wisconsin listed four underclassmen behind the starters in the two-deep for the bowl game and at least two of them will have to step up to replace those departed linemen.
The good news starts with veteran Ray Ball coming in to replace Lewallen at left guard. Heâ€™s at least got some major experience to his name, having played in over 20 games in his career to date. What is lacking is any starting experience though, as Ball hasnâ€™t made a single start in his career.
One other good sign is redshirt freshman Michael Dieter got plenty of snaps in the spring and fall camps thanks to injuries to both center and guard positions. He took nearly every snap during spring practice and the spring game because of the lack of depth up front and that is a major advantage for someone who has never played a live game in his collegiate life.
That said, weâ€™ve seen the loss of big numbers on an offensive line affect the Badgers in the past. One just needs to look to the 2003 season as a great example of that. UW replaced three starters on the offensive line, had 82 percent of its rushing numbers back from the season before and ended up without a 1,000-yard rusher.
UW recruits very talented offensive lineman, and this group could end up being special but with no Melvin Gordon back this line needs to be in sync from the start to have a successful season.
4. Can Youngsters Make Impact on Defensive Line?
For the second season in a row the Badgers will have to replace two of their three starting defensive linemen. However, the Badgers will do it with players who donâ€™t have the experience level that Warren Herring and Konrad Zagzebski had coming in to 2014.
Instead, the Badgers are going to replace Herring with the likes of Arthur Goldberg and redshirt freshman Jeremy Patterson. Goldberg got some decent experience playing in place of the injured Herring, but it was just one season of experience on the field and Herring had three years of playing time when he stepped in to the starters roll.
The picture is a bit more muddled in replacing Zagzebski, as Wisconsin will be really young and could be looking to continue to get bigger at defensive end. It could be a chance for a player like Conor Sheehy to take over as a starter or the Badgers may go speed with someone like incoming freshman Nate Howard (assuming they hang on to him leading up to national signing day).
Wisconsinâ€™s defensive line didnâ€™t exactly stuff the stat sheet in 2014, but they were good enough to do what a 3-4 defensive line is supposed to do â€” eat space and let the linebackers make the big plays.
So, as the Badgers hit the reset button on the defensive line there are going to be major holes to fill and major decisions to be made about what this defensive line is going to be all about in 2015.
3. Can a Wide Receiver Not Named Alex Erickson Emerge?
The wide receiver situation has puzzled the Badgers and plagued the offense for the past three seasons, and heading in to the 2015 offseason the offense will still be searching for a secondary option on the outside.
At some point someone has to emerge, right?
With the Badgers recruiting three talented players in the 2014 class it just may be a matter of getting a season of experience at the collegiate level under their belts. After all, we did see George Rushing and Natrell Jamerson play at least minimal roles throughout the 2014 season.
The tape and the practice performances early on suggest the talent is there, its now up to the players to put it together in the offseason.
Donâ€™t be surprised if you see one or two of the now true sophomore crop of receivers take a major step towards being that option that will take the heat off Alex Erickson in the pass game.
It may be the key to helping the Badgers become a very balanced and dangerous offense under Paul Chryst.
2. Who Plays Inside Linebacker for Badgers?
For the second straight offseason the Badgers will be replacing an inside linebacker in the 3-4 defense, but this offseason promises to be a very different one than last year, as both starters must be replaced.
This upcoming season there will be nothing but youth on the depth chart. Wether by definition of class or in terms of overall experience the Badgers will be going with players who have little to no experience when they take on Alabama to start the 2015 season.
One of those players with little experience, Dâ€™Cota Dixon, was beginning to get some major playing time early on in the season before a shoulder injury sidelined him for the rest of the year. He was still able to redshirt because he played in just three games, but heâ€™s the only experienced player returning at inside linebacker for the Badgers.
Wisconsin knew it needed to stockpile talent on the inside and have three very intriguing talents verbally committed in Jordan Griffin (Seffner, Fla.), Chris Orr (DeSoto, TX) and Nick Thomas (IMG Academy). If all three stay committed, and Griffin seems to be the only somewhat question mark of the three then the Badgers could be starting two freshmen at inside linebacker â€” a proposition that would certainly be interesting given the possibility of a lot of youth in front of them as well.
Now-junior Leon Jacobs is also a possibility as a starter, as he was one of the two main backups at inside linebacker after Dixonâ€™s absence. He ended the season with 28 tackles, two tackles for loss, and 1.5 sacks â€” totals that arenâ€™t too shabby for a backup.
However, as we saw with this season, the Badgers defense under Dave Aranda will only go as far as the linebackers will take them. The inside linebackers need to be playmakers and not having much in the way of true experience back is a scary proposition.
Watching this group during spring practice and fall camp is going to one of the biggest musts. If the group can make up for the lack of experience with pure talent it could be a very interesting season in 2015.
1. Will Badgers Find a Consistent Pass Game?
There is little argument that 2014â€™s biggest “what if” surrounds having quality play from the quarterback position. Arguably the Badgers were just marginally good QB play away from an undefeated regular season this past year.
It was also painfully obvious in the bowl game that the Badgers just donâ€™t have what it needs to be a complete offense at QB. Missing wide open receivers, throwing inexcusable interceptions that kill promising drives and questionable at best decision making plagued the position all season long wether it was Stave or Tanner McEvoy back behind center.
That means the Badgers enter the offseason with fans clamoring for an open quarterback competition and a brand new head coach with his own identity as a quarterbacks coach as well.
Will Paul Chryst open up the competition and allow everyone a fresh start? Considering what he witnessed and what heâ€™ll see on tape this season itâ€™s hard not to believe that will be the case.
However, the question may be wether the two youngest players on the depth chart, redshirt freshman D.J. Gillins and early-enrollee Austin Kafentzis, are going to be what Chryst is looking for at quarterback either.
We simply donâ€™t know how the dynamic will shift this offseason and wether Chrystâ€™s coaching is going to be enough to overcome the glaring holes in Staveâ€™s game.
It wouldnâ€™t surprise us to see Stave step up to the plate, as he seemingly does every offseason. However it wouldnâ€™t be surprising to see UW start the opener against Alabama with a new quarterback under center in an effort to become something more than just average at the position.