Start Up the Offseason Hype Train for … Wisconsin?
When it comes to Wisconsin football, there are a few things that seem to be true every season. The Badgers tend to have a very good defense and an excellent running game. Often their quarterback underwhelms. There’s also, of course, a stereotypical roster staple: big, corn-fed linemen bound for NFL careers after they leave Madison. Often, the Badgers’ key contributors are in-state products, a trend that has earned the program a reputation for turning underrated local talents into stars—at the cost of rarely making waves in the national recruiting headlines dominated by flashier conference foes.
Until now. Granted, we’re still more than nine months out from December’s early signing period, but Wisconsin currently sits third in the 247Sports Composite rankings for the class of 2019. For a team that signed the No. 44 class in 2018—and that hasn’t fielded a class ranked higher than No. 32 this decade—it’s an eyebrow-raising position to be in, even though the Badgers are all but guaranteed to slide back to the pack in the coming months as the recruiting cycle ramps up in earnest.
As of the final day of February, Wisconsin’s 2019 class features three four-star recruits and five three-star players, trailing only Miami (two four-stars and nine three-stars) and Georgia (three five-stars and four four-stars) in 247Sports’s rankings. Behind the Badgers, Texas A&M, Ole Miss, Michigan, Oklahoma, LSU, Alabama and South Carolina round out the top 10. And although this order will certainly be shaken up in coming months, it’s important to note that one thread unites most of these teams: momentum. Miami was undefeated on Thanksgiving. Georgia came within inches of a national title. Texas A&M made the coaching carousel’s splashiest hire in Jimbo Fisher. Ole Miss overperformed in the face of NCAA sanctions, then opted for continuity in retaining Matt Luke. Oklahoma made the College Football Playoff. South Carolina won nine games for the first time since Steve Spurrier strung together three 11-win seasons from 2011 to ’13.
And Wisconsin, for the third time in four seasons, won the Big Ten’s West Division. For the second straight year, it won a New Year’s Six bowl and finished the season ranked in the top 10. The Badgers have finished with double-digit wins in seven of the past 10 years, and 2018 looks like another such season as a wealth of offensive line depth returns to protect quarterback Alex Hornibrook, whose inconsistency resurfaced in the Big Ten title game after a steady regular season. Breakout star running back Jonathan Taylor is back to build upon his dominant freshman year, and second-year defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard can be relied upon to overcome the turnover on that side of the ball.
It makes sense that this would be the year head coach Paul Chryst and his staff have an opportunity to translate that success into additional recruiting clout. Wisconsin looks primed to keep its stranglehold on the relatively weak Big Ten West while Scott Frost rebuilds Nebraska, all but ensuring at least one more trip to the conference title game against whoever emerges from the cutthroat East Division. In 2018 Wisconsin will face two of those cross-division contenders, Michigan and Penn State, but that shouldn’t trip up its postseason aspirations. Of any Big Ten team, the Badgers may have the easiest path to the playoff, and it only gets easier if they can consistently land a few more four-stars than they have in the recent past.
The odds of the Badgers holding firm at No. 3 in the 2019 rankings as winter turns to spring and summer are slim, but that almost doesn’t matter. With three four-star players already committed—offensive tackles Logan Brown and Joe Tippman and quarterback Graham Mertz—Wisconsin already has as many four-star commits as it signed in its past two recruiting classes combined (one in 2018, two in 2017), with plenty of time to line up a handful more. Of the eight players already committed to the Badgers, only two are from Wisconsin, and the team has plenty of time left to recruit the kind of in-state talent it’s become known for developing. What’s more notable are the six highly-ranked out-of-state players from Michigan, Indiana, Kansas, Pennsylvania, North Carolina and Maryland.
Looking ahead to next winter, it seems unlikely that the Badgers will attract the dozen or so four-star recruit that it would need for its class to crack the final top 15 nationally, but with this much early momentum and a promising season on the field ahead, Wisconsin can dream of fielding a top-20 class for the first time since Internet recruiting rankings became comprehensive. And although the idea that Wisconsin would bring in a star-studded recruiting class goes against the prevailing logic, it doesn’t have to. By no means does such a haul mean the Badgers would fundamentally alter their identity; given their player development track record and reputation for talented walk-ons, I’d bet right now that the best player on the 2019 team won’t be one who arrived a prized recruit. But their recruiting gains are deserved, and they might be just enough to edge Ohio State—or Penn State, or Michigan, or Michigan State—in the conference title game and finally earn the playoff spot they came so close to capturing last winter.