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State of the team: Wisconsin

12/11/2014

The Badgers are still beside themselves after their head coach bolted for the second time in 24 months. But it’s time to move on.

Wisconsin wasn’t a destination job for Gary Andersen, but it’s still a good job. This Badgers made a bowl for 13 straight seasons, won the Big Ten championship in three of the last five years, and had at least nine wins in five of the last six seasons.

Expectations are high at Wisconsin, but deservedly so. This is one of the B1G’s top programs. So, can this team continue to experience a high level of success? And what kind of situation will the next head coach inherit?

Here’s where the rest of Wisconsin stands during the search for another new head coach:

Offense: It came as no surprise that the nation’s top running back, Melvin Gordon, declared early for the NFL draft. He’s irreplaceable, as he’s put together the best rushing season in 25 years. But it’s not all doom and gloom. Corey Clement is a solid backup who has rushed for 844 yards this season. Against Rutgers, Clement even outshined Gordon by rushing for 131 yards (compared to Gordon’s 128) and averaging 9.4 yards a carry (to Gordon’s 6.7). No, Clement is not Gordon – but he still has the ability to be one of the B1G’s top running backs next season.

Elsewhere, the passing game’s key players return –starting QBs, leading wide receiver -- but this unit still has a long way to go. On the offensive line, Wisconsin will also have to deal with a drop-off. First-team All-Big Ten talents Rob Havenstein and Kyle Costigan will be gone, as will honorable mention Dallas Lewallen. But the cupboard here isn’t exactly bare. Besides the returning starters, Michael Deiter leads a talented freshman class and nearly burned his redshirt last week, and junior Ray Ball has been in the mix for much of the season.

Defense: Wisconsin returned just three starters in 2014 and still had the nation’s No. 4 total defense. This coming offseason? It should lose just four starters, and a lot of talent is coming back.

The entire secondary will basically remain intact, with safety Michael Caputo leading the way. This unit could really be special in 2015, even if it didn’t seem that way against Ohio State. Overall, the Badgers are still ranked fifth nationally in passing yards allowed and No. 23 in passing efficiency defense. Even better news? Safety Lubern Figaro has three more years of eligibility, and cornerback Sojourn Shelton has two.

The departures of inside linebackers Marcus Trotter and Derek Landisch are the most costly as they finished 2-3 in team tackles, but both outside linebackers return. Wisconsin overcame more adversity in 2014 with a strong performance, and it’s positioned for another strong run in 2015. The bigger question is whether defensive coordinator Dave Aranda will return to coach them.

Special teams: Freshman Rafael Gaglianone has been tremendous, by converting his last dozen field goal attempts and going 17-of-20 on the season. He might just have a Lou Groza Award waiting in his future. If only he could punt... Wisconsin has consistently lost the field position battle because only 16 teams have a worse net punting average. And the Badgers must also replace their kick/punt returner in senior wideout Kenzel Doe.

Fan base: The Badgers don’t get enough credit here, so let’s touch upon the different points: They were ranked No. 18 nationally in attendance this season (79,520), while the capacity at Camp Randall is 80,321. Earlier this month, USA Today named Madison, Wis., the “best college football town.” Two years ago, “Jump Around” was voted the best college football tradition. And, according to 2014 data compiled by The New York Times, the “most consistently loyal fans in American live in Wisconsin.” More than 87 percent of fans in Wisconsin support the Badgers.

Leadership: Athletic director Barry Alvarez is widely respected in the world of college football. He’s a member of the College Football Playoff committee and the College Football Hall of Fame and the coach who turned around the Wisconsin Badgers in the 1990s. He might also coach Wisconsin in the upcoming bowl game.

That being said, there’s still a disconnect here. Wisconsin pays its assistant coaches among the lowest salaries in the Big Ten – a big reason for Bret Bielema bolting – and no assistant is ranked higher than No. 77 in the nation in annual salary, according to the most recent USA Today database. Also at issue is the high academic standards for Wisconsin recruits. It seems counter-intuitive to label something like that a negative, but that obviously makes it more difficult to field a competitive team. And that was admittedly a concern for Andersen. Four-star defensive tackle Craig Evans decommitted after he discovered he wouldn’t be admitted to Wisconsin, for example, only to eventually sign with Michigan State. Those issues need to be addressed.

Recruiting: The Badgers are usually a team that outplays their recruiting rankings. Wisconsin hasn’t had a top-25 recruiting class in the last five years, but the team has been ranked within the Associated Press Top 25 in all but one of those years. From 2008 to 2013, across all sports, the Badgers were also one of just four Big Ten teams to never spend more than $1 million on recruiting. (Northwestern, Maryland and Rutgers were the others.)

For the most part, Andersen picked off where Bielema left off; the class rankings usually hovered in the 30s. The Badgers have obviously done a lot of recruiting in-state (17 commits in three years), but they’ve also reached into the South in states such as Florida (six commits in the last class). Since 2010, however, Wisconsin has gained only a pair of ESPN 300 commits.

To open up recruiting a bit, Andersen had previously said he planned to follow James Franklin’s lead and hold satellite camps in Minnesota (and possibly Illinois) in 2015. That wouldn’t be a bad idea for his successor.