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REGGIE HAYES: Wisconsin Badgers primed for best chance yet at college football title | News, Sports, Jobs

Wisconsin quarterback Alex Hornibrook, center, returns to the sidelines, during the Orange Bowl against Miami on Dec. 30. Wisconsin offensive lineman Beau Benzschawel (66) and offensive lineman Jason Erdmann (78) are behind Hornibrook. (Photo by the Associated Press)

There’s some rumbling this could be the year the University of Wisconsin football team makes a serious run at the national title.

Or maybe that rumbling is just a Madison tremor as the offensive line heads to the training table.

As the Big Ten concluded its two-day media event in Chicago, no team emerged looking more ready – on paper – for the season than the Badgers. They’re experienced. They’re talented. They have possibly the best offensive line in the history of Wisconsin offensive line, which is literally and figuratively huge.

They play in a division where they’ll be heavy favorites to reach the Big Ten Championship Game.

“There’s a lot of storylines, but nothing’s happened yet,” Wisconsin coach Paul Chryst said. “You have to go out and earn it. That’s why the season is fun. That’s why I said earlier it’s a journey, and you want to enjoy the journey with your players and you want them to maximize that opportunity.”

Chryst dismisses the media chatter about national-title chances in an instant. In that regard, he’s a typical coach.

“All we talk about is give yourself a chance to have a chance,” Chryst said. “You know there’s great players and teams across the field from you. Whether you’re hunted, you’re hunting, we’re all trying to do the same thing.”

Chryst is right, but he’s also working on keeping those egos in check in his locker room.

RELATED STORY: Indiana football coach Tom Allen on Bill Mallory, other takeaways from Tuesday’s Big Ten media day

Wisconsin, 13-1 last season with the sole loss to Ohio State in the Big Ten title game, has a few issues. It lost seven starters from a defense that ranked first in the Big Ten in fewest points allowed – the first and best measuring stick. One player it was counting on to step in, end Garrett Rand, suffered a torn Achilles and will likely miss the season. Another end, Isaiahh Loudermilk, is coming off knee surgery. Yes, linebacker T.J. Edwards (preseason All-Big Ten) returns along with senior nose tackle Olive Sagapolu, and that’s a good place to start. But there are holes to fill.

On the other hand, who’s going to slow down this Wisconsin offense?

The Badgers scored the third-most points in the Big Ten last year behind Ohio State and Penn State and should be even better this season.

Quarterback Alex Hornibrook took his game up a notch last season, throwing for 2,644 yards with 25 touchdowns, albeit with a few too many interceptions (15).

“There’s a lot of things I admire about Alex, and one of those is his desire to be the best he can be,” Chryst said. “He truly is that. He’s a great worker. He’s a really good teammate.”

The fact Hornibrook doesn’t have to carry the bulk of the load is another plus.

Wisconsin returns running back Jonathan Taylor back after Taylor set an NCAA freshman record with 1,977 yards rushing. There’s also a trio of talented receivers in Quintez Cephus (16.7 yards per catch), A.J. Taylor (15.3 per catch) and Danny Davis III (16.1 per catch).

But it all starts with the big boys up front.

Wisconsin has a reputation of producing a big, strong offensive line, the kind of line that imposes its will on defenses through a relentless wearing-down process. This could be the best line yet. Three of the linemen (Michael Deiter, Beau Benzschawel and David Edwards) made All-American lists last season and considered entering the NFL Draft. ESPN’s Todd McShay has them all listed as first rounders in his early 2019 NFL mock draft. They’re that good.

And there’s more with Tyler Biadasz, Jon Dietzen, Jason Erdmann and Cole Van Lanen.

This is a massive line, almost all in the general vicinity of 6-foot-6, 315 to 325 pounds. Here’s the “runt” of the litter: Biadasz is 6-3, 319 pounds.

Chryst was asked about the importance of having that offensive line established entering the season.

“It’s really important,” Chryst said. “We feel fortunate for all the work that guys put into it and we’ve got offensive linemen, we’ve got a lot of guys that have played really good football. …If you’re going to be a good team, you have to be good in your offensive and defensive lines.”

What stands in Wisconsin’s way? Ohio State generally reloads, even if it has a relatively unproven quarterback in Dwayne Haskins and a defense that, like Wisconsin, lost a lot of pieces from last season.

Wisconsin plays in the Big Ten West, which is considered the weaker of the two divisions since Ohio State, Penn State, Michigan State and Michigan are all in the East. But Northwestern is very good, Purdue improved immensely last season and Iowa and Nebraska are likely better than a year ago.

None of those teams have the depth of talent and experience that Wisconsin possesses.

It will be a rather obvious matter of two details for Wisconsin to reach the college football playoffs. The Badgers must 1) Win the Big Ten title game, probably over Ohio State, and 2) Emerge with one or no losses. A two-loss Big Ten team is not likely reaching the playoffs.

It’s a big task. Wisconsin has the big boys to do it.

This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Reggie Hayes at rhayes@news-sentinel.com.

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