After hosting two relatively benign threats in Utah State and FAU, the Wisconsin Badgers head to Provo, UT for one of the toughest games of the season. Although Athlon ranks BYU at only 39th best in the country, the Cougars, at home, offer the Badgers a legitimate early-season challenge.
2016 BYU Review
After starting the season 4-4 under first-year head coach Kalani Sitake, the Cougars rattled-off 5-straight victories including a Poinsettia Bowl win to finish the season 9-4. The Cougars were led offensively by the now-departed duo of quarterback Taysom Hill and running back Jamaal Williams. Both, coincidentally, are now members of the Green Bay Packers.
Hill was a dual-threat option for BYU, passing for 2,300 yards and rushing for 600 yards. He combined for 20 touchdowns through the air and on the ground but threw 11 interceptions. Williams contributed 1,300 yards rushing and 12 touchdowns. He averaged 5.9 yards-per-rush.
Defensively, the Cougars were stout against the run. BYU ranked ninth nationally in rush defense, allowing opponents a mere 3.4 yards-per-carry. The Cougars pass defense, conversely, was far from stout. The unit finished 96th nationally averaging 252 yards-per-game. The combination of the strong rush defense and the lackluster pass defense seemed to work well for the Cougars, though, as they only allowed 19.5 points-per-game.
How the 2017 Cougars Stack up
On the offensive side of the ball, first and foremost, the Cougars will have to replace Hill and Williams. Positively, the Cougars can insert a player with plenty of experience in Junior Tanner Mangum. He started and played 13 games as a freshman in 2015. He had impressive numbers too, passing for nearly 3,400 yards and 23 touchdowns against 10 interceptions.
The situation that is replacing the BYU career rushing leader, Williams, will be a bit more complicated. Athlon suggests that Squally Canada and K.J. Hall will join in tandem to fill the massive void Williams left.
Another potentially problematic area for the Cougars’ offense will be that BYU will be replacing its top three receiving options. Although that is undoubtedly an area for concern, Mangum, and his experience, will make the task of replacing the three much easier.
On the defensive side of the ball, the Cougars should have a strong defense despite losing some talent at multiple levels. The defensive line will have to replace three starters and the secondary is forced to replace ball-hawk Kai Nacua, but Athlon predicts the Cougars will be deep in the secondary and their linebacking core will be strong.
Who Wins in Provo
As far as the quarterback battle, it’s a matchup of two single-callers entering their second year at starter (Mangum and Alex Hornibrook). Whichever quarterback is successful in this matchup will be determined by the sporting cast at the skill positions. With the trio of Taiwan Deal, Chris James and Bradrick Shaw at running back, and Jazz Peavy and Troy Fumagalli in the passing game, I give the advantage to the Badgers.
I also think the Cougars inexperience on the d-line and at wide receiver will benefit the Badgers. I like Nick Nelson, Derrick Tindal and D’cota Dixon against a passing game replacing its top three targets. Lastly, the combination of three newcomers on the Cougars’ defensive line should bode well for the Badgers’ running game, despite the Cougars being tremendous in 2016.
On paper, the Badgers definitely win. If the game was played in Madison, the Badgers definitely win. But the game is on the road, in considerable elevation ( Provo sits at 4,500 feet) and at a venue in which the Cougars have lost just once in the last two season.
In short, LaVell Edwards Stadium is the great equalizer in this matchup. It’ll be the reason that the Badgers could lose, but, ultimately, I don’t think they do.