The Wisconsin Badgers officially announced the hire of Cincinnati head coach Luke Fickell as the new Badgers head coach last November.
On Saturday, Fickell will coach his first regular season game as Wisconsin head coach against the Buffalo Bulls at Camp Randall.
Fickell’s debut comes on the heels of a rough 2022 season — the worst since 2008. The Badgers last year dropped a home game to a non-conference opponent, suffered their first home loss to Illinois since 2002 and a home loss to the evil team out west, Minnesota.
But Badger fans are back in win-now mode. And while expectations for Fickell and new offensive coordinator Phil Longo, formerly of UNC, are high, these Badgers are full of new blood.
At quarterback, Fickell brought in a highly productive redshirt senior from SMU in Tanner Mordecai. Mordecai racked up 33 touchdowns and over 3,500 yards last season, and anything close to that would be a massive success in Longo’s Air Raid system.
On the ground, Wisconsin will look to do what it does best through star running back Braelon Allen. Despite missing the Minnesota game due to a shoulder injury, Allen still managed over 1,300 yards from scrimmage and 11 touchdowns.
On the defensive side of the ball, Fickell brought in his defensive coordinator from Cincinnati, Mike Tressel, to take the place of longtime Badgers assistant Jim Leonhard. However, the Badgers have two massive holes to fill with the losses of nose tackle Keeanu Benton and linebacker Nick Herbig to the NFL’s Pittsburgh Steelers as well as a third hole due to safety John Torchio not returning to play.
Wisconsin hopes they can fill at least one of these holes with Boston College safety Jason Maitre while addressing the other two with players already on the roster in the 319-pound Gio Paez and redshirt sophomore Darryl Peterson. The return of leading tackler and PFF’s highest-rated B1G linebacker Maema Njongmeta and outside linebacker C.J. Goetz should also help keep the front seven solid.
- HC: Luke Fickell (Cincinnati)
- OC/QBs Coach: Phil Longo (UNC)
- DC/ILBs Coach: Mike Tressel (Cincinnati)
- QB: Tanner Mordecai (SMU), Nick Evers (Oklahoma), Braedyn Locke (Mississippi State)
- WRs: Bryson Green (Oklahoma State), CJ Williams (USC)
- IOL: Joe Huber (Cincinnati)
- DE: Darian Varner (Temple)
- OLB: Jeff Pietrowski Jr. (MSU)
- S: Jason Maitre (Boston College)
- K: Nathaniel Vakos (Ohio)
- P: Atticus Bertrams (USC)
Five names to know from the class of ‘23
- OL James Durand (four-star recruit)
- DB Amare Snowden (four-star recruit)
- WR Tech Kekahuna (four-star recruit)
- S Braedyn Moore (three-star recruit)
- CB Jace Arnold (three-star recruit)
For an in-depth look at the Badgers’ offseason acquisitions, check out this article by Dylan Goldman.
- C Joe Tippmann (NYJ, #43) — The second-round pick appeared in 25 games for the Badgers, starting 22. Redshirt junior Tanor Bortolini is expected to take over the exceptional run blocker’s role in the middle of the offensive line.
- DT Keeanu Benton (PIT, #49) — The second-round pick started 36 games in four years at Wisconsin, racking up 19 tackles for loss and nine sacks as the anchor in the middle for the Badger defensive line. Redshirt senior Gio Paez is expected to fill in the middle of the field in his place.
- LB Nick Herbig (PIT, #132) — The fourth-round pick accumulated 21 sacks in three years at Wisconsin, earning first-team All-Big Ten and both second and third-team All-American honors in 2022. Redshirt sophomore Darryl Peterson is expected to get the start opposite C.J. Goetz.
- OL Tyler Beach (HOU, UDFA) — The undrafted free agent started 29 games for the Badgers, only allowing one sack in six starts at left guard in 2022 and earning All-Big Ten third team honors at left tackle in 2021. Redshirt junior and Cincinnati Bearcats transfer Joe Huber is expected to start opposite Michael Furtney in his place.
- S John Torchio — The walk-on turned 2022 first-team All-Big Ten safety led Wisconsin in interceptions in his final year of eligibility. Junior Hunter Wohler is expected to take his place at strong safety.
- CB Jay Shaw — The UCLA transfer started twelve games for the Badgers, snagging a pair of interceptions. Redshirt sophomore Ricardo Hallman and graduate student Alexander Smith are expected to retain their starting jobs at the position.
- P Andy Vujnovich — The Badgers’ all-time leader in punting average (44.3) is expected to be replaced by Australian freshman Atticus Bertrams.
- QB Graham Mertz (Florida) — The 32-game starter for Wisconsin is expected to start for the Florida Gators.
- RB Isaac Guerendo (Louisville) — Guerendo scored six touchdowns while excelling on special teams for Wisconsin. Guerendo is expected to be buried in the rotation of a deep Louisville depth chart.
- WR Markus Allen (in portal) — Allen initially entered the transfer portal in October, committing to Minnesota. The receiver decommitted from the Golden Gophers in December and announced he would stay with the Badgers before reentering the transfer portal on June 23.
- OT Logan Brown (Kansas) — The former five-star recruit is expected to back up Dominick Puni at the University of Kansas.
- September 2: Buffalo — The first game of the Luke Fickell era will come against a Bulls team that is in what may be the greatest six-year stretch in school history. Buffalo has made four bowl games since being snubbed in a six-win 2017 season, winning their last three. However, the Bulls struggled mightily against the run in 2022, allowing 5.0 yards per carry. Phil Longo’s Air Raid system is expected to modernize the Wisconsin offense, but expect the Badgers to default to what they do best in week one: pounding the rock. Prediction: WIN
For an in-depth preview of Saturday’s game against Buffalo, check out this article by Seth Kruger.
- September 9: @Washington State — 74,001 fans watched the Cougars upset the Badgers 17-14 last September in Camp Randall en route to a 7-5 season that concluded with an LA Bowl shellacking by Fresno State. Wisconsin will look to exact revenge at Martin Stadium in Pullman. This will be the first big test for Fickell’s team prior to conference play, but against a team that struggled on offense last season — now with a new offensive coordinator — the always-ferocious Badger defense could be in for a big day. Prediction: WIN
- September 16: Georgia Southern — The first season for Clay Helton in Statesboro concluded in a Camellia Bowl loss to Buffalo. The Eagles come off a season full of shootouts, both scoring and allowing over 30 points per game. With a new quarterback in Tulsa transfer Davis Brin, this should be a great opportunity for the Badgers to tune up some final kinks in preparation for the first B1G bout of the season. Prediction: WIN
- September 22: @Purdue — The Badgers open conference play against a Boilermaker team that they have beaten 16 straight times, including a 35-24 victory last October. Purdue won the B1G West with a three-game winning streak to end conference play. Former Texas quarterback Hudson Card is expected to be the Boilermakers’ new starter behind center, and Purdue hopes he can take some pressure off a defense that allowed over 30 points six times last year. Prediction: WIN
- October 7: Rutgers — The Scarlet Knights have yet to take down the Badgers in four matchups, with the most recent being a 52-3 beatdown in Piscataway. Rutgers once again found itself sitting at the bottom of the B1G East with a 1-8 in-conference performance in 2022. Excluding a 66-point performance against an FCS team in week two, the other team in red and white’s offense averaged 13 points last season. A solid Badgers defense will look to continue that scoring spell during homecoming week. Prediction: WIN
- October 14: #25 Iowa — The Badgers lost the Heartland Trophy and a spot in the B1G Championship game in Iowa City in an abysmal offensive performance. The Hawkeyes have always ground games out with an eternally tough defense, but with an injection at quarterback in former Michigan starter Cade McNamara and tight end in former Wolverine Erick All, the offense expects to improve on their 17.7 points per game average from 2022. Prediction: LOSS
- October 21: @Illinois — To say the Fighting Illini embarrassed Wisconsin last season would be an understatement. The Badgers took a 10-7 lead before allowing 27 straight in the loss that would lead to Head Coach Paul Chryst’s firing. Without fifth-round pick Chase Brown, the running game should take a step back. But a frightening defense that allowed the least points in the country — and now has the mind of Jim Leonhard — and transfer quarterback Luke Altmyer look to pick up the slack on homecoming weekend. Prediction: WIN
- October 28: #3 Ohio State — Every Badger fan has this game circled on their calendar. Wisconsin has not taken down the Buckeyes since 2010, and the wound from the 52-21 thrashing they received last September in Columbus is still fresh. The OSU offense is once again expected to be among the top in the nation, and the defense is nothing to scoff at. The road to victory for the Badgers will have to be through the air, where the Buckeyes struggled last season — Penn State’s Sean Clifford threw for 371 yards in a loss and Michigan and Georgia each averaged over 11 yards per pass. Prediction: LOSS
- November 4: @Indiana — The Hoosiers beat Wisconsin their last go around in with a 14-6 victory at Camp Randall, but they finished just a win above Rutgers in the B1G East standings last year. The Hoosiers have yet to announce their starting quarterback, but the expectation is that Tennessee transfer Tayven Jackson will attempt to improve an offense that averaged less than 220 yards through the air last season. Prediction: WIN
- November 11: Northwestern — Pat Fitzgerald is out as Northwestern’s head coach following a hazing scandal which shook up the school’s athletics department. On the field, the team has been no better after, losing their final eleven games in 2022 — including a 42-7 loss to the Badgers — en route to finishing last in the B1G West. Star guard Peter Skoronski was picked eleventh overall by the Tennessee Titans in the draft and the team lacks in talent compared to other B1G programs. Prediction: WIN
- November 18: Nebraska — The Cornhuskers almost stole back the Freedom Trophy for the first time since 2012 in a nailbiter last year. Despite the disappointing season, Nebraska fans will be looking at this season with a glimmer of hope. New head coach Matt Rhule has excelled at turning around programs since his time at Temple, and he looks to do it in Lincoln on the back of Georgia Tech transfer quarterback Jeff Sims. Prediction: WIN
- November 25: @Minnesota — They have what we want. The Badgers lost two straight games to the Gophers for the first time since 1993-94 in 2022. Minnesota looks to improve on a nine-win 2022 season under P.J. Fleck, which saw them accrue their fourth bowl win in five years. Redshirt sophomore Athan Kaliakmanis will replace Tanner Morgan at quarterback, and the loss of John Michael Schmitz to the New York Giants leaves a massive hole in the middle of the line. Prediction: WIN
Final record: 10-2 (7-2)
Expectations are high for this Badgers team among the Wisconsin fanbase as they head into the 2023 season under Fickell.
Not making a bowl game would be an absolute disaster for Wisconsin. In the eyes of many, anything short of a B1G West title and a spot in the championship game would be a disappointment.
However, this same Wisconsin team lost at home to Washington State just a year ago. The Cougars are no slouches, and they are more than capable of getting the job done again on their home turf.
Oct.21 may be the Badgers’ biggest game. Illinois put down Wisconsin on their home turf last year. This time around, Bret Bielema looks to rile the troops up again, choosing his former employer for the Illini’s homecoming. With Ohio State a week away, it is crucial for the Badgers to win this one and not sit on the brink of a two-game losing streak.
The Badgers will make strides from 2022. Phil Longo’s Air Raid offense should bring a shakeup to not only the Wisconsin culture but also the B1G, along with Purdue’s Ryan Walters. On the other end, Mike Tressel’s defense should continue the tradition of strong Badger defenses.
Ultimately, B1G games come down to the wire, and it will be challenging for Luke Fickell to turn this team into a championship contender in just one year. Ten wins feels like a lofty yet achievable goal. With the Buckeyes on the docket as a loss in many fans’ eyes, going 10-1 with the rest of the schedule would feel like a raging success.
The Badgers have lost many games in the past two years under Chryst that they should have easily won. With Fickell at the helm, they feel reinvigorated, and the words from his opening press conference ring with hope.
“We’ve got one objective and one goal,” he said. “To play for a championship.”