Wisconsin football predictions revisited: What I got wrong about Luke Fickell’s first year

MADISON, Wis. — Optimism about the possibilities for Wisconsin football abounded little more than six months ago, with the first game of the Luke Fickell era finally upon us. With so much newness and so many changes, nobody knew exactly what to expect. But, after watching more than 20 spring and preseason practices, I felt confident Year 1 would represent a significant step forward for the Badgers.

So, I made eight bold predictions about the 2023 season. I thought Wisconsin would win double-digit games, compete for a Big Ten championship and generally raise the bar on what the program delivered over the previous three seasons.

Turns out, it wasn’t that easy. And my predictions were, shall we say, a tad off the mark. So I’m here to offer a mea culpa of sorts and hold myself accountable. I was wrong. It happens. If there is a silver lining, it’s that the first year demonstrated the importance of being more measured and not assuming that changes mean instant success. Here’s a look back at my predictions and what actually transpired.

1. Tanner Mordecai will break Russell Wilson’s single-season passing yards record but not his touchdowns record

Wilson’s 2011 season, in which he set school records with 3,175 yards passing and 33 touchdowns, remains untouched. Wilson averaged 226.8 yards passing per game over 14 contests. Mordecai threw for more than 227 yards in a game nine times in 2022 at SMU, which is part of why I was bullish on him breaking Wilson’s record at Wisconsin. But Mordecai fell well short of that mark.

He threw for 2,065 yards — which ranked 18th in a single season in school history — with nine touchdowns and four interceptions. He also missed a month of the season with a broken right hand. Mordecai was an excellent leader for the team whom Fickell consistently praised, but the offense under coordinator Phil Longo rarely met expectations. I thought we’d see more of the play Mordecai displayed during the ReliaQuest Bowl against LSU — 378 yards passing and three touchdowns — but it proved to be the outlier in his lone season in Madison.

2. Wisconsin will have a nearly 50-50 split between runs and passes

According to TruMedia, Wisconsin called a designed run play on 42.9 percent of its snaps (97th nationally) and a designed pass play on 57.1 percent of its snaps (37th nationally). I did not expect those numbers to be as far apart as they were, in large part because of Longo’s emphasis on having a strong run game and the ability to use tailbacks Braelon Allen and Chez Mellusi. But with Mellusi hurt and Longo trying to figure out how best to use his personnel, the Badgers significantly increased their ratio of designed pass plays.

For comparison, Longo’s teams at North Carolina from 2019 to 2022 used a designed run play on 45.1 percent of their snaps and drew up a pass play on 54.9 percent of their snaps. During that same four-year stretch, Wisconsin called a designed run 58.2 percent of the time and passed the other 41.8. There certainly were wide variances in the type of plan the Badgers used last season. Wisconsin attempted 50 passes in a loss to Iowa while running the ball 28 times. Wisconsin beat Minnesota with an old-school approach featuring 44 rushing attempts and 22 passes.

3. Will Pauling will lead the team in receptions but not in touchdown catches

Pauling looked primed for a breakout season thanks to several dominant practices. Not only did he lead the team in receptions, but he also far outpaced anybody else in touchdown catches. Pauling finished with 74 receptions for 837 yards and six touchdowns. Bryson Green and Chimere Dike, who I thought would challenge Pauling for the touchdown lead as the team’s top outside receivers, combined to catch 51 passes for 808 yards and three touchdowns.

Dike has since transferred to Florida, but Wisconsin returns Pauling and Green, as well as several others at the position. Those two players were outstanding in the bowl game, becoming the first Badgers duo to eclipse the 100-yard receiving mark in the same game since the 2012 Rose Bowl. Pauling, the No. 1 slot receiver, will be a redshirt junior.

4. Braelon Allen and Chez Mellusi will combine for 2,200 rushing yards and 500 receiving yards

My prediction was 1,400 yards rushing for Allen and 800 yards rushing for Mellusi. I also thought, based on practices, that they would be heavily involved in the passing game. As it turned out, Mellusi broke his left leg in Week 4 against Purdue and missed the rest of the season. Allen ran for 984 yards and Mellusi 307 yards (1,291 total). Allen added 131 receiving yards and Mellusi 12.

Allen battled injuries for a third consecutive season and, without Mellusi, didn’t have the same type of help behind him. When Wisconsin did attempt to pass to Allen, it often resulted in a short dump-off into the flat that went for little gain. He averaged just 4.7 yards per reception. Allen declared for the NFL Draft after the season, while Mellusi opted to return to Wisconsin for a sixth year of college football.

5. Wisconsin will beat Ohio State for the first time since 2010

Oops. Of all the predictions I made, I was least sure about this one. But I figured I’d go out on a limb with Wisconsin playing a night game at home. At least Wisconsin played a respectable game in a 24-10 loss with backup quarterback Braedyn Locke earning the start. At one stage in the third quarter, Locke threw a 13-yard touchdown pass to Pauling to tie the score at 10-10. The Badgers had a chance to tie again with less than eight minutes remaining despite missing Dike and Allen due to injuries suffered in the first half.

It felt like a step in the right direction for Wisconsin following an embarrassing 52-21 loss at Ohio State in 2022, which occurred just one week before Paul Chryst was fired. But whatever momentum the Badgers might have gained from a close loss this time around quickly evaporated. Wisconsin promptly lost 20-14 at Indiana and 24-10 at Northwestern in the lowest moments of the season.

6. Wisconsin’s defense will improve against the pass and regress against the run

Wisconsin ranked ninth in the FBS in 2022 in run defense (99.2 yards per game) and 29th in pass defense (204.3 yards per game). That was the highest passing-yard average allowed by a Wisconsin defense since 2009. That is, until last season. Wisconsin’s pass defense ranked 39th after allowing 208.9 yards per game. Meanwhile, the run defense regressed substantially, ranking 39th at 135.1 yards per game. The Badgers had consecutive games allowing at least 200 yards rushing for the first time since 2018.

I thought the pass defense would be better under defensive coordinator Mike Tressel, whose Cincinnati unit in 2021 ranked second nationally in that category. There were some individually strong performances in the secondary, particularly from safety Hunter Wohler and cornerback Ricardo Hallman, whose seven interceptions tied for the national lead and were the most by a Wisconsin player since Shane Carter in 2007. But having a defensive line and a linebacker unit underperform didn’t help. Wisconsin also struggled at times at the other cornerback and safety spots.

7. Maema Njongmeta and Hunter Wohler will earn first-team All-Big Ten

Njongmeta was coming off a season in which he earned third-team All-Big Ten honors from the media for leading the team in tackles (95) and ranking second in tackles for loss (11.5). But his lack of lateral quickness prevented him from becoming a bigger part of the defense under Tressel last season. Njongmeta played just one snap against Purdue and ended up starting 10 of 13 games. He ranked fifth on the team with 59 tackles and third with 8.5 tackles for loss and did not receive any Big Ten postseason recognition.

Wohler produced an outstanding season to lead Wisconsin and all Big Ten defensive backs with 120 total tackles, which was the most by a Badgers defensive back since Reggie Holt in 1991. His 74 solo tackles were the most by any defensive back in the country. Although Wohler was a second-team All-Big Ten selection from the media and a third-team pick from the coaches, he did earn first-team All-Big Ten from the Associated Press. Hallman was the only other Wisconsin defense member to earn All-Big Ten, nabbing third-team honors from the media and the AP.

8. Wisconsin will win the Big Ten West but lose the conference title game

Given the fact that last season represented the final one for the East-West divisional split — and that Wisconsin was picked in the preseason by media members to win the West — this did not seem unreasonable. Instead, Iowa won the division at 7-2, with Wisconsin finishing 5-4 (the same record as a Northwestern team that beat the Badgers in Madison).

It meant Wisconsin would fail to reach the Big Ten title game for a fourth consecutive season after the Badgers appeared in six of the first nine league championship games. Wisconsin closed 7-6 overall with a loss to LSU in the ReliaQuest Bowl. The path back to the Big Ten championship won’t get any easier with the additions of USC, UCLA, Oregon and Washington to form an 18-team league.

 (Photo of Will Pauling: Joe Robbins / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

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