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Illinois’ 2018 Most Winnable Game Countdown: No. 12 - Wisconsin Badgers

We start our countdown, of the most winnable games of the 2018 season, with the least winnable one.

NCAA Football: Illinois at Wisconsin Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

The Badgers and Illini will square off in Madison on Oct. 20 at 11 a.m. CST. This will be the Badgers’ homecoming game, which is the reason the Big Ten set the 11 a.m. kickoff in stone so far in advance.

Ever since the 1993 season when Wisconsin turned into “Wisconsin” under Barry Alvarez, the Badgers have mercilessly bludgeoned the Illini. The few wins the Illini have had in the rivalry (2001, ‘02, and ‘07) since Alvarez got things rolling have been savored, but unfortunately, are few and far between. Now, an Illini program picking up the pieces from a horrific year two under Lovie Smith has to head to Madison to play a Wisconsin team that has found the best version of itself under Paul Chryst.

After nearly three decades, Wisconsin is still using the Alvarez formula and might have even perfected it under Chryst.

NCAA Football: Iowa at Wisconsin Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

Alvarez used a simple formula to make the Badgers into the program they are today. The combination of punishing offensive lines, work horse running backs, game-managing quarterbacks, and productive walk-ons has made Wisconsin a consistent winner under Alvarez. Then, Alvarez’s successor, Bret Bielema, accomplished a great deal using the same formula as he guided the Badger’s to three consecutive Rose Bowls from 2010-12. He tried to get out of Alvarez’s shadow by replicating the Wisconsin formula at Arkansas. He failed miserably. Gary Anderson tried to deviate from the formula and he was out after two seasons. He also failed miserably after leaving Madison.

Alvarez can be an overbearing presence for a coach wanting to establish his own identity, but a coach that fully embraces Alvarez’s formula might just be able to find the formula’s perfect iteration.

After Anderson left for Oregon State, Alvarez brought in Paul Chryst, a former Badger quarterback and assistant coach. Chryst has embraced all things Wisconsin.

The offense relies heavily on the run game led by massive lineman, uses a game-managing quarterback, utilizes bruising running backs, and has made full use of the walk-on program that is modeled after Tom Osborne’s Nebraska. When combining the Alvarez formula with what has become a perennially elite defense, it’s easy to understand why Chryst might end up taking the Badgers to heights they have never reached as a program.

No longer are the Badgers content with getting to a Rose Bowl or any other major bowl game. The Badgers have their sight set on a College Football Playoff berth and the first national title in school history.

The Offense is Bruising yet Crafty

NCAA Football: Michigan at Wisconsin Rick Wood-USA TODAY Sports

There is something intoxicating about watching an offense that utilizes the old school concepts of power (the way Alvarez wants), yet utilizes pre-snap motion (the way Chryst does), to out leverage a defense before the snap. There’s a method and madness to the Badger’s scheme. The method is the run game led by Sophomore running back Jonathan Taylor. Bill Connelly said it best when describing Taylor’s role in the offense:

Taylor is so perfect for this offense. Sixty-five percent of his carries came on first down, when everyone knew what the Badgers were going to do, but he averaged 6.3 yards per carry on first down. Oh, and he averaged 9.2 per carry on third down. And 9.1 per carry in tie games. And 7.5 per carry between the 20s. Et cetera.

The offensive line brings back all the necessary pieces to ensure Taylor stays on track:

To say the least, [Taylor’s] line has helped, and everyone’s back: All-American guard Beau Benzschawel, All-American tackle David Edwards, all-conference guard/tackle Michael Deiter, third-team all-conference starting center Tyler Biadasz, and two-year starting guard Jon Dietzen. Young former four-star recruits like sophomore Cole Van Lanen and redshirt freshman Kayden Lyles will have to wait their turn.

The madness is veteran quarterback Alex Hornibrook, who now enters his junior season and is an early candidate for the “players who have been at their school a decade” lists that come out every year. Hornibrook has started since his freshman year and, by the time he’s done in Madison, the Badgers’ Big Ten West rivals will swear Hornibrook had been there a decade. Hornibrook is the typical game manager who allows Wisconsin to thrive, but the madness comes in the variability of his performance. When Hornibrook struggles, the Badgers are a mere very good team. When Hornirbook is on his game, the Badgers are excellent. He threw 15 interceptions in 2017, which let a few opponents hang around in games that would have otherwise have been blowouts.

Hornibrook has a trio of Wide Receivers to work with in Danny Davis III, A.J. Taylor, and Quintez Cephus. At Tight End, the Badger’s must replace the always reliable Troy Fumagali but have two upperclassmen in Zander Neuville and Kyle Penniston ready to step in.

If Hornibrook can raise his game, the Badgers will be national championship good. Even if he struggles, they should still be the best team in the Big Ten West.

Losses on defense will not hold the Badgers back

NCAA Football: Wisconsin Badgers-Training Camp Mark Hoffman-USA TODAY NETWORK

After 2015, the Badger’s lost elite defensive coordinator Dave Aranda. Justin Wilcox came in and the defense got better. Wilcox then took the Cal job and in came former Badger safety Jim Leonhard, and the Badgers’ defense got even better. On the coaching front, the Badgers have been able to stave off attrition. Now, with Leonhard back in 2018, will the Badgers be able to replace losses at LB and at safety? Odds are that they will, at least based on what we’ve seen the last few years.

At LB, the Badgers return T.J. Edwards, Ryan Connelly and Alex Van Ginkel. At Safety, senior D’Cota Dixon will have to anchor the secondary.

Ohio State v Wisconsin Photo by Mike McGinnis/Getty Images

Some players will have to step up their production in increased roles, but the defensive coaching seems to have the Badger’s defense on auto pilot. Expect a stingy unit this fall in Madison.

The Badgers are very good, but can the Illini spoil homecoming in Madison?

This game is the least winnable for a reason, but if there’s a silver lining for the Illini, it’s the body blow theory and the man who instills the type of physicality in his team that made others take notice of this theory.

Michigan v Wisconsin Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images

On Oct. 13 — a week before Illinois heads to Madison — the Badgers go to Ann Arbor for an all-out brawl that could leave Wisconsin bloody. Michigan is every bit as physical as Wisconsin and Harbaugh will be chomping at the bit to show his Wolverines are tougher.

The Badgers could be limping into their homecoming matchup with the Illini. A butt whipping at the hands of a Michigan team looking to prove itself could temper the high expectations around the Badgers and a letdown against the Illini could be possible. An Illini win in Madison is not likely, but on Oct. 20, the Illini might catch Wisconsin at their most vulnerable point of the season.

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