Tenth-ranked Wisconsin looks to live up to its lofty ranking when it opens the season at home against Utah State on Friday. The Badgers are on their third defensive coordinator in as many years after Justin Wilcox left Madison to take the head-coaching job at California, and Jim Leonhard is tasked with spearheading a unit that’s finished in the top 10 in total defense each of the last four seasons.
Wisconsin won the Big Ten West Division title in 2016 but dropped a 38-31 decision to No. 6 Penn State in the conference championship game, and it hopes to reach double digits in wins for the third straight season under Paul Chryst. Sophomore quarterback Alex Hornibrook is the undisputed starter after sharing snaps with Bart Houston last season and looks to turn the corner in his development by breathing life into an inconsistent offense that finished 67th nationally in points per game (28.4) in 2016. Wisconsin, which returns 15 starters, has won 21 consecutive home openers and can extend its winning streak against teams currently in the Mountain West Conference to 10 games since 2007. Utah State is coming off its worst season since 2008 but played the Badgers tough in their previous two meetings, most recently a 16-14 loss in 2014 and a 20-0 victory 49 years ago.
TV: 9 p.m. ET, ESPN. LINE: Wisconsin -28
ABOUT UTAH STATE (2016: 3-9): Quarterback Kent Myers returns after throwing for 2,389 yards and 10 touchdowns in his junior season, as does leading rusher Tonny Lindsey Jr., who ran for 763 yards and six scores, and top receiver Ron’quavion Tarver (46 receptions for 602 yards). “We have a lot of good, talented people this year and a lot of experience within the receiving corps,” Myers told reporters. “It really helps me out, especially for my senior year, to go out and do something big.” The offensive line lost three starters from last season, but BYU transfer Quin Ficklin has impressed at center and will be counted on to anchor an inexperienced unit.
ABOUT WISCONSIN (2016: 11-3): Hornibrook threw for 1,262 yards and nine touchdowns in nine starts last season and will have leading receiver Jazz Peavy and senior tight end Troy Fumagalli as his security blankets. Leonhard will have to replace the production of linebackers T.J. Watt and Vince Biegel, who both were selected in the 2017 NFL Draft, while this year’s unit already is down two key contributors as Jack Cichy (knee) and Zach Baun (leg) suffered season-ending injuries in training camp. “It was unfortunate with Zach,” Chryst told reporters. “You feel bad for a guy that missed a lot of games last year, and I thought he was doing some really good things.”
1. Wisconsin is 17-3 at home since the start of the 2014 season.
2. The Badgers have won 37 straight home games against non-conference opponents.
3. Chryst is 21-6 since taking the head-coaching job in 2015.
PREDICTION: Wisconsin 35, Utah State 10