Wisconsin Football: Bold predictions for the 2021 season

Nov 30, 2019; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Wisconsin Badgers tight end Jake Ferguson (84) celebrates with the Paul Bunyan Axe Trophy after defeating the Minnesota Golden Gophers at TCF Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports
Nov 30, 2019; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Wisconsin Badgers tight end Jake Ferguson (84) celebrates with the Paul Bunyan Axe Trophy after defeating the Minnesota Golden Gophers at TCF Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports /

As the Wisconsin football team wraps up fall camp, the program has a mixture of both youth and experience set to make significant contributions. Last season was viewed as a disappointment by many, leaving several players with a little something extra to prove.

Before the team takes the field against Penn State in Week 1, I take a stab at 5 bold predictions for the Wisconsin Badgers in 2021.

1. Graham Mertz matches or exceeds Alex Horibrook’s 25 touchdown passes – good for 2nd in school history

As we all know, Graham Mertz was the first freshman to start a game at quarterback for the Wisconsin football program since 1978 – with the added pressure of being a highly anticipated recruit. Graham Mertz answered and came out guns blazing last season to the tune of 7 touchdowns with no interceptions through the first two weeks. Including the completion of 20/21 passes for 248 yards and 5 touchdowns against Illinois in his debut. The Graham Mertz hype train had officially left the station.

However, over the final five games, Mertz would throw just 2 touchdowns and 5 interceptions. We would learn after the season that Mertz was dealing with a shoulder ailment that plagued him for the better part of the season. He was also without his top two receivers for varying reasons.

Entering 2021 Graham Mertz is healthy and has all of his weapons at his disposal, plus he’s had another full off-season to prepare as QB1. The talent is there (highest-rated quarterback recruit in school history), that much has never been in question. Anyone selling stock in Graham Mertz after last season will regret it – the best is yet to come.

With no obvious bell-cow on the roster, the Badgers are going to rely more heavily on the Kansas native. I think he has the players around him to match or even exceed Alex Hornibrook’s 25 touchdown passes – Wilson’s 33 however seem out of reach.

2. Jalen Berger/Chez Mellusi both account for over 1,000 total yards of offense

The Wisconsin football team might not have a true bell-cow on the roster, but they have two running backs that possess tremendous upside in Jalen Berger and Chez Mellusi. Despite the fact that both running backs only have a combined 131 rushing attempts, I still have great confidence that they’ll make an impact on the field. Berger and Mellusi have been efficient with the carries they’ve had to this point, both averaging at least 5 YPC.

Neither back is built to be a 25+ carry lead back, but that doesn’t mean they can’t handle a significant amount of touches. Berger and Mellusi are pretty universally viewed as finesse runners rather than true between the tackles running backs. Both are exceptional pass-catchers and will assuredly have their versatility utilized in the Badgers offense. Breaking up their touches between carries on the ground and receiving should help both backs stay fresh, healthy, and remain in rhythm during games.

It looks to be a true 1A/1B committee between the two backs and new running backs coach Gary Brown will look to play the hot hand. I think you’ll see flashes of greatness from both backs throughout the year but will get the best products from both as a tandem. So my bold prediction for the Badgers backfield is that both backs total 1,000 yards of total offense.

3. Jake Ferguson leads the team in receptions/yards/receiving touchdowns en route to being named an All-American

Barry Alvarez’s grandson, Jake Ferguson has led the team in receiving two of the past three seasons. I expect a true breakout from Jake Ferguson this season. His chemistry with Graham Mertz is undeniable and he’s the most consistent pass-catcher in the program. Having a tight end as reliable as Ferguson makes for the best safety blanket an offense could ask for.

I expect Ferguson to save his best performance for last, en route to an All-American type season.

4. Nick Herbig explodes and leads the team with 8+ sacks

Despite an unconventional season in 2020, Nick Herbig was able to earn the starting outside linebacker spot as a true freshman. Herbig recorded six tackles for loss but just one sack a season ago, in what was a promising first season for the cardinal and white. Herbig has had a great fall camp and by all accounts is ready to break out in a big way. I expect Herbig to be a relentless pass-rusher in year two and converting those pressures into sacks.

Nick Herbig is going to lead the Wisconsin football team in sacks in 2021, and in doing so help take the defensive unit to another level.