Wisconsin Football: Why this Badger could be a dark horse for the Heisman

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - DECEMBER 10: A general view of the Heisman Trophy is seen during a press conference prior to the 2022 Heisman Trophy Presentation at New York Marriott Marquis Hotel on December 10, 2022 in New York City. (Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NEW YORK - DECEMBER 10: A general view of the Heisman Trophy is seen during a press conference prior to the 2022 Heisman Trophy Presentation at New York Marriott Marquis Hotel on December 10, 2022 in New York City. (Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images) /

With spring practice days away for Wisconsin football, there is undeniable electricity surrounding this program. Luke Fickell, the newly appointed head coach of the Badgers, wasted little time in surrounding himself with a first-class staff of coaches, highlighted by Phil Longo as his new offensive coordinator.

Fickell also brought in a bevy of talent in the transfer portal. He brought in four wide receiver transfers: C.J. Williams from USC, Bryson Green from Oklahoma State, and Will Pauling and Quincy Burroughs, both of who followed Coach Fickell from Cincinnati.

After QB Graham Mertz announced his decision to enter the portal and move on to the Florida Gators, the very next day Oklahoma’s Nick Evers announced his intention to leave the Sooners and become a Badger. Weeks later, Mississippi State’s Braedyn Locke also arrived via the portal.

Perhaps the crown jewel of all of these transfers though is former SMU quarterback Tanner Mordecai. If he can win the starting job out of this talented position room, Mordecai has the possibility of a magical honeymoon with Wisconsin football.

A solid foundation on the offensive line.

Almost every coach will tell you that football is won in the trenches. Last season, Wisconsin football allowed 27 sacks in their 13 games. This amounted to 2.08 sacks per game. That ranked 65th in the nation for sacks allowed per game.

While the departed Graham Mertz was a solid quarterback, he is not what you would consider highly mobile. His recorded 40-yard dash times were slightly above five seconds. No one is going to confuse him with Lamar Jackson or Jalen Hurts.

Mordecai is a much more mobile quarterback. His former team, Southern Methodist University (SMU), only surrendered 21 sacks in 13 games last season, for an average of 1.62 per contest. This was tied for 40th in the country.

Mordecai’s 40-yard dash time was a respectable 4.75. Again, not Lamar Jackson or Michael Vick, but a solid step up from 5.0+.

Wisconsin football’s new outside weapons

The Badgers return three solid targets in Chimere Dike, Skyler Bell, and Keontez Lewis. Dike was the leading receiver last season for Wisconsin with 689 yards on 47 receptions and six touchdowns. Bell was second on the team in receptions with 30, yards receiving with 444, and touchdown receptions with 5.

In an attempt to make Wisconsin football’s receiving room one of the deepest in the country, Fickell brought in two high-profile transfers with C.J Williams from USC and Bryson Green from Oklahoma State.

Further deepening this impressive array of talent are the two transfers that followed Fickell from Cincinnati: Will Pauling and Quincy Burroughs. These young receivers have complementary skill sets that could allow them to grow into big-time playmakers.

Wisconsin football’s other Heisman candidate is in the backfield

When you have a two-year running back that has posted consecutive 1,200-yard seasons, life gets much easier as a new quarterback learning a new offensive system.

That is exactly what Mordecai will be blessed with, as Wisconsin’s Braelon Allen is set for a potential monster season.

Before you accuse me of just throwing the Heisman trophy around too liberally, I mentioned Allen as a potential candidate because the odds of him winning the Heisman are currently set at 25-1, which is 10th best in the nation and third highest running back in the country.

Unfortunately for Allen, this award no longer seems to be for the best player in football, but the most exciting quarterback award. Since Wisconsin’s own, the great Ron Dayne, won the award back in 1999 (has it been that long?), there have been a total of 4 non-quarterback players to win the award. I counted Reggie Bush in that group because even though he eventually had it stripped from him, he did win it.

Even though Allen’s chances are currently 80-1 (according to Fanduel Sportsbook), history shows they’re probably much longer.

On a side note, I’d like to express my personal outrage about Melvin Gordon being snubbed in 2014. The second-highest rushing yards in a season warranted more than a second-place finish. I’ll get off my soapbox for now.

Mordecai as a Dark Horse canidate

O.K., please understand that I am not saying this a lock or that you should take your 401(k) and make this wager. A dark horse, by definition, is a little-known contender that makes an unexpectedly good showing.

That is exactly what Tanner Mordecai is in a position to do. His odds, currently at 120-1, are incredibly long. But let’s look at his credentials and competition.

He is playing for a coach (OC Phil Longo) who took a redshirt freshman who had attempted 10 passes in his collegiate career and turned him into the 10th-place finisher in last year’s Heisman award. North Carolina didn’t have nearly the level of talent that Wisconsin will be able to field this season.

Mordecai has played at the highest level. He was the backup to Kyler Murray, Jalen Hurts, and Spencer Rattler during his time at Oklahoma. He transferred to SMU when last year’s Heisman winner, Caleb Williams, enrolled at Oklahoma for his freshman season.

In his two seasons at SMU, he’s thrown for 7,152 yards, a 66.4% competition percentage, and 72 touchdowns to 22 interceptions. He definitely has the attributes to win the award.

One of the obstacles that he will have to overcome is the anti-Big Ten bias that seems to persist.

Ron Dayne was the last Heisman winner of the 20th century. In the 21st century’s 24 awards, there has only been one Big Ten winner (Troy Smith in 2006). Nebraska QB Eric Crouch won it in 2001, but that was before the Cornhuskers joined the Big Ten.

Another potential detriment is his “dark horse” status. It would seem that, in addition to not caring very much for Big Ten players, the Heisman trophy voters don’t change their initial opinions much. Whoever is on the watchlist during the preseason has a much better chance of winning that a player that appears out of nowhere.

2019 LSU QB Joe Burrow and 2020 Alabama WR Davonta Smith are the only two recent winners that did not appear in preseason watch lists, although Burrow quickly appeared after the first week or so. Of course, it’s no surprise that the only two players to overcome not appearing in early lists just happened to be in the SEC.

Last year, Max Duggan of TCU almost pulled off a major upset, coming in second to USC’s Caleb Williams. How did Duggan accomplish this?

By playing on a team that was relevant in the National Championship picture. While USC obviously was nowhere near that, Williams has been a darling of the media since his freshman days at Oklahoma. He also had very impressive statistics to back up that hype.

Duggan, however, had rather pedestrian numbers for such a prestigious award. He threw for 3,698 yards, completed 63.7% of his passes, and had 32 touchdowns to eight interceptions. What ultimately put him in a position to win was TCU’s impressive 12-1 record in the Big 12.

Wisconsin football will probably be a favorite in every regular season game except for their matchup against Ohio State. If he can put up the kind of numbers he did at SMU, and the Badgers make the Big Ten Championship, he has an excellent chance of being in the mix.

So, I’m not saying that he is going to win it. Just don’t be surprised if Tanner Mordecai is sitting in the Downtown Athletic Club next December as a nominee.

Also. A way-to-early look at the Wisconsin Football 2023 schedule. light