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2021 Wisconsin college football preview: Can QB Graham Mertz take the next step?

The sophomore quarterback started off his college career hot, but struggled the rest of the year. Will he make the jump this season?

NCAA Football: Wisconsin at Iowa
Wisconsin Badgers quarterback Graham Mertz throws a pass against the Iowa Hawkeyes during the fourth quarter at Kinnick Stadium.
Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

The Wisconsin Badgers enter the 2021 season looking to improve from a 3-3 campaign marred with inconsistent play and a COVID outbreak. Paul Chryst enters his seventh season with the program in search of his fourth division title. The Badgers have high hopes for QB Graham Mertz and a defense bringing back a lot of talent in the linebackers and secondary.

2020 Season Review

  • 4-3, 3-3, 3rd in Big Ten West, Won Duke’s Mayo Bowl vs. Wake Forest
  • Can Mertz become the dynamic QB Wisconsin has lacked since Russell Wilson? The freshman showed sparks early last season but struggled down the stretch. With an experienced unit around him and a full offseason to improve, the expectations are high.

2021 Talent

2021 247Sports Composite Ranking: 3rd in Big Ten
ESPN Returning Production: 83% overall (14): 84% offense (24), 82% defense (22)
Returning Talent Index: Positive, 2nd in Big Ten
Returning starters: 8/11 offense, 6/11 defense
* All rankings out of 130 FBS schools

Key Player

Quarterback: Graham Mertz

The QB completed 20-21 passes with five touchdowns in his debut against Illinois and followed it up with two touchdowns in a win over Michigan. However, Mertz threw only one touchdown in the next three games while tossing five interceptions. He’s got a big arm and the skills to become one of the nation’s top passers, but can he be more consistent for a talented Badgers team?

Offense (non-QB): RB Jalen Berger (Fr.)

Berger averaged 5.0 yards per carry splitting time with Garrett Groshek, but he’s the lead guy now for the Badgers. Wisconsin has always prided itself on having a strong running game behind a big offensive line and that’s unlikely to change, even if Mertz takes off. Berger needs to build on his impressive debut season and can be the key to a successful offense for Wisconsin.

Defense: CB Faion Hicks (Sr.)

Hicks had four passes defended last season, but sat behind Rachad Wildgoose in the depth chart. He’ll be expected to replace the star CB right away and although Wisconsin has plenty of reinforcements, Hicks’ development to be a shutdown corner is big for the Badgers. Can he lock up the Big Ten’s best weapons on the outside?

Team Stats Projections

2020 SP+ final: 15th overall: 43rd offense, 4th defense, 85th special teams
2021 SP+ projection: 9th overall: 36th offense, 2nd defense

Odds from DraftKings Sportsbook

To win national title: +5000
To win Big Ten: +800
Win total: 9.5 (Over -115, Under -105)

2020 Against The Spread: 3-1-3
2020 Point Total: Over 3-4

2021 Wisconsin Schedule

2021 Wisconsin Football Schedule

Date Opponent Time (ET)/TV Spread/Total
Date Opponent Time (ET)/TV Spread/Total
Saturday, Sep. 4 Penn State 12:00pm/Fox UW -4.5/52.5
Saturday, Sep. 11 Eastern Michigan 7:00pm/FS1 N/A
Saturday, Sep. 18 OPEN 12:00pm/Fox N/A
Saturday, Sep. 25 at Notre Dame (Soldier Field, Chicago) TBA UW -1.5
Saturday, Oct. 2 Michigan TBA UW -9.5
Saturday, Oct. 9 at Illinois TBA UW -17.5
Saturday, Oct. 16 Army TBA N/A
Saturday, Oct. 23 at Purdue TBA UW -10.5
Saturday, Oct. 30 Iowa 12:00pm/TBA N/A
Saturday, Nov. 6 at Rutgers TBA N/A
Saturday, Nov. 13 Northwestern TBA UW -15.5
Saturday, Nov. 20 Nebraska TBA N/A
Saturday, Nov. 27 at Minnesota TBA N/A