The University of Wisconsin football team sports a 45-10 record since the start of the 2014 season, trailing only Alabama (51-5), Clemson (50-6) and Ohio State (49-6) in victories and winning percentage among FBS programs during that time.
The common denominator among the four teams?
Simple. It’s defense.
With several notable exceptions, Oklahoma most prominent among them, the teams that consistently occupy the seats of power in college football play great defense. For evidence, look no further than the College Football Playoff.
Alabama ranks first nationally in total defense and scoring defense. Georgia, which beat Oklahoma in the semifinals and meets Alabama for the championship Monday night, is sixth in total defense and fifth in scoring defense. Clemson, which lost to Alabama in the semifinals, is fourth and second in the nation, respectively.
Even the two teams that were next in line for playoff berths, Ohio State and UW, fielded stingy defenses. The Buckeyes are ninth in total defense and 15th in scoring defense. The Badgers are second and third, respectively.
Even more telling, the teams with the most wins over the past four years — Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State and UW — have been fixtures in the top 10 in total and scoring defense throughout that time.
Indeed, it is defense that has pushed UW into the sport’s upper echelon the past few years, turning a very good program into one that can compete for national championships. UW has finished in the top seven in total defense each of the past five seasons.
People are talking — with good reason — about UW being scary good on offense next season, but for UW to remain among the nation’s top teams, it will need to successfully retool a defense that lost seven starters and two key reserves. Keeping the unit among the nation’s best will severely test the culture, the coaches, the talent and the depth — especially the depth — of UW’s defense.
“There is a standard,” safety D’Cota Dixon, a senior-to-be, said after UW completed a 13-1 season.
“That’s the culture of the locker room, of the environment, that there is a standard. I don’t expect anything to be different, to be honest.”
Well, except for the faces. Dixon, inside linebackers T.J. Edwards and Ryan Connelly and nose guard Olive Sagapolu are the only returning starters for UW, as both ends, both outside linebackers and three-fourths of the secondary must be replaced.
End Isaiahh Loudermilk, nose guard Garrett Rand, inside linebacker Chris Orr, outside linebacker Andrew Van Ginkel, third cornerback Dontye Carriere-Williams are all ready for larger roles after playing extensively this season. After that, who knows?
“There’s going to be some growing pains for sure, just with the lack of experience,” graduating safety Joe Ferguson said. “But I know the coaches are going to get everybody going and the new leaders are going to get everybody going. I really don’t worry about them. They’ll be fine. There’s players here, good players. They’ll be fine next year. They’ll just be young, that’s it.”
Young, inexperienced, unproven — they all fit the group defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard will be working with this spring.
In the line, Sagapolu could have an expanded role after showing some pass-rush ability, but much will depend on the massive Loudermilk and the powerful Rand, backups who flashed ability as a freshman and sophomore, respectively.
It seems logical Rand would move out to end, possibly opening the door for touted freshman Bryson Williams to play behind Sagapolu. A number of players have been patiently waiting for their turn at end, with junior-to-be David Pfaff likely to get a long look.
Edwards, Connelly and Orr — all starters in the past — and Arrington Farrar return at inside linebacker, so no worries there. Van Ginkel will move into one outside linebacker spot after turning into a big-time playmaker late in the season, but the other spot should be a battle between former walk-on Tyler Johnson, who showed playmaking ability as a backup, and athletic Zach Baun, who missed the season with a foot injury. It would help if Alabama transfer Christian Bell could get into the mix as well.
The secondary will have the most new faces, with two cornerbacks and a safety to replace. Carriere-Williams should assume Nick Nelson’s No. 1 cornerback spot after a promising freshman season in the nickel defense.
Unless UW brings in a transfer at cornerback, talented though little-used young players such as Madison Cone, Caesar Williams and Faion Hicks will have to step up on the other side. Lining up next to Dixon at safety could be Patrick Johnson, who played in only four games due to an arm injury, though challenges could come from veterans Eric Burrell and Seth Currens and promising Scott Nelson, who redshirted as a freshman.
Getting Edwards, a first-team All-American, back after he considered entering the NFL draft was a huge plus for the defense. But even if starters are found, it has been the great depth, especially in the front seven, that has fueled UW’s defensive success. Finding quality backups is just as important as finding starters.
“It’s time for guys to go compete, and opportunities are going to be there,” Leonhard said. “Roles are going to be there to be won and I think the approach that our guys handle this offseason on and off the field is extremely important.”
More than ever.