B1G 40: Can Badgers move on without senior leaders?

B1G 40: Can Badgers move on without senior leaders?
June 28, 2014, 11:00 am
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Vinnie Duber

As the dog days of summer arrive, the longing for football becomes all the more intense. Well, we here at CSNChicago.com are here to provide you with a summertime football fix. Over 40 days, CSN's Vinnie Duber will have 40 posts pondering the biggest questions heading into the 2014 Big Ten football season — the B1G 40 questions. Be sure to check out the entire B1G 40 series at csnchicago.com/big-ten.

How much will the loss of senior leaders hurt the Badgers?

While the new Big Ten West Division sets up pretty favorably for the Badgers, 2014 will not be without its challenges. And chief among those for Wisconsin will be replacing a lot of departed talent, particularly that of seniors who made perhaps the biggest difference on last year’s nine-win team.

The Badgers lose quite a bit more than a conference-title-contending team typically loses. Wisconsin must replace its top wide receiver, its tight end and an offensive lineman while the defnsive side of the ball needs a whopping eight new starters. It’s a tough ask for Gary Andersen, and the difference between his second year and his first year as Wisconsin head coach is that he won’t have as much on-field help from experienced players. Of the just 10 returning starters, only two are seniors.

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The biggest losses for Wisconsin come in wide receiver Jared Abbrederis and linebacker Chris Borland.

Abbrederis was excellent last season, catching 78 passes for 1,081 yards and seven touchdowns. He showed the ability to make big catches for big plays and even factored in the running game when Andersen used him on end-arounds. Abbrederis scored a pair of rushing touchdowns. The terrific senior year earned him an All-Big Ten first-team selection and made him a fifth-round pick of the Green Bay Packers in this spring’s NFL Draft.

This year, the receiving corps is vastly depleted. The team’s four top pass-catchers from a year ago are gone (Abbrederis, tight end Jacob Pedersen, running back James White and wideout Jeff Duckworth). But it’s Abbrederis who might be most sorely missed. He often bailed out an at-times wavering first-year starting quarterback in Joel Stave. Stave’s back this season, but without an Abbrederis to throw to, things could be a bit trickier.

Borland, meanwhile, could be an even bigger loss for the Badgers. He was the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year and Linebacker of the Year and ended up a third-round NFL Draft pick of the San Francisco 49ers. Borland posted 111 tackles, 8.5 tackles for loss and four sacks, plus a forced fumble. The without-a-doubt leader of the defense, the loss of his leadership ability will be enormous. His departure also symbolizes a much bigger problem: that the defense is returning just three starters, all in the secondary. Seven new starters up front could be a challenge.

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Now, this isn’t to say the Badgers shouldn’t still be one of the favorites — if not the favorite — to win the Big Ten West. They’re the only real perennial power in the division, with Nebraska and Iowa on that second tier. Despite a season-opener against SEC powerhouse LSU, Wisconsin goes on to a relatively soft stretch of Western Illinois, Bowling Green, USF, Northwestern, Illinois, Maryland, Rutgers and Purdue. Of those eight opponents, only two were over .500 last season (Bowling Green and Maryland), and only one was more than one game above .500 (Bowling Green).

Teams lose seniors every year. It’s the nature of college football. But there’s no doubting that the amount of impact players the Badgers lose is concerning. And that’s without even touching on White, who ranked 14th in the country with 1,444 rushing yards last season. Abbrederis and Borland will be sorely missed. The Badgers’ ability to recover from those departures could make or break their season.