7:00 PM EST, ESPN – Line: Wisconsin -12, Over/Under: 58
A pair of programs looking to bounce back from disappointing season face off on Opening Weekend, as the South Florida Bulls play host to the No. 19 Wisconsin Badgers, from Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Florida. Now in his third season with South Florida (7-6 in 2018), Charlie Strong should by all means have HIS program in place, as he looks to rebuild following a 7-6 campaign in which he saw his team collapse in spectacular fashion following an impressive 7-0 start, losing six consecutive games to conclude the term. Granted, injuries absolutely ravaged the Bulls down the stretch, with the train of thought being that with a number of key returnees back for another tour of duty, they should be able to reach the ten-win heights that they enjoyed from 2016 to 2017. Offensively, the look to be primed to improve upon a unit that was for all intents and purposes rather poor a year ago, when USF averaged just 28.5 Points per Game despite churning out 438.4 Total Yards per Game. Turnovers were a huge component of their struggles, totaling Twenty-Two on the season, leading to a negative Turnover Differential of Minus-1. And this is where Senior Quarterback, Blake Barnett (61.1% 2,705 YDS, 7.7 Y/A, 12 TD, 11 INT), must prove himself; a two-time Transferee with previous stays at both Alabama and Arizona State, the athletic Barnett has yet to live up to the hype created when Strong tabbed him to be his first major recruit under Center, throwing for nearly as many Interceptions (11) as he did Touchdowns (12) in 2018. He can however make plays with his legs, rushing for 301 Yards and Eight Touchdowns, and with another year in this system, could be primed to reach the potential that had attracted the Crimson Tide to his signature in the past. Supporting him in the Backfield will be Tailbacks Jordan Cronkrite (184 CAR, 1,121 YDS, 6.1 Y/C, 9 TD) and Johnny Ford (115 CAR, 787 YDS, 6.8 Y/C, 8 TD), who both averaged over 6.0 Yards per Carry with Eight Touchdowns, while big-play threat Randall St. Felix (33 REC, 679 YDS, 20.6 Y/R, 4 TD) and Tight End, Mitchell Wilcox (43 REC, 540 YDS, 12.6 Y/R, 2 TD), will make for a pair of solid targets in the passing game. With that said, it can be argued that the Defense was even worse shape by the end of the season, which must have really been disheartening for Strong given his roots have long been steeped on this particular side of the football. South Florida ranked Ninety-Fifth in the country in Points Allowed, yielding 32.0 Points per Game on an average of 447.3 Total Yards, including a porous 244.2 Yards against the Run, with opponents gashing them for 5.1 Yards per Carry. Their inability to slow the opposition on the ground became particularly troublesome during their six-game losing streak to end the season, with Strong’s charges relinquishing 270.2 Yards per Game during that stretch, including an absolutely horrid 399 Yards in a 10-38 defeat at home to Central Florida. Simply put, this is an area in which they MUST improve, and with tonight’s meeting with Wisconsin looming large, Strong & Co. are about to find out if they have in fact done enough to make a difference.
Meanwhile, on the rebound following a disappointing campaign (at least by their standards), is Wisconsin (8-5 in 2018), who for the first time in four seasons managed to win fewer than ten games. Indeed, their 8-5 finish proved to be the worst of the Paul Chryst Era in Madison, Wisconsin, as they stumbled down the stretch following an encouraging 4-1 start to the campaign. However, there is reason for optimism for the badgers, who will be returning one of the top playmakers in not just the Big Ten, but the country as a whole, Jonathan Taylor (307 CAR, 2,194 YDS, 7.1 Y/C, 16 TD). Keeping in the tradition of great Wisconsin Tailbacks, Taylor has been nothing short of prolific since arriving in Madison two years ago, rushing for a combined 4,171 Yards and Twenty-Nine Touchdowns from 2017 to 2018, leading the NCAA in both Rushing Attempts (307) and Rushing Yards (2,194) last season. And if that wasn’t enough for opposing Defenses in the Big Ten to worry about, Chryst has stated that he will be utilizing the Junior more in the passing game as well, further cultivating his already considerable skill-set. Of course, the other half of that equation will be whomever will be throwing Taylor the football, which has been an open discussion throughout Training Camp following the departure of Alex Hornibrook (59.5%, 1,532 YDS, 7.5 Y/A, 13 TD, 11 INT), who departed from the program, transferring to Florida State over the Summer. Granted, in his three years as the starting Quarterback, he wasn’t quite a modicum of efficiency under Center, throwing Forty-Seven Touchdowns in comparison to Thirty-Three Turnovers, including Thirteen and Eleven in 2018 in which he missed five games due to a concussion. To the surprise of few, Chryst recently announced that it will indeed be Jack Coan (60.2%, 515 YDS, 5.5 Y/A, 5 TD, 3 INT) who will be the Badgers’ Starting Quarterback heading into the Opener at South Florida. After all, Coan received virtually all of the First-Team reps throughout Training Camp, and operated in relief of Hornibrook last season, including the final four games of the year, capped off with a 35-3 trouncing of Miami in the New Era Pinstripe Bowl. In five starts, the Junior acquitted himself no better than his predecessor, completing 60.2% of his passes for 515 Yards on 5.5 Yards per Attempt, with Five Touchdowns and Three Interceptions. It will be interesting to see if he can in fact continue to grow into the role, particularly given his working relationship with the team’s returning Receiving Corps, featuring A.J. Taylor (32 REC, 521 YDS, 16.3 Y/R, 3 TD), Danny Davis (40 REC, 418 YDS, 10.5 Y/R, 5 TD), and Kendric Pryor (23 REC, 273 YDS, 11.9 Y/R, 3 TD), along with the recently-reinstated Quintez Cephus, who was ruled eligible to return to the field after missing the entirety of 2018 due to charges of sexual assault. He should prove to be a boon to the passing game, given that when we last saw him, he hauled in Thirty Receptions for 501 Yards and Six Touchdowns as a Sophomore back in 2017. His return is made all the more important given that both Taylor and Davis are listed as Questionable for tonight’s affair suffering from a hamstring and leg injury respectively. If Coan is indeed slow to acclimate to the starting role, then look for Chryst to turn to either Chase Wolf or Graham Mertz, a highly-touted Freshman out of Overland Park, Kansas.