MADISON, Wis. - The 2014 college football season is practically here, so Jon McNamara, Zack Miller and I sat down and made some predictions.
Love them or hate them, feel free to make your own picks in The Badger's Den!
Wisconsin's most important game
Jon McNamara: Really tough not to go with LSU to open the season, buy my pick is Wisconsin at Iowa on Nov. 22. There's a good chance the matchup will help determine the Big Ten West champions with both programs expected to have big seasons. The Hawkeyes return six starters on offense, including quarterback Jake Rudock and his two top weapons at running back and wide receiver, Mark Weisman and Kevonte Martin-Manley, respectively.
John Veldhuis: The LSU game will probably be the toughest, but I think Wisconsin's road trip to Iowa will have a bigger impact on their season. A win over the Tigers would certainly set the Badgers up for a potential berth in the College Football Playoff, but they'd still need to beat Iowa in Kinnick Stadium to make that a reality. Iowa looks like a tough out this year, and the Badgers would need this game to potentially win a division title or a Big Ten title if they do end up losing to LSU this week.
Zack Miller: For me this is a toss-up between the opener against LSU and the November 22nd trip to Iowa, but I'm going to go with the opener. If the Badgers are able to pull out a victory and by some stretch of the imagination have it be a dominant one, then it is safe to say their young guys on both sides of the ball are ready to step up on the big stage and the Badgers would then be favored in every remaining game on their schedule. The College Football Playoff Committee would have a hard time leaving an undefeated Badgers squad or a 1-loss Wisconsin team out of the playoff, especially with a strong showing in Houston. If the Badgers get run-over by the Tigers, however, it could be a sign that maybe this year's team is not ready to compete for the Big Ten title and could foreshadow some struggles down the road.
The Big Ten's 2014 surprise team
Jon McNamara: I'll go with one of two newcomers and say Maryland will surprise some people this year. The Terrapins have an awfully difficult schedule but return nine starters on defense. On offense, receivers Stefon Diggs and Deon Long have all-conference potential.
John Veldhuis: I'm all on board the Iowa train. Wisconsin might have a soft schedule, but Iowa's is even easier. They get both Nebraska and the Badgers at home, and don't have to play a top-shelf non-conference game. They also have a returning starter at quarterback, one of the best left tackles at the college level, an efficient ground game, and experienced wide receivers. If they can get their young linebackers to step up it wouldn't surprise me at all if Iowa wins the West, and in fact as of now I'm predicting them to do just that.
Zack Miller: Northwestern. The Wildcats went 5-7 last season, but two of those losses came in overtime and one came via a last second Hail Mary. Pat Fitzgerald returns 16 starters from a year ago who will no-doubt have a chip on their shoulders.
Big Ten offensive player of the year
Jon McNamara: Have to go Melvin Gordon here. The fourth-year junior is now the feature back at Wisconsin and will be running behind an offensive line that has the potential to be very good if the unit can avoid injuries. Fullback Derek Watt should also help Gordon put up big numbers in what will likely be his final year at UW.
John Veldhuis: I'll take Gordon, too. The Badgers should have another very good offensive line, and I think the Badgers have the tools to diversify their offense enough where defenses won't be able to key on Gordon like they did against Montee Ball two years ago. Gordon's got home-run ability on every touch, so I think he takes home the award.
Zack Miller: A battle of backfield friends. Nebraska's Ameer Abdullah and Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon. In what is perceived to be the weaker of the two divisions, the West could very well come down to Nebraska or Wisconsin and both teams are going to rely heavily on their rushing attacks. I give the slight edge to Abdullah mainly because he will get more touches than Gordon who will have to split carries with Corey Clement.
Big Ten defensive player of the year
Jon McNamara: Michigan State's Shilique Calhoun, the Big Ten's returning defensive lineman of the year, is my pick for the conference top player. The junior had 37 total tackles and eight sacks in 2013.
John Veldhuis: I'll go out on a limb and take Nebraska defensive end Randy Gregory. He finished his first season at Nebraska with 10.5 sacks and 19 tackles for loss. He'll be the focal point of what could be a much improved Cornhuskers' defense.
Zack Miller: Michigan State's Shilique Calhoun and I don't think it will be close. The best player on the best defense in the conference scored three defensive touchdowns last season and will carry the Spartans defense that lost a few players to the NFL to the next level and potentially a National Championship. Another player to watch will be Jabrill Peppers at Michigan. The Wolverines brought in one of the best defensive talents in the country and he will be counted on to make big time plays in the Big House.
Jon McNamara: Tough to bet against the returning champ, so my conservative pick is Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston. The Seminoles are loaded again this season and Winston, who passed for over 4,000 yards and 40 touchdowns last fall, figures to put up big numbers again as a redshirt sophomore.
John Veldhuis: I took Oregon's Marcus Mariota at this time last year, and I'm going to stick to my guns this season. He's going to put up some video game numbers in Oregon's offense, and if he can take Oregon to the College Football Playoff over the likes of Stanford and UCLA then I think he has a great chance to take home the trophy.
Zack Miller: Nine of the last 10 years the Heisman Trophy has gone to a quarterback. I expect that trend to continue with UCLA's Brett Hundley. The 6-foot-3 junior threw for over 3,000 yards last season and had a touchdown-interception ratio of 2.67/1 last season. UCLA is my pick to make it to the National Championship game and I believe Hundley will take them there.
Overall Wisconsin season prediction:
Jon McNamara: It's really tough, in my opinion, to gauge this team right now. Last year you knew what you had with so many seniors returning, but this year's group still has a lot of question marks. The Badgers certainly have a favorable schedule, but I don't think they leave Houston with a win. Northwestern on the road scares me a bit and Iowa will be tough this year. I'll go with 9-3 during the regular season.
John Veldhuis: This definitely got a little more complicated now that Tanner McEvoy seems set to start at quarterback instead of Joel Stave. With Stave under center I had the Badgers locked in as a 10-2 team in the regular season, with losses to LSU and Iowa. We haven't seen McEvoy take a snap at quarterback in the regular season yet, but his performance in camp eased some of the concerns I had about him. I think Wisconsin's defense regresses against the run but gets more pressure on quarterbacks, but I don't think I can predict that they win the West until I see just how McEvoy changes their offense. I'll still say they go 10-2 (7-1) because of a soft schedule, but I think their ceiling is a little higher and their floor is a little lower with McEvoy running the offense.
Zack Miller: 10-2 (7-1). I have the Badgers falling in Houston to LSU, but running the table for the next eight games before falling at home to a tough Nebraska team. The Badgers will bounce back the following week against Iowa and close out the regular season hoisting Paul Bunyan's Axe yet again. In the Big Ten Championship Game, the Badgers will fall 29-17 to Sparty.
Wisconsin Bowl Game prediction
Jon McNamara: I'm thinking Wisconsin is headed back to Florida, either in the Outback or Capital One Bowl.
John Veldhuis: Somewhere in Florida seems about right. I have the Badgers back in the Capital One Bowl, but if Ohio State doesn't fall off very much without Braxton Miller I could see them getting bumped down to the Outback Bowl.
Zack Miller: With a loss in the Big Ten Championship Game, the Badgers will find themselves back in the Outback Bowl against a Florida Gators team that bounced back from an injury-ridden 2013 season to win the SEC East. Unlike last season, I like the Badgers chances this time around as they will take the Outback Bowl by a score of 30-28 thanks to a 47-yard field goal by freshman sensation Rafael Gaglianone as the clock expires.
College Football Playoff Teams
1) Florida State vs 4) Oregon
2) Alabama vs. 3) Oklahoma
Alabama over Florida State
1) Florida State vs. 4) Michigan State
2) Alabama vs. 3) Baylor
Alabama over Florida State
1) Alabama vs. 4) Michigan State
2) UCLA vs. 3) Oklahoma
UCLA over Michigan State
John Veldhuis covers Wisconsin football, basketball and recruiting for BadgerBlitz.com on the Rivals.com network. Follow him on Twitter at @JohnVeldhuis.