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Wisconsin Football: State of the Program



Wisconsin Badgers head coach Luke Fickell

On Wednesday, December 28, 2022, Jim Leonhard was no longer the head coach of the Wisconsin football program. I am unwell, shocked, dejected, distraught, and any other adjective you could think of to describe how sad I am that Jimmy will no longer be with the Badgers.

The range of emotions Badgers fans have experienced over the past month or two has been relatively unfamiliar. A large majority thought and were content with an announcement that Jim Leonhard would be the next coach of the Wisconsin Badgers. Until first-year AD Chris McIntosh made the gutsy call to hire Luke Fickell as the 31st Badgers head coach instead of the beloved Leonhard. My reaction was one of indifference.

The Good for Wisconsin Football

Luke Fickell is a home run! Fickell could have taken any job he wanted last year, and he’s never shown interest in leaving Cincinnati. He must think very well of Wisconsin football! He’s had a lot of recent success recruiting in Ohio State’s backyard, and if he keeps that up at Wisconsin, we are golden!

The Bad for Wisconsin Football

Oh no – what about Jimmy Leonhard? It felt like a bait and switch. UW led him on a bit. Why would people report he’s got the job if McIntosh had other ideas?

I’ve seen it said a few times on social media, and it’s a very true statement. You’re allowed to be very excited about Luke Fickell and the Wisconsin football program’s future while being gutted about Jim Leonhard not getting the job. Both things can be true.

Why Badger Fans Should Be Excited About Luke Fickell

Luke Fickell brings several things that Badgers fans can be excited about to Wisconsin. The Badgers have always been relatively consistent. Except for this year, the Badgers are typically ranked in the top 25, win 8-10 games, and play’s well in bowl games.

Fickell can take that to the next level. Coach Fickell has taken Cincinnati to bowl games in the last five years after inheriting a program that was in decline the previous three seasons – which is the consistency part. Each bowl game was better than the previous years until 2022. He also led the first-ever Group of Five program to the College Football Playoff – which is the potential to elevate part.

So, what does Coach Fickell need to do right now to help take Wisconsin football to the next level?

My top priorities entering the offseason were recruiting, retaining, finding an innovative offensive coordinator, and recruiting more. Well, consider those boxes checked. 

Landing an offensive coordinator of Phil Longo’s caliber was a massive win for the Badgers and is already helping on the recruiting and retaining path, so that’s no longer a concern. Longo brings with him ‘air raid’ concepts, where he likes to spread the field horizontally and then attack vertically down the field. The change in offensive scheme is already appealing to potential impact recruits. 

Fickell and Longo have since secured a veteran signal-caller, Tanner Mordecai, a four-star Oklahoma transfer, Nick Evers, another four-star QB from Mississippi State, Braedyn Locke, and lastly four-star high school prospect out of Texas, Mabrey Mettaur. Those four QBs, in addition to returners Chase Wolf, Myles Burkett, and incoming freshman Cole Lacrue make up arguably the best QB room Wisconsin football has ever had. 

Other key transfer portal additions so far: 

  • OT Joe Huber
  • C Jake Renfro
  • Edge Jeff Pietrowski
  • S Jason Maitre
  • DL Darian Varner
  • WR Will Pauling
  • WR Quincy Burroughs
  • K Nathanial Vakos

In his initial press conference, Coach Fickell stated Wisconsin football didn’t intend to make it a habit of building through the portal. While that may be true, I believe they expect quite a bit of production from some of these portal additions as early as next season.

Adjusting Expectations 

I originally wrote that I wouldn’t sit here and expect the Badgers to win 12 games next year and instantly be title contenders. ESPN’s way-too-early-top-25 rankings have the Badgers sitting at 27 right now, so I’m not sure national media thinks much of Wisconsin football for the upcoming season.

However, I am absolutely all in on this team, even in year one. I think the Badgers should legitimately win 10 games and still be competitive against Ohio State and Iowa – both of which are home games.

I also initially said that I’m still very sad about Jim Leonhard, which will hurt for a while. Fickell, Longo, and company have already done quite a bit to ease the sting of JL leaving the Wisconsin football program. But I’m also not ready to close the door on JL coaching at Wisconsin. Maybe not next year, but let’s leave the light on for our legend.

There are 230 odd days until the Badgers play a game in 2023, and I’m incredibly excited. #ONWisconsin

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Jason Long covers the Wisconsin Badgers football program for and has had his work published on Bleacher Report. He also makes up 1/4 of the BadgerNotes After Dark podcast crew.