Wisco Wednesday: Luke Fickell is an Upgrade at Wisconsin

How much better will Wisconsin be in 2023?

The badger state is full of excitement and anticipation. What will the new QB look like? What will the offense look like? Packer fans need to know what will happen now that Rodgers is gone. Oh, you were talking about the other football team going through massive changes in Wisconsin.  

The Badgers have the same questions mentioned above, and one more big one. Can Luke Fickell deliver the championships he has mentioned frequently since taking over the program? There’s a lot of unknown there, and it might take time for the program to be what Fickell is envisioning. When comparing Fickell to his predecessor, a more focused question would be: Can he win big games, the type of wins that have mostly eluded Wisconsin since Russell Wilson was under center?

Under previous coach Paul Chryst, the answer was mostly no. There was the Rose Bowl loss, no wins over Ohio State or Penn State, losses to Notre Dame and Alabama in marquee non-conference matchups, and 0 for 3 in Indianapolis in the B1G Championship game. It hurts a lot more when it’s laid out like that. Everyone liked Coach Dad.  

In defense of Chryst, it wasn’t all doom and gloom:

  • Top 10 wins over West opponents Iowa, Minnesota, and Nebraska
  • 2 top 15 wins over Michigan, albeit at home
  • An Orange Bowl Win over Miami (at their home stadium, no less!)
  • And his marquee win: #5 LSU at Lambeau Field in 2016

Has Fickell done any better?

Fickell has a history of winning, but most of it is as an assistant coach. He coached, in some form, at Ohio State from 2002 to 2016.  He was the special teams coordinator for their 2002 National Title and co-defensive coordinator for their 2014 National Title. In that span, there were also 7 B1G Titles. 

At Cincinnati, where he was head coach from 2017 to 2022, he won back-to-back American Conference championships in 2020 and 2021. His biggest win would have to be at #9 Notre Dame in 2021. You know that year as: the year a Group of 5 team made the playoffs. Outside of that magic 2021 season, the Bearcats are hard to evaluate. They only played 8 regular season Power 5 opponents in Fickell’s 6 years there, going 5-3. 

Wins: UCLA twice, Indiana twice, and #9 Notre Dame

Losses: #19 Arkansas, #5 Ohio State, #8 Michigan

And then there is the big one. The loss to #1 Alabama in the 2021 playoffs. 

As an assistant, he’s won. In a lower-level conference, he had success but was occasionally out-talented by the best of the best in the sport. And now, he gets to show if can win at Wisconsin. I think he can do it.

The value of recruiting

Following some of the best recruiting Wisconsin has seen since the early Alvarez days, Chryst lost his Director of Recruiting, Saeed Khalif, to in-conference foe Michigan State. This isn’t entirely Chryst’s fault, but his response was to downplay the loss. He didn’t hire a replacement for over a year, instead expecting his position coaches to pick up the slack on the recruiting trail. This was a sign of the end for Coach Chryst.

Fickell brought over a large chunk of his Cincinnati staff. Among those who followed Fickell are Pat Lambert and Max Stienecker, his top recruiters for the Bearcats. They are heading up the revamped recruiting department in Madison now. It was an obvious need, but it should be said that Fickell puts a higher emphasis on recruiting than the coach before him.

We can boil down their differences in recruiting to one thing.

Luke Fickell is drawing tons of attention from prospects for “The Fick Signal” tweets he puts out whenever a recruit commits to Wisconsin.

Paul Chryst doesn’t post on Twitter. At all.

So what about 2023? 

Let’s discuss defense first, this will be quick

Leonard has developed the current players well, so the main concern will be how they adjust to incoming DC Mike Tressel’s scheme. Wisconsin’s defense has generally been defined by toughness and intelligence, not blazing-fast speed or athleticism. I think the players’ strengths allow them to be versatile and adaptable. This will ease the transition to the new 3-3-5 defense.

Mike Tressel’s defense was the strength of the 2021 Cincinnati playoff team.

On offense, Fickell went all out

Fickell decided it was time for things to spread out at Wisconsin. Out with the Pro Style offense (more like 60’s pro-style) and in with the Air Raid. But, there’s a twist. New offensive coordinator Phil Longo is a proponent of an air raid passing game, but he runs the ball more than nearly all of his air raid peers. This feels like a match made in heaven. 

  • Phil Longo is the reason Wisconsin got three 4-star QBs to transfer last offseason, including expected starter Tanner Mordecai.  
  • Phil Longo’s QB upgrades are the reason we have four transfer WRs coming in, and taking over starting jobs in spring.
  • Phil Longo had two 1000+ yard running backs in 2021.
  • Phil Longo got Sam Howell drafted at the top of the 5th round in 2021 (Wisconsin has had 1 QB drafted that high or higher since 1962 – Russ).
  • Phil Longo helped North Carolina QB Drake Maye win 2022 National Freshman of the Year, Drake Maye is currently between 5th – 7th in odds for the 2023 Heisman.

Clearly Longo knows offense. He has said previously, he would only consider leaving North Carolina to be a head coach, or to work for Luke Fickell.

Putting everything together

Tressel as DC, Longo as OC, and Mordecai as QB, things are different in Madison – or are they? 

They still have a top 5 running back duo with Allen and Mellusi. 

They still have an OL littered with NFL talent. 

They still have their top 4 tacklers from last year, led by LBs Njongmeta and Turner.

This is still Wisconsin. It’s just a better version of Wisconsin. It’s what Wisconsin should be in modern college football. Run it down their throat AND take some deep shots. 

What’s the ceiling?

When wondering what Wisconsin could do in 2023, I think there is one comparison that is rather intriguing. Let’s call them the mystery team for now. This is a team that runs an air raid offense, but ran the ball 54% of the time in 2022. They also switched to a 3-3-5 base defense in 2022 to combat pass heavy opponents. This defense is not popular in the B1G, or most of FBS college football. 

What about talent?

Via 247Sports – 2022 team talent composite,

Wisconsin ranked 28th

The mystery team ranked 32nd

And Wisconsin got better this off-season.

The mystery team is:

2022 TCU

The new look Wisconsin is constructed similar to last year’s national title runner-up. Not a bad model to go off of if you ask me. Making the title game is far more than any Badger fan is asking for this season, but why not. Maybe Luke Fickell will surprise us all. He’s done it before.


Want more Walk On Fan?

Check out our series detailing the best games for every week of the 2023 CFB season.

Start with week 1 here!

This article was written by Cole Tollison and edited by Hayden Breene

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