By Douglas Farmer  

Clemson broke through a few years ago, joining Alabama and Ohio State as college football’s true mainstays. The three have combined to win the last four national championships, which is the only—albeit massive—difference between them and Wisconsin. They are the only programs that can claim more wins than the Badgers since 2014.

This could finally, FINALLY, be the year Wisconsin joins their ranks. It is certainly the best chance the Badgers have had in recent history and arguably ever. It is also a team unlike most iterations of the past generation.

2018 is the rare year when Wisconsin might go as far as its offense, rather than its defense, takes it. Sure, fifth-year linebacker T.J. Edwards came back to anchor the defense, but sophomore running back Jonathan Taylor will overshadow the first-team All-American with a Heisman campaign. Oddsmakers place Taylor as the favorite for the stiff arm, along with Stanford senior running back Bryce Love.

Taylor’s advantage comes in the form of the five men in front of him, the Badgers returning their entire offensive line, arguably the nation’s best. That combination led to 1,977 rushing yards for Taylor as a true freshman. For context: Back in 1996, Ron Dayne ran for 2,109 yards as a true freshman in one fewer game but with 26 more carries. Taylor’s 6.6 yards per carry actually tops Dayne’s career-best of 6.5, set in that 1996 season.

The greater difference between those two outstanding debuts is their respective record. Dayne’s Badgers went 8-5, ending with a victory over Utah in the Copper Bowl.

Taylor finished the year with 133 rushing yards in a 34-24 Orange Bowl victory at Miami, ending the season 13-1, the most wins in a season in Wisconsin history.

To join that trio of Clemson, Alabama and Ohio State, though, the Badgers will need to find a 14th win, perhaps a 15th. Those oddsmakers expect Wisconsin to top out at 10 regular season wins, presumably faltering in two of three tough trips to Iowa, Michigan and Penn State. Lose just once, though, and the Badgers should be back in the Big Ten championship game, where a long-awaited win would likely push them into the College Football Playoff and provide a chance to reach that elite echelon.

Taylor will not be able to do it on his own. That is where quarterback Alex Hornibrook comes in … if he can avoid interceptions. He threw 15 last season on only 318 attempts, compared to 25 touchdowns. However, in that victory against the Hurricanes, one of the country’s best defenses, he threw for 258 yards on 23-of-34 passing with four touchdowns and no interceptions. He showed what he is capable of. Finding that more consistently will be the key to Wisconsin capitalizing on 25-to-1 odds of winning the national championship.

The Badgers’ season comes down to how their quarterback plays, odd as that may sound in these parts. There will be the safety net of a strong defense. The running game may have no equal. Head coach Paul Chryst is even a Madison native, but the picture-perfect scenario will fall short if Hornibrook cannot pick apart the Wolverines’ elite defense like he did Miami’s, if he cannot avoid the three interceptions he threw against the Hawkeyes a year ago, if he cannot force the issue against the Buckeyes in the Big Ten title game.

Do so, and a Heisman might not be the only trophy Taylor lifts at the end of the year.

Douglas Farmer grew up in La Crosse, Wisconsin, before covering sports across the country with stops at The Los Angeles Times, The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and The Dallas Morning News. He graduated from Aquinas High School in 2008 and from the University of Notre Dame in 2012, and now spends his professional time keeping an eye on the latter’s football team.