Dienhart: Wisconsin's 2014 schedule analysis

The Gary Andersen era began with success in 2013. In fact, Wisconsin had BCS bowl aspirations before losing the finale to Penn State at home.

The Badgers return a nice collection of talent led by running back Melvin Gordon. But some questions loom on a defense that must develop a front sevent. And who will be the go-to wideout on offense? On the subject of passing, is quarterback Joel Stave’s job safe?

The good news in Madison: Wisconsin will play one of the cushiest schedules in the Big Ten, as it misses all of the top contenders from the Big Ten East. Bottom line: This team will be in the hunt for another division title, with everything likely coming down to a key three-game stretch to end the season.

[ MORE: Read all of Tom Dienhart's 2014 schedule previews ]

Here’s a breakdown of Wisconsin’s 2014 schedule.

Toughest non-conference game: Whoa! It’s a doozy–it’s the opener vs. LSU in Houston. Les Miles’ Bayou Bengals have been one of college football’s premier programs for several years. The Badgers will be pushed to their athletic limits. LSU lost a lot of key personnel, but it still may be the most talented team Wisconsin faces all season. What a litmus test. Wisconsin is 0-2 all-time vs. LSU, falling in 1971 and 1972 in a home-and-home series.

Toughest conference game: Going to Iowa on Nov. 22 will be a daunting task. The Hawkeyes may be the team to beat in the Big Ten West, with loads of talent back on both sides of the ball. Wisconsin has won the last two games—both in Iowa City, by the way–and four of the last six. In fact, the Badgers are 3-1 in their last four trips to Kinnick Stadium.

Who they don’t play: Wisconsin gets a big break by not playing Michigan State, Michigan, Ohio State or Penn State from the Big Ten East. The Badgers also miss Indiana. Still, what a break for Gary Andersen’s club. The Scheduling Gods are smiling upon Bucky.

Easiest game: The visit from FCS Western Illinois on Sept. 6 should be a breeze. The timing is good, too, as the Leathernecks come to Madison a week after Wisconsin plays LSU. The Badgers will need the break.

WISCONSIN’S 2014 SCHEDULE
Date Opponent Result / Time
8/30 at 14 LSU 9:00 ET
9/6 vs. Western Illinois TBA
9/20 vs. Bowling Green TBA
9/27 vs. South Florida TBA
10/4 at Northwestern TBA
10/11 vs. Illinois TBA
10/25 vs. Maryland 12:00 ET
11/1 at Rutgers 12:00 ET
11/8 at Purdue TBA
11/15 vs. Nebraska TBA
11/22 at Iowa TBA
11/29 vs. Minnesota TBA

Rugged stretch: The last three games figure to define the season—and the Big Ten West championship. Wisconsin welcomes Nebraska, travels to Iowa and finishes the season by playing host to Minnesota. The Badgers are 2-1 vs. the Cornhuskers since they joined the Big Ten. Wisconsin took a 48-17 decision when the Huskers last visited Madison in 2011. The Badgers famously trounced Nebraska, 70-31, when they last met—in the 2012 Big Ten title game. The Badgers have thoroughly dominated the Gophers of late in the battle for Paul Bunyan’s Axe, winning the last 10 meetings and 17 of 19. Minnesota’s lone victories in that span came in 2001 and 2003. The Gophers haven’t left Madison with a win since 1994—when the late Jim Wacker was the coach.

Factoid: You won’t find many Big Ten battles as tight as the Wisconsin-Iowa series. The Badgers hold a 43-42-2 edge in this tightly contested series, outscoring the Hawkeyes 1,540-1,477. It’s great having them in the same division.

Best chance to be upset: The Cornhuskers could leave Madison with a win when they visit on Nov. 15 in the first of three season-ending games that figure to define the Badgers’ season. Nebraska has to be thinking payback after getting whipped by Wisconsin in the 2012 Big Ten championship game. And the Cornhuskers were embarrassed in their last trip to Madison in 2011.

Best chance to pull an upset: Wisconsin probably will be an underdog just two times: vs. LSU and at Iowa. I’m not sure if the Badgers will be ready for the Bayou Bengals’ full fury in the Aug. 30 opener in Houston, as the Wisconsin defense has some major questions along the front seven. But the Badgers should have a good shot to knock off the Hawkeyes in Iowa City on Nov. 22. Wisconsin could be rolling toward a Big Ten West title by the time it invades Kinnick. And recent history favors the Badgers in this game.

Must win: If Wisconsin wants to win the Big Ten West, it will need to win all of its home games—and that will mean beating Nebraska. It could be a tall order, as Bo Pelini will have one of this best Cornhuskers teams during his seven-year tenure in Lincoln. The Husker defense could be very good.

Bye weeks: The first bye comes too early, as Wisconsin will be off after playing just two games, falling between home games vs. Western Illinois and Bowling Green. The Badgers will play just four more games before being off a second time, following a visit from Illinois and a visit from Maryland. What’s it mean? Wisconsin will finish the season with six games in succession.

About Tom Dienhart BTN.com senior writer Tom Dienhart is a veteran sports journalist who covers Big Ten football and men’s basketball for BTN.com and BTN TV. Find him on Twitter and Facebook, read all of his work at btn.com/tomdienhart, and subscribe to his posts via RSS. Also, send questions to his weekly mailbag using the form below and read all of his previous answers in his reader mailbag section.

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G Hale on 8/1/2014 @ 1:07pm EDT Said:

Wisc final joins the few like Ohio State, Michigan and Penn St. They finally play a top 5 program outside the BigTen in the reg. season. Have not done that in 18 years. 18 years of claiming to be a top program yet never sched anyone. Almost as embarrassing as losing 3 straight Rose Bowls…almost.