The Luke Fickell era at Wisconsin kicks off when the 19th-ranked Badgers host Buffalo in a non-conference game Saturday in Madison.
Fickell was hired away from Cincinnati, where he went 57-18 in six seasons. In 2021, the 13-0 Bearcats became the first Group of 5 team to reach the College Football Playoff, where they lost to Alabama in the semifinals.
Fickell replaces Paul Chryst, who was fired after a 2 -3 start and replaced on an interim basis by popular defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard, a Wisconsin native who played for the Badgers. Leonhard went 4-3 the rest of the regular season and was considered by many to have the inside track.
Fickell, who played at Ohio State and then was a longtime assistant coach with the Buckeyes, spent a decade as the program’s defensive coordinator and was interim head coach in 2011.
“Week 1 is always incredibly intriguing,” Fickell said. “I think obviously in Year 1, it’s even more so. For me, for all of our players. … it’s almost like Christmas morning. You’re preparing for a lot of things, a lot of anxieties. You’re excited about it, but yet there’s a lot of things that you just don’t know from each other.”
Wisconsin, which defeated Oklahoma State 24-17 in the Guaranteed Rate Bowl to close last season, was tabbed to win the Big Ten West in the conference preseason poll, one point ahead of Iowa.
Buffalo finished 5-3 in the Mid-American Conference East last season and 7-6 overall, including a 23-21 victory over Georgia Southern in the Camellia Bowl.
Quarterback is the biggest change for the Badgers, where redshirt senior transfer Tanner Mordecai, a two-year starter at SMU, replaces three-year starter Graham Mertz, who transferred to Florida.
Mordecai, who began his career at Oklahoma, threw 72 touchdown passes in his two seasons at SMU, completing 66.4% of his passes with 22 interceptions.
Junior running back Braelon Allen, a first-team all-conference preseason pick, teams with grad senior Chez Mellusi to power the Badgers signature ground attack. Allen has rushed for 2,510 yards and 23 touchdowns, averaging 6.0 yards per carry, in two seasons.
Allen might not be taking 25 handoffs per game in new offensive coordinator Phil Longo’s system. He arrived from North Carolina with an adaptation of the Air Raid offense expected to lead to more of an aerial display than Wisconsin has traditionally shown.
Senior Chimere Dike led the Badgers last season with 47 receptions for 689 receiving yards and six touchdowns, and the receiving corps was bolstered by transfers Bryson Green from Oklahoma State and CJ Williams from Southern California, along with Will Pauling and Quincy Burroughs from Cincinnati.
The defense will be under coordinator Mike Tressel, who came with Fickell from Cincinnati. Wisconsin allowed 20.2 points and 303.5 yards per game last season.
Junior linebacker Maema Njongmeta, who led the Badgers last season with 95 tackles, including 11.5 for loss, was a first-team preseason all-conference pick.
Center Jake Renfro (foot), another Cincy transfer; tight end Riley Nowakowski (foot); and defensive lineman Isaiah Mullens (knee) are expected to miss the opener.
Buffalo’s offense is led by graduate student Cole Snyder, who began his career at Rutgers. Snyder passed for 3,030 yards last season with 18 touchdowns and eight interceptions as the season-long starter for the Bulls.
Redshirt sophomore Mike Washington Jr. was the leading rusher last season with 625 yards and seven rushing touchdowns.
Senior linebacker Shaun Dolac, a first-team all-conference pick last season, led the nation last season with 97 solo tackles. Graduate student safety Marcus Fuqua tied for most interceptions in the country with seven and was a third-team AP All-American.
“So much respect for their coaching staff. Coach Fickell, what he’s been able to do, obviously at Cincinnati, taking a Group of 5 team, I think it was the first Group of 5 team to the College Football Playoffs,” Buffalo coach Maurice Linguist said at the team’s media day.
“Played extremely well, extremely physical. You see high draft picks from their film at Cincinnati. And then certainly so much respect for the Wisconsin program in and of itself. It’s a blueblood. Every year, year in and year out, they’re going to be one of those top 10, top 15, top 20-type programs.”
Wisconsin last played Buffalo in 2006, winning 35-3 in Madison.
— Field Level Media