Corey Clement photo

Wisconsin Badgers running back Corey Clement (6) runs the ball during the team's first fall practice at Camp Randall Stadium in Madison, Wis., Monday, Aug. 8, 2016. M.P. KING -- State Journal


No one, it seems, is giving the University of Wisconsin football team much of a chance against one of the nation’s most difficult schedules.

The Badgers open the season against LSU of the SEC and later start Big Ten Conference play with the three best teams in the Big Ten East followed by the three best teams (other than UW) in the Big Ten West.

But while some see the potential for UW’s first losing season since 2001, there is one reason to think the Badgers will be quite competitive despite facing that gauntlet.

The running game, historically the great equalizer for UW, should slip right back into high gear after a rare down season. All signs point to a quick return to the Badgers’ usual game-controlling rushing attack after a season everyone involved would like to forget.

“It was,” center Michael Dieter said, “a perfect storm.”

Indeed, it was. Other than tailback Corey Clement, a preseason Heisman Trophy candidate, and returning offensive line starters Tyler Marz and Dan Voltz, UW began the season with a dearth of experience and depth in the two most important areas of its roster. When injuries hit both areas, the result wasn’t pretty for one of the nation’s elite running teams.

UW averaged 150.3 rushing yards per game, which ranked 94th in the nation. It was the first time UW averaged fewer than 200 yards per game since 2006 and was its lowest average since 1995.

UW also averaged 3.8 yards per rushing attempt, down from an astonishing 6.9 the season before. UW’s per-carry average ranked 113th in the nation and was its lowest since 2005.

Considering the groin injury that limited Clement to four mostly ineffective games and a line that relied heavily on redshirt freshmen and played musical chairs all season, the most amazing statistic from 2015 might have been UW’s 10-3 record. But while the Badgers got away with it last year, this year’s schedule will likely prevent that from happening again.

If UW puts the experience gained from last season to good use, however, it will run the ball well. And when it runs the ball well, it usually competes with anyone.

“It’s everything at Wisconsin,” Dieter said. “Of course, you have to be able to throw the ball, but running the ball here is a staple. It’s something you’ve got to be able to do. It’s something we take pride in. We know we struggled with it last year, so it’s something we know we’ve got to fix this year.”

There are two reasons to be encouraged about that.

First, last season’s struggles should pave the way for this season’s success. Going in, UW has experience and depth at tailback and in the line.

Clement seems intent on redeeming himself for his lost junior season. In his absence, Dare Ogunbowale, a converted cornerback, became a bona fide Big Ten back and should have a big senior year. Also, Taiwan Deal is back after flashing great potential during his injury-abbreviated freshman season.

The only blockers who started 13 games last season were Marz and Dieter. Marz graduated, but UW has a ready-made replacement at left tackle in impressive UW-Stevens Point transfer Ryan Ramczyk.

Voltz, an All-Big Ten candidate, is back for his senior season following knee surgery. After that, four players who started games as redshirt freshmen — Dieter, Beau Benzschawel, Jacob Maxwell and Micah Kapoi — return. With redshirt freshman Jon Dietzen and three promising true freshmen added to the mix, the line has replenished its talent, though it remains relatively inexperienced.

“We had a lot of good runs and we had guys who were physical and they were doing their best, but there were some young mistakes,” Voltz said. “That’s normal. As many freshmen as we had last year, you’re going to have those moments where you have mental errors, not seeing the defense quite right. But that’s stuff we’re looking to move past this year. We’re going to take that same passion and now just have a better understanding of the game, which ultimately is going to lead to better runs, more explosive plays, more touchdowns.”

The second encouraging thing is that UW finished strong last year, rushing for 257 yards against Minnesota and 177 against USC despite starting four redshirt freshmen up front and facing the Gophers without Clement.

“It gave us a lot of confidence for this year knowing that we can do it and that when we’re clicking we can be the running team that people expect,” Dieter said. “That confidence is huge. If we wondered whether we could do it or not, we kind of solved that there at the end. Now we know we’re capable of doing it. That’s what we’ve got to demand out of ourselves week in and week out. That’s just how it has to be.”

At UW more than most places. Since Barry Alvarez arrived in 1990, the power running game he installed has generally dictated the Badgers’ ability to compete, especially against good teams.

UW averaged 4.1 or fewer yards per carry in half of the past 26 seasons. In those 13 seasons, it had a 13-33 record against ranked opponents. But in the 13 seasons where it averaged 4.3 or more yards per carry, it had a 25-24-1 mark against ranked teams.

This season, UW will be severely tested early on by LSU, Michigan State, Michigan, Ohio State and Iowa.

All have strong defensive fronts, so the Badgers can’t afford not to hit the ground running.

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Tom Oates has been part of the Wisconsin State Journal sports department since 1980 and became its editorial voice in 1996, traversing the state and country to bring readers a Madison perspective on the biggest sports stories of the day.