Published November 20, 2014
Immediately after the Rose Bowl ended, Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema said he didn't see anything that would set the program back heading into next season.
The Badgers (11-2) will certainly be a very different group after losing 13 seniors on the two-deep depth chart and maybe a few underclassmen to the NFL draft.
"We have a lot of young guys coming back and we don't want to feel this pain again, so we're going to come out working hard and getting ready for next season," freshman running back James White said after the 21-19 loss to No. 3 TCU. "We'll try to get back here or a better place."
To do so, Bielema (49-16 in five seasons) must replace quarterback Scott Tolzien, offensive linemen Gabe Carimi, John Moffitt and Bill Nagy; tight end Lance Kendricks, and receivers Isaac Anderson and David Gilreath.
Tolzien, the second most accurate passer in the FBS, will be succeeded by either freshman Jon Budmayr, freshman Joe Brennan or sophomore Curt Phillips, who is hoping to return after twice tearing a ligament in his right knee.
Carimi and Moffitt will likely be replaced by Ricky Wagner, who earned the starting right tackle job, and either Casey Dehn or Ryan Groy. Josh Oglesby also is expected to return to the line from a knee injury.
Gilreath was the Badgers' primary special teams returner the last four years, and junior Nick Toon is considered a developing prospect who could leave early, too.
Then there's John Clay, the Doak Walker finalist for the best running back in the nation who struggled with injuries and became the third running back the Badgers used in the Rose Bowl.
Clay ran for 1,014 yards and 14 touchdowns this year to follow up his spectacular sophomore season when he went for 1,517 yards and 18 TDs on the way to the Big Ten offensive player of the year award.
It's unlikely he'd settle for a role behind White (1,052 yards, 14 TDs) and sophomore Montee Ball (996 yards, 18 TDs).
"Wisconsin has been a great career here for me. I've jut got to sit down with Coach B and my family and talk about the next best step for me," Clay said in a video posted on Madison.com after the game.
On defense, the Badgers are losing four starters — linebackers Blake Sorensen and Culmer St. Jean, cornerback Niles Brinkley and hard-hitting safety Jay Valai. The biggest potential loss could be on defense if end J.J. Watt leaves early
Watt is widely considered the second-best talent on the team after Carimi, who was the Outland Trophy winner as the best offensive lineman in the country and will almost certainly be a first-round pick. Watt currently is projected as either a late first- or early second-round pick. His brother, Derek, is expected to sign with Wisconsin in February.
"I haven't made my decision, but if I'm back, if I go, the Wisconsin Badgers will be back to the Rose Bowl," Watt said after the game. "I don't know if it will be next year, but Coach Bielema is an outstanding football coach. The Wisconsin football program does things the right way. ...
"No doubt about it, the Badgers will be back. They'll be back better than ever. When they come back, they'll win."
Wisconsin could have several shake-ups in the coaching staff, too.
Defensive coordinator Dave Doeren was named head coach of Northern Illinois on Dec. 13, and multiple reports say offensive coordinator Paul Chryst could be leaving.
Bielema, who was recruiting on Tuesday, said he believes he's built a foundation for success in a stronger Big Ten that will include Nebraska, a conference title game and several teams looking for revenge after Wisconsin's scoreboard-scorching performances during a seven-game winning streak.
"For the guys that return out of that locker room, I really think they enjoyed the taste of success," Bielema said. "Hopefully, they'll keep that taste in their mouths and want to return to it next year."