In recent memory, Wisconsin always seems to kick off its season against some inferior school that nobody really has any desire to watch. There was Akron in 2008 and UMass last year, along with a host of other dreadful teams in-between.
For at least the foreseeable future, the cupcake openers are no more. Wisconsin suddenly headlines college football’s opening weekend with a clash against SEC power LSU in Houston. It is the first of three consecutive seasons in which the Badgers begin the year against an SEC school, with games against Alabama and an LSU rematch to follow.
Over the past five years, the Tigers are tied for fourth in the nation in wins among major conference programs. In nine seasons under head coach Les Miles, LSU has posted seven double-digit victory totals and won a national championship. The numbers back up the Tigers’ status as one of the country’s best.
This season, however, LSU is remarkably similar to Wisconsin, the poster child for good-but-not great programs everywhere. There is a reason that the preseason AP poll puts the Tigers at No. 13 and the Badgers just one spot behind.
Like Wisconsin, LSU is forced to replace a number of key contributors from last year’s squad that went 10-3 and won the Outback Bowl against Iowa. Nine Tigers were drafted into the NFL this past May, tied for the most of any school.
While the Badgers are tasked with replacing their entire starting defensive front seven from last season, LSU’s biggest losses come on offense. Gone are top receivers Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham Jr., who accounted for 62 percent of the team’s targets in the passing game. Together, they were one of the nation’s top big play wide receiver duos, combining for 103 receptions of at least 10 yards and 45 catches of at least 20.
Leading rusher Jeremy Hill left Baton Rouge for the NFL after averaging nearly seven yards per carry as a sophomore. Besides compiling over 1,400 rushing yards and 16 touchdowns, his 18 receptions also made him the Tigers’ third-leading receiver.
Perhaps the biggest loss of all, however, is quarterback Zach Mettenberger. Despite the Tigers being one of the least pass-happy teams in the nation, the senior still threw for over 3,000 yards and completed 64 percent of his passes. He averaged a ridiculous 10.4 yards per pass attempt, the third-highest mark in the country, demonstrating his essential role in LSU’s occasionally dynamic pass attack.
Finding replacements for these players will be somewhat of a mixed bag. In the backfield, seniors Terrence Magee and Kenny Hilliard both had their fair share of big games last season in limited time. True freshman Leonard Fournette is one of the most highly touted running back prospects in years but his role for this season opener will likely be minimal. The receiving corps is full of athletic, blue-chip recruits who will be forced to play immediately to fill the void on the outside.
But when Mettenberger tore his ACL in last year’s regular season finale, Anthony Jennings took over and was about as inconsistent as he could possibly be. In relief of Mettenberger against Arkansas, Jennings led a game-winning drive and finished 4-7 for 76 yards and a touchdown. In the bowl game, however, he was atrocious, going 7-19 for just 82 yards and an interception.
Jennings may split snaps with freshman Brandon Harris. This inconsistency and inexperience under center will probably force LSU, which was already a run-heavy team last fall, to emphasize the ground game even more. The Tigers’ offensive line returns all but one member of its two-deep rotation to a unit that excelled in run blocking last season.
This offensive philosophy is a mirror image of Wisconsin’s identity. Like the Tigers, the Badgers have a strong group of running backs, a bunch of unproven receivers and an inexperienced starting quarterback in redshirt junior Tanner McEvoy.
On the other side of the ball, both of LSU’s starting defensive tackles from last fall are now gone from a defensive line that wasn’t all that great to begin with. The Tigers were adept at stopping up-tempo spread offenses like Texas A&M, but struggled against teams that could pound the ball on the ground.
LSU must improve its playmaking up front. Both starting ends, Jermauria Rasco and Danielle Hunter, return after combining for an underwhelming seven sacks and 14.5 tackles for loss last year. Besides creating more havoc behind the line of scrimmage, the defense needs to capitalize more on turnover chances. Opponents fumbled the ball 22 times against the Tigers, but LSU only recovered eight of those.
Behind the front seven, the secondary should be the strength of the defense. The unit was constantly in flux last season due to injuries. According to Bill Connelly of SB Nation, of the Tigers’ eight defensive backs that averaged more than one tackle per game, only three played in all 13 games. That means a wealth of experienced reserves behind a now-healthy secondary.
Again, there are plenty of similarities between the LSU defense and the Badger defense. Wisconsin faces a more challenging rebuild up front since it loses all seven primary starters. However, the Badgers return three of four starters in the defensive backfield. Though pass coverage occasionally had major lapses last season, Wisconsin’s secondary is loaded with talent like sophomore cornerback Sojourn Shelton and should be the strength of the defense.
The outcome of this game will likely be decided within one possession. Dating back to the 2011 Rose Bowl against TCU, the Badgers have played in 16 such games and have won only three of them. According to the Pythagorean projection, a formula that uses point differential to predict winning percentage, Wisconsin should have had a record of approximately 7-9 in these 16 games, rather than the hideous reality of 3-13. Depending on your level of optimism, the Badgers will stick to their recent history and lose another close game or finally be the beneficiary of regression toward the mean.
With both teams having similar identities on offense and defense, picking a winner is difficult. However, these teams are structured very differently as LSU’s entire roster is full of four-star and five-star recruits at all different positions.
Judging by the rest of Wisconsin’s schedule, it is entirely possible that the team goes undefeated after this game. Though this one is awfully hard to predict, the Badgers’ roster turnover makes a perfect regular season hard to fathom. Losing once is likely and it happens here, as the Tigers’ athleticism and the close neutral site proximity to Baton Rouge swing the game in LSU’s favor.