The College Football Playoff will make its debut in 2015, and the Wisconsin Badgers chose to make a change of their own this year. For the first time since 1997, the Badgers will open their season against a ranked opponent. That year, the Badgers, ranked No. 24 at the time, marched into East Rutherford, New Jersey, to battle the No. 17 Syracuse Orangemen at Giants Stadium, when senior Donovan McNabb led the Orangemen to a 34-0 blowout victory.
Badger fans can only hope that history doesn't repeat itself in 2014.
The 2014 squad will enter NRC Stadium on Saturday night with high expectations. With the season-ending injury to Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller, the Badgers are now among the Big Ten favorites, as well as a dark-horse candidate to land a spot in the College Football Playoff. If the Badgers hope to keep those hopes alive, they will need a strong showing against the LSU Tigers.
Last season, LSU finished 8-3, good for third in the SEC West division. Their only losses fell within the conference, to Georgia, Ole Miss and Alabama.
But Tigers head coach Les Miles has seen plenty of success playing in challenging non-conference games to start the season. In fact, during his 10 years in Baton Rouge, Miles has never lost to a non-conference opponent in the regular season.
But the Badgers will not be intimidated by Miles' streak due largely to the fact that they have had their fair share of success as well. In the past 10 years, Wisconsin is 34-2 against non-conference opponents in the regular season, with their only two losses coming to Oregon State in 2012 and Arizona State in 2013 (both of which ended with controversial calls against Wisconsin). Because of their weak 2014 schedule, Wisconsin will need a signature win to make a run at the playoff. Snapping the Tigers' FBS record 45-game win streak against non-conference opponents would certainly grab the attention of the selection committee.
Before Wisconsin takes the field on Saturday, here are three things to know about LSU.
A loaded incoming group of freshmen
LSU faces a rebuilding year after losing talent across the board. Many of the Tigers' key players have departed, as the Bayou Bengals saw nine of their own drafted in 2014. Luckily, the Tigers will be bringing in the No. 2 recruiting class in the country, according to Rivals.com. Many of these talented recruits will be asked to step in and contribute immediately.
At the running back position, the biggest spotlight will shine on Badger running back Melvin Gordon, but LSU freshman Leonard Fournette is certain to take some of that attention away. This will be Fournette's first-ever college game, and all eyes will be on No. 7 when he lines up in the backfield for the first time. Fournette is the most highly touted running back recruit in recent history; the No. 1 player in the 2014 recruiting class (according to 247Composite's rankings) is already being called the next Adrian Peterson by many experts around the country. This comparison derives from Fournette's excellent blend of speed, vision, agility and power. The 6'1, 230-pound tailback also runs a 4.3-second 40-yard dash, while still being able to run through tacklers with ease, which you can see for yourself in the video below.
Fournette is expected to split carries with seniors Terrence Magee and Kenny Hilliard, which is something the two tailbacks have experienced before. Last season, while rushing behind Jeremy Hill, Magee totaled 86 carries for 626 yards and eight touchdowns, while Hilliard carried the ball 68 times, rushing for 310 yards and seven touchdowns. While Hillard and Magee bring experience to the Tigers' backfield, Fournette is clearly the most athletic running back on the team. His power and vision as a ball-carrier give him the opportunity to receive significant carries to start his freshmen season and potentially take over the position come mid-season.
On Saturday, many expect that Magee will start due to his past experience in big games, but that won't keep Fournette off the field. There is little question that Miles won't wait long to see what Fournette can bring in his first college game.
But the Tigers bring in a strong group of freshman receivers that will challenge the inexperienced veteran receivers for a starting job. Among those recruits are Malachi Dupre and Trey Quinn who were ranked No. 1 and No. 3, respectively, per ESPN's 2014 receiver rankings. At 6'3, 187 pounds, Dupre is a physical threat with impressive speed, which combined with his exceptional route running ability, will make him an immediate deep threat. LSU offensive coordinator Cam Cameron expects that Dupre will make an impact for the Tigers in his first year.
"Dupre has special abilities. We expect him to produce right away. We're not hoping for him to start playing well in a couple of years. Not at LSU."
Undecided at quarterback
Another big question mark in the LSU offense right now is who will be throwing the ball to this inexperienced but talented group of receivers. Like Wisconsin this offseason, LSU has endured a heated quarterback competition between sophomore Anthony Jennings and freshman Brandon Harris. Last season, Jennings appeared in nine games, starting one due to an injury Zach Mettenberger sustained late in the season. In his one start, Jennings was 13-of-29, throwing for 181 yards and one touchdown on the way to a 21-14 victory over Iowa in the Outback Bowl. At 6'2, 225 pounds, Jennings is considered to be a pro-style quarterback with some mobility. On the contrary, Harris is 6'3, 188 pounds, and he will be expected to make plays on his feet if he starts for the Tigers. ESPN.com ranked him the No. 2 dual-threat quarterback in the class of 2014.
Miles has remained silent thus far on who will be starting in Saturday's game, expressing confidence in both of his options.
"I think Jennings certainly has experience and recognizes the opportunity he has. He's a very talented player in his own right. I think Harris is a very talented player, maybe a little more naturally talented."
It wouldn't be too far-fetched to see LSU utilize a two-quarterback system, as it is something that has worked effectively for the Tigers in the past. In 2011, Jordan Jefferson and Jarrett Lee split time at quarterback during the Tigers' 13-0 regular season, which ultimately culminated with a heart-breaking loss to Alabama in the national championship. That season, Lee assumed the role as a pro-style pocket passer, throwing for 1,306 yards, 14 touchdowns and three interceptions. Jefferson changed the pace of the offense, coming in as a dual-threat quarterback and throwing for 737 yards, six touchdowns and two interceptions while also adding 263 yards on the ground along with three touchdowns (Jefferson also only played in 10 games because he was suspended during the first four games of the season).
This year, if Harris and Jennings continue to perform well in training camp, Miles could end up returning to a two-quarterback system, using Jennings as a pocket passer and Harris as a dual threat option. He even acknowledged the possibility in a recent interview with Tigerbait.com
"There has been no separation of one from the other," Miles said. "Both provided a high level of execution. The opportunity is there to see both play vs. Wisconsin. We can wait to name a starter."
Deep in the secondary, but shaky up front
Last season, LSU's defense ranked 36th in the nation for total yards allowed per game with 453. This season, the Tigers will return a handful of young players who will have the potential to break out this season and become superstars.
Sophomores Tre'Davious White and Rashard Robinson will return as the expected starting cornerback tandem for the Tigers; junior Jalen Collins has also been in the discussion. Last season, White and Robinson started side-by-side in two of the last three games; this season, both players have been projected by some to have All-American-caliber years. Collins acknowledged White and Robinson's significant development this offseason in an interview with The Times-Picayune. The fourth-year junior believes that the corners' improved knowledge of defensive coordinator John Chavis' 4-3 scheme will translate to their performances on the field.
"Those two have really improved from where they were as a freshmen," Collins said. "They're great athletes and great players and now they've been here and had a chance to learn the system better. They know the little stuff that we're supposed to know that can help make us the best secondary in the country."
The Tigers' secondary has been formidable in recent years. Since 2009, their pass defense has ranked in the top 30 nationally in every season. Furthermore, they have totaled more than 10 interceptions in every one of those years and have never allowed more than 15 passing touchdowns in a single year. That may send shivers down Tanner McEvoy's spine.
The biggest concern on the defensive side for LSU will be their rushing defense. Last season, the Tigers' rushing defense was underwhelming. They allowed 1,862 yards and 15 touchdowns on the ground, and often times failed to come through in clutch situations. Although many fans were unhappy with the performances from defensive linemen Ego Ferguson and Anthony Johnson last season, the departure of the two to the NFL will definitely hurt the Tigers' front seven. Players like Danielle Hunter, Christian LaCouture and Jermauria Rasco will need to step up in order to fill the void left by Johnson and Ferguson.
Lacouture, a 6'5, 298-pound junior, will be the key at defensive tackle. If he can make an impact in the middle, he'll be able to free up space for Rasco and Hunter at defensive end.
In 2013, LSU's rushing defensive struggled at times, especially during games that they lost. Last season, the defense averaged 3.9 rushing yards per attempt and 143.2 rushing yards per game. In each of LSU's three losses, the defense saw both of these averages climb.
In their 44-41 loss to Georgia, the Tigers' defense allowed an average of 5.4 yards per rush as the Bulldogs ran for 196 total yards. In the 27-24 loss against Ole Miss, they let up 176 yards on the ground, averaging 4.1 yards per rush. And in their 38-17 loss to Alabama, they allowed 193 rushing yards, averaging 4.6 yards per rush.
The bottom line: the Badgers can run the ball better than any team in the country when they're at their best. LSU's defensive line will be attempting to replace two NFL-caliber players, and if their rushing defense doesn't improve from last season, the Badgers' offensive line, along with Melvin Gordon will need to capitalize. On defense, the Badgers' front seven will need to play out of their minds in order to stay strong against a powerful group of running backs and a dominant LSU offensive line.
This is a make-or-break game for the Badgers. It's hard to remember a more difficult challenge that the team has had to face so early on, but there's no question a win on Saturday would put Wisconsin on the right track heading into the rest of the season. There is a good chance that this game ends up defining the 2014 Badgers. If Wisconsin wants to be considered a College Football Playoff contender, it will need to prove it can play with the SEC's top teams. IfGordon wants to be considered a legitimate Heisman Trophy candidate, he will need to perform against a top-tier defense. The Badgers have high expectations heading into this season, and we can expect many questions to be answered on Saturday night.