Tonight's AdvoCare Texas Football Kickoff features teams that mirror each other in many ways. Melvin Gordon and Corey Clement with /Wisconsin's offensive line versus the Tigers' front seven that's now without backup defensive lineman Maquedius Bain. Warren Herring, Derek Landisch and the Badgers' front seven taking on LSU's rushing attack with freshman phenom Leonard Fournette & Terrence Magee. Let's take a look at who might have the advantage..
When Wisconsin has the ball
Wisconsin running game vs. LSU front seven:
Gordon ran for 1,609 yards last season and combined for the most potent duo in FBS history in 2013 with James White. White's now in the NFL with the New England Patriots. Replacing White is Corey Clement, a battering ram that many will remember by the end of the season, quite possibly this game. Together they form "M&C Rushing Factory" (IT WILL CATCH ON), and with an offensive line returning experienced starters (all five started at some point last season), figure to be the strength of the Badgers' offense.
The Tigers return defensive ends Danielle Hunter, who's a freak of a specimen, and Jermauria Rasco - who combined for 14.5 tackles for loss (TFLs) -- along with sophomore Christian LaCouture and junior Quentin Thomas in the middle. Many attribute LSU's defensive line as a main factor in some struggles in 2013. Junior Kwon Alexander (65 tackles, 6.5 TFL) and senior D.J. Welter (80 tackles, 4.0 TFL, 2 sacks) come back to the Tigers' linebacking corp.
The X-factor will be the dual-threat ability of junior quarterback Tanner McEvoy. If reports are true that McEvoy is expected to be the starter, the combination of Gordon, Clement, and the JUCO transfer can and probably will keep LSU's defense guessing. Even without McEvoy, the two-headed monster at running back should carry this team Saturday.
Advantage: Wisconsin running game
Wisconsin passing game vs. LSU linebackers/secondary:
Three starters come back to LSU's secondary, led by sophomore cornerbacks Tre'davious White and Rashard Robinson. Welp, it looks like Robinson may not be in the game after a possible suspension. Even without Robinson, many believe they are the strength of the Tigers' defense. Wisconsin, starting Year One A.J. (After Jared [Abbrederis]), returns some upperclassmen and a trio of true freshmen who are slated to get playing time. Can Kenzel Doe and Jordan Fredrick lead a young but talented group of receivers into a big stage and make an impact will be one of the game's big questions. Expect sophomores Alex Erickson and Reggie Love, along with Doe, to be with the first-team offense, while Fredrick and true freshmen George Rushing and Natrell Jamerson are expected to get some playing time.
If Wisconsin runs the ball well, expect play action to be available and open for McEvoy and his receivers, not to mention tight ends Sam Arneson and Troy Fumagalli. If not, McEvoy will be forced to make some plays either through the air or on his feet, which could favor the athletic LSU secondary and its linebackers. I still believe Joel Stave is the better passer, at least from what the media saw during practices opened to us, but head coach Gary Andersen and offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig must believe McEvoy's arm is where it needs to be to lead the offense. For now, I'll take the Tigers working to hold down the passing game, but I wouldn't be surprised if the power running game opens up bigger plays down the field for the Badgers.
Advantage: LSU, though my confidence is beginning to grow in the Wisconsin passing game
When LSU has the ball
LSU running game vs. Wisconsin front seven:
Magee returns and leads a running back crew that, dare I say, is deeper than even Wisconsin's. The senior (5'9" 217 pounds) averaged 7.3 yards per carry on 86 carries last season, but the biggest hype surrounds Fournette, which you'll hear comparisons to a young Adrian Peterson -- and it's hard not to. The true freshman is 6'1, 230 pounds and per reports, seems to be the real deal. Both are joined by senior Kenny Hilliard and another hyped true freshmen in four-star commit Darrel Williams. Combine that with an offense line that brings back some talent -- highlighted by left tackle La'el Collins -- and it's like the Badgers defense will be facing their own teammates in the mirror. Per reports Friday night, center Elliot Porter will not be with the team in Houston but sophomore Ethan Pocic had appeared to take the starting job from Porter.
Wisconsin's front seven -- and I'm sure they're sick of hearing this -- has to replace eight contributions from last season that helped lead the Badgers to be a Top-10 defense against the run. They also bring back players who were in the two-deep last season who played meaningful games. Herring sacked opposing quarterbacks four times, senior Marcus Trotter -- who has to replace the irreplacable Chris Borland -- lead the team in tackles against Illinois and Iowa in Borland's absence last season, and Landisch played in a platoon with Conor O'Neill opposite Trotter at the "rover" inside linebacker position. Throw in Konrad Zagzebski (who will play probably at both defensive end and nose guard), Vince Biegel, and Joe Schobert, and you have a crew that has experience in various subpackages from 2013.
The Badgers will hold up for a while, and they face a similar power-football offense each day in practice. Redshirt freshman Chikwe Obasih said Wednesday the defense has changed a bit from what they were doing last season, and if they can nullify the strength of the LSU offense (its line), they have a great shot at containing the running backs. Right now, though, that's the great unknown, and come the fourth quarter, the difference may be how LSU grinds away.
Advantage: LSU running game
LSU passing game vs. Wisconsin linebackers/secondary
Wisconsin, like LSU returns three starters in its secondary -- Sojourn Shelton, Darius Hillary, and Mike Caputo. LSU, like Wisconsin, has a group of unproven wide receivers lead by sophomore Travin Dural with not many catches but showing much promise. Former five-star recruit Malachi Dupre is not making the trip, per reports. NOLA.com also reported sophomore Anthony Jennings would start Saturday's game, apparently beating out dual-threat true freshman Brandon Harris, in its own version of a quarterback competition this summer.
Like Wisconsin's passing offense versus the LSU secondary, the running game of LSU will dictate the success of the offense. Stop the running game, make either Jennings or Harris beat them, and the Badgers are in good shape. The running game for LSU will get its yards, and if Harris is inserted to give some more mobility at quarterback -- that could provide an extra dimension similar to McEvoy, but the Badgers secondary should limit opportunities Saturday. Dural versus Shelton will be a fun, fun match-up inside NRG Stadium.