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Wisconsin vs. Alabama: Getting to know the Crimson Tide

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Is Wisconsin in store for a season opener in line with last year's LSU game, or something entirely different?

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After a lengthy offseason full of yet another coaching transition, turnover on both sides of the ball and glimpses of both promise and concern in practice, the Wisconsin Badgers have finally entered another regular-season game week.

Saturday, the Badgers will return to the state of Texas to play the Alabama Crimson Tide a year after opening the season there against LSU. Offensively, Alabama is reminiscent of the LSU unit that flipped Wisconsin on its back in the second half and escaped with a 28-24 victory. Defensively, Alabama looks even more daunting than its SEC brethren was a year ago. Without further ado, let's take a look at the Crimson Tide.

Offense

Last year, LSU was replacing signal caller Zach Mettenberger, 1,400-yard rusher Jeremy Hill and a pair of thousand-yard receivers in Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham Jr. The result was an incredibly slow start for the Tigers as they attempted to figure out who was going to make plays or if new quarterback Anthony Jennings could even put people in the position to make them.

This year, Alabama is faced with the same task. It must replace starting quarterback Blake Sims, running back T.J. Yeldon and its top three receivers, including the heavily relied-upon Amari Cooper. We know one of the answers, and that is junior running back Derrick Henry, a 6'3, 240-pound beast that split time with Yeldon last year and gained 990 yards and 11 touchdowns on 172 carries. Henry's power should be obvious, but he also possesses NFL-level speed and will undoubtedly be leaned on heavily against the Badgers. In short, Henry is what we dreamed of John Clay being. Kenyan Drake, returning from a broken leg, will be the backup running back and is one to watch for as a receiver as well.

The rest of the positions do not have nearly as clear of an answer. If you were annoyed by the lack of transparency during Wisconsin's quarterback battle last year, imagine how Alabama fans must have felt when Nick Saban took the dreaded depth chart "or" to a new level and listed five quarterbacks as possible starters. Reports have indicated that senior Jake Coker, redshirt freshman David Cornwell and true freshman Blake Barnett are the main contenders for the job. Both Coker and Cornwell have been projected as the starter by the media during parts of the last month. Coker, a transfer from Florida State, seems to be the favorite given his experience, but many also expected him to be under center last year before Blake Sims was awarded the job. There's also a chance we see more than one Crimson Tide quarterback on Saturday night, but all of them should provide a similar look as bigger pocket passers.

As questionable as the quarterback position is, wide receiver is just as unpredictable. The group of five possible starters features a bevy of former highly touted recruits and an Oregon State transfer. Sophomore ArDarius Stewart, who had 12 catches for 149 yards in mostly mop-up duty last year, sounds like the one that stood out the most in camp. The player everyone is expecting big things from, however, is junior tight end O.J. Howard. Howard is big and can run like a wideout, but only has 529 yards and two touchdowns to his name despite a lot of playing time over the last two years.

Lane Kiffin's offense typically features a player that will receive a lion's share of the targets. In the past that player has been a receiver. It will be interesting to see if one of those receivers can emerge as that guy, if this will be the year of the tight end or if the ball will be spread around.

Alabama's offensive line only returns two starters, but those starters return at the key positions of center and left tackle. The entire unit is massive, coming in at an average of 6'5 and 312 pounds. If Wisconsin's offense cannot stay on the field, this unit could easily wear down the Badger defense similar to how LSU did last year.

Defense

Alabama might have the best front seven in the country. LSU's defense last year was small, but it gave Wisconsin trouble with its lightning-fast team speed. Alabama's defense this year, which is much like the one it had last year, is huge. It is also incredibly fast for its size. And it is deep. And very, very scary.

Wisconsin's defensive line accounted for 11.5 tackles for loss last year. Alabama's Jonathan Allen was responsible for 11 by himself last year, and he won't even be on the field all the time. A'Shawn Robinson and Jarran Reed also return, both coming in at 6'4 and 310 pounds, and recording 6.5 TFL a piece last year. The line is big, disruptive, and interchangeable. It has a sophomore former No. 1 recruit listed as third string. It's a nightmare matchup for an inexperienced Wisconsin offensive line that will be trying to figure itself out.

The second level will have to replace a couple key members from a year ago, but it returns Reggie Ragland, who was second on the team in tackles last year and is as athletic of a linebacker as you will find at over 250 pounds. Reuben Foster, a first-time starter at middle linebacker, is also one to watch for. The first thing you will notice about Foster is his Brian Cox-like neck pad. The second thing you will see is him demolishing whomever has the ball. He has already made a name for himself as a fearless performer on special teams and he seems like safe bet for breakout player on this defense.

The defensive backfield has to replace its starting safeties, but returns lockdown cornerback Cyrus Jones and shifts a couple experienced cornerbacks to the backline. Like any other unit on this juggernaut of a team, there is a bunch of talent waiting in the wings for its shot. However, if there are holes on this defense, they will be on the perimeter and as far away from the line of scrimmage as possible.

Special Teams

It is also worth noting that Alabama returns the best punter in the country. JK Scott averaged 48 yards per boot last year as a freshman and had 31 land inside the 20-yard line with only five reaching the end zone. He can absolutely change the game, as he did against Ohio State in the playoffs last year.

Conclusion

In the end, Wisconsin gets what it wanted when it signed up for this game against Alabama. It gets the national spotlight and the pleasure of playing one of the best teams in the country. This game will present a massive test for a Badger offensive line with an unusual amount of questions surrounding it. Establishing the run game will likely be difficult, so it will be time for Joel Stave to step up and deliver against what could be a relatively shaky defensive backfield and a less-than-stellar pass rush.

The Badger defense will have the benefit of facing a unit that is looking to establish an identity and figure out who can make plays in the passing game. An experienced defensive backfield should help the Badgers focus on Alabama's challenging run game.

If things go well, we'll be in for another opening-game dogfight. If they don't, Alabama has the ability to run Wisconsin off the field similar to how Ohio State did in the Big Ten Championship game.