The 2015 season begins -- finally -- this Saturday as the No. 20 Wisconsin Badgers take on the No. 3 Alabama Crimson Tide, perhaps the most storied program in the entire long history of college football. The game, especially as it ends the long off-season, will be a good one no doubt, but just by scheduling and playing it, the Wisconsin football program gets an incredible opportunity.
Opportunity for what? Sure, the 2015 edition gets a chance right out of the chute to see where it measures up against a perennial football power who, consistent with its recent history, starts the season ranked in the top five and projected by many to secure a second straight berth in the College Football Playoff. Fans, players, and the coaching staff will have a pretty good idea of what will work and what won't this season, and after this game, be able to take some time to evaluate and improve during what should be a cupcake non-conference slate before Big Ten play starts, still at home, against Iowa.
The opportunity, though, goes well beyond that. Alabama, of course, didn't just arrive on the national scene; they bring 15 national titles, including three since 2009. They are led by head coach Nick Saban, avatar of "The Process" and considered by most, if not all, to have just one peer (Ashtabula Jesus; the Pontiff; Urban Meyer) as a college football head coach. They have a roster filled to the brim with the top high school players not just in the South, but in the nation; they are a pipeline to the NFL, producing multiple first-round picks on a near annual basis. Just how big and bad is the Crimson Tide can't be overstated.
More on the Game
More on the Game
But therein lies the rub -- the Tide are expected to win. Professional handicappers, who make prognostication their business, are giving the Badgers 10 points against Alabama. Most of their fans, and many in the media, expect the Tide to roll to a win -- any season that results in anything less than a national title shot is considered lost, a failure. In this context, which team should have the most pressure on it?
Not the Badgers. In his first game as head coach, Paul Chryst is presented with this major challenge, but he's got an ace in the hole - this game is the ultimate #QuestforFun, as regular season games go. If you lose, so long as you're not blown out (a possibility, I guess), you were supposed to lose -- it doesn't affect anything in the Big Ten, and specifically anything in the Big Ten West. All the other goals are still there.
But what if you win?
A win in Dallas is something fans and players will remember for the rest of their lives -- unless Wisconsin makes an uncanny and unlikely run to the CFP, a Big Ten West division title will be memorable and is eminently laudable, but it won't be immortal like a win over the Tide would be. Wins in these kind of games last a long, long time.
It would be the elusive "program" win -- a consistent Big Ten winner that finally won a bowl game for the first time since 2009, a streak that includes three consecutive Rose Bowl losses, taking down the mighty Crimson Tide of the even mightier SEC. Wisconsin's standing in the national scene wouldn't be questioned quite so much as it has been and recruits would take notice. Plus, Wisconsin would have a two-game winning streak against SEC West teams while Alabama would have a two-game losing streak against Big Ten teams.
A win would also set the Badgers up nicely for an undefeated regular season and a legitimate chance for the Playoff. Much has been made about the relative ease of the Badgers' schedule until a potential Big Ten title game, and rightly so. The biggest challenges along the way would be road games at Nebraska and Minnesota and (maybe) home games against Iowa and Northwestern; in other words, nothing truly daunting.
We can bet the players are tired of hearing about how great their opponent is while they grow weary of hitting just each other in practice. Some of the inexperienced ones might get overawed, which can be forgiven under these bright lights, but don't for a minute believe that will happen with veterans like Corey Clement, Michael Caputo, Vince Biegel, Joe Schobert, Tanner McEvoy, and Joel Stave. They will be ready to play in this one.
Both Chryst and Dave Aranda carry wholly justified reputations as creative tacticians; fans and media are correct to think that they'll find ways to maximize the relative strengths of this team and minimize (er, cover up, ameliorate) its relative weaknesses, which happen to outnumber the strengths. The question will be whether the personnel can execute at the top of their individual games; Alabama's superior talent will be difficult to overcome, but planning, scheming, and motivation should not be.
For my part, if this game were to be played 10 times, Wisconsin wins two or three of them; Alabama simply has more size, speed, and ability on its roster. As far as particular units matching up, Alabama's defensive front has an imposing advantage over the Badgers' reconstituted offensive line, and the middle of Wisconsin's defense, unproven at the nose tackle and linebacker positions, will be sternly and severely tested by Alabama's top-notch running attack.
If the Badgers are to keep the game close and pull out a win, it will be on their passing game -- Stave and his receiving targets catching his passes -- to loosen up running lanes for Clement and whoever will spell him at running back. Wisconsin's defense will have to be creative in getting to an Alabama quarterback that, whoever it is, will be starting (or even playing) his first game; a consistent and effective pass rush, in turn, should help the Badgers' secondary and linebackers force turnovers. Finally, if the defense can in fact force turnovers, they must result in scores, preferably six points each time.
The Badgers definitely have a shot Saturday, but it will take a confluence of smart, sound, tough, and effective play with a little bit of luck to get a win. If this group can play to its potential and force the Tide into some mistakes, the opportunity is there to make a major statement, and not just one for 2015, -- but frankly, one that will resonate for years to come.
In order for this to be one of the two or three of 10,, the passing game will need to be sufficiently effective so that running lanes can open. This assumes the reconstituted Badger offensive line can be close to adequate in my pick for this game is that the Tide wins, but the Badgers will cover the 10 points given to them by professional handicappers (who make prognostication their business). As an underdog, though, the Badgers are expected to lose the game.