The Wisconsin Badgers face a tall task this Saturday at Lambeau Field, taking on running back Leonard Fournette, former defensive coordinator Dave Aranda and the No. 5 LSU Tigers.
LSU owns the longest non-conference regular-season winning streak in FBS history, currently at 52 games, as it heads up to Green Bay to face Wisconsin. Fournette, a Heisman Trophy favorite, scored 23 touchdowns last season and is only 13 rushing yards shy of reaching 3,000 for his career—he could become the Tigers’ fastest player to reach that mark.
Head coach Les Miles also returns eight starters on defense, now under the guise of Aranda and his base 3-4 defense.
LSU's ranked No. 5 in the AP poll and No. 6 in the coaches poll. What are the expectations for Les Miles's team this year?
Billy Gomila (BG): The Tigers have never returned this much experience under Les Miles. After years of being decimated by NFL draft departures, nearly every eligible player returned, and that has definitely raised the expectation level. Fans will be expecting this team to compete for the SEC championship and by proxy the College Football Playoff.
Just a question of getting over that big Crimson hump.
Leonard Fournette suffered an ankle sprain in fall camp but appears to be back to practice heading into game week. The Badgers have an experienced front seven. How much of the offense will he and the running game need to shoulder to be successful not just against Wisconsin, but during the season?
BG: Fournette will be fine, but when he dings anything you put him on the shelf until you absolutely need him to face contact again. And he and his mates in the backfield are almost definitely going to shoulder most of the load for this game. Luckily his backup, Derrius Guice, is a former five-star recruit that made his share of big runs as a true freshman last season. I would expect both players to carry the ball double-digit times on Saturday, especially if LSU gets any kind of lead.
QB Brandon Harris will be under center for the Tigers. What progression has he made since 2014, and who are the main weapons Wisconsin needs to watch out for?
Well, 2014 was a big eye-opener for Harris as a true freshman. His first start came on the road at Auburn, and he struggled to even spit out play calls in the huddle. It was a complete meltdown that saw him shelved for the rest of the season, but he definitely took some small baby steps forward the next year once he had won the job to himself. But he still struggled with accuracy and timing, mostly.
Most people tend to just jump to the same conclusions whenever an LSU quarterback struggles, but to be honest, Harris looked like most first-time starters last year, especially as a true sophomore. And his nosedive in the season's final month just happened to coincide with the timing of a sports hernia that he suffered. We expect him to improve this season.
Defensively, how has the transition to Dave Aranda's 3-4 scheme been?
BG: I think we're waiting to see the results there ourselves. LSU has some pieces that should fit in really well. Sophomore Arden Key should transition really well from defensive end to outside linebacker, and should be a break-out star as a pass-rusher this season. Senior Kendell Beckwith should fit in really well too. He was a bit miscast as a 4-3 mike [linebacker], but with a little more help in the middle he should be a lot more productive, and have his weaknesses covered up a bit.
Of course, it also helps that former five-star recruit Travonte Valentine is now in the fold after two years of limbo. At 335 pounds, Valentine should be the classic nose tackle that should help with the interior of this defense.
How have the injuries to certain contributors on defense affected the depth? Which positions are deep, and which are concerning for the Tigers?
BG: The defensive front will have to play some freshmen out of necessity due to injuries to senior defensive end Christian LaCouture and linebacker Corey Thompson, but there's enough depth that in both cases, the youth will have some veteran support around them.
The big question will be the offensive line, which remains a little unsettled. An ankle injury to freshman All-American Maea Teuhema has led to the unit being a little reshuffled. There's a ton of talent there, but the starting five the Badger defense faces may be different than the one LSU's conference opponents face in a few weeks.
What are your keys to the game for LSU? How could they falter?
BG: I think the key is just for LSU to play its game. Establish the run, keep the offense on schedule and keep Harris in more beneficial passing situations. If they can do that, and he and the wide receivers execute, this offense will move the ball on everybody it plays. That consistency will be important, though. If Wisconsin's front slows down the rushing game enough to force long third downs, and Harris misfires, it could be a long day for the offense.
And while we're all excited about watching Aranda's defense in action, I do have to wonder if there will be any hiccups in the front seven with assignments and what not. If there are, Wisconsin could attack that with a senior quarterback like Bart Houston. Luckily, this secondary should more than be able to hold its own.
Big thanks to Billy for answering our questions. Unfortunately, he and his family were victims of the recent flooding down in Louisiana. Read his column reflecting on what happened and looking ahead to what’s next.