By Andrew Alexander
The wait is almost over. LSU football returns this weekend when the Tigers kick off against the Wisconsin Badgers in the 2014 AdvoCare Texas Kickoff at NRG Stadium in Houston.
Coming off its fourth straight season of 10 wins or greater, LSU and coach Les Miles have aspirations of national prominence once again. Wisconsin marks the fourth ranked, non-conference opponent LSU has faced at a neutral site in the past five years, but under Miles, the Tigers are 9-0 in season openers.
Wisconsin finished 9-4 in coach Gary Andersen’s inaugural campaign in Madison. The stakes are high for the Badgers, who appear to have an easy road to the Big Ten Championship Game this season. Wisconsin is the beneficiary of a below average Big Ten schedule this season, avoiding Ohio State, Michigan State, Michigan and Penn State.
On paper the Tigers and Badgers seem evenly matched. LSU enters the season ranked No. 13 in the preseason AP Top 25 poll, while Wisconsin sits right behind the Tigers at No. 14.
In the words of Miles during his Monday press conference, “We are looking forward to it. It’s game week, and we get to play against somebody else, not LSU.”
LSU OFFENSE vs. WISCONSIN DEFENSE
Brandon Harris or Anthony Jennings? Tiger fans will know soon enough who the starting quarterback will be against Wisconsin. Miles has said both will take snaps in Houston, and the eventual season starter might be established against the Badgers if either Harris or Jennings seizes the moment of the grand stage.
Fortunately for the young Tiger quarterbacks, Wisconsin loss eight senior starters on defense, including five NFLer’s from last season. The Badgers’ lineup will include an entirely new front seven that has some experience in defensive linemen Warren Herring and Konrad Zagzebski.
But LSU’s offensive success early this season will be dictated by the Tigers’ ability to dominate the line of scrimmage and establish the run. Led by preseason All-SEC left tackle La’el Collins, the Tigers are loaded with experience along the offensive line, including junior Vadal Alexander, sophomores Jerald Hawkins and Ethan Pocic and seniors Elliott Porter and Hoko Fanaika. The Tiger running backs should have plenty of holes to run through.
Speaking of running backs, ever heard of Leonard Fournette? The supremely talented five-star freshman joins seniors Terrence Magee and Hilliard to form a dangerous three-headed monster that will frustrate Wisconsin’s inexperienced defense throughout the game.
The Tigers blend of youth, experience and talent will eventually wear down the Badgers.
LSU DEFENSE vs. WISCONSIN OFFENSE
After suffering from a relative “down year” in 2013, the Tiger defense return as an experienced and talented unit this fall.
The Tigers boast arguably the best cornerback tandem in the nation with sophomores Tre’Davious White and Rashard Robinson at the helm. White consistently improved throughout his freshman campaign, while Robinson put his name on the map when he shut down Texas A&M wide receiver Mike Evans in Baton Rouge last season.
The Badgers have endured an intense quarterback battle in fall camp between incumbent Joel Stave and Tanner McEvoy. Rumors surfaced last week that McEvoy, who recorded 27 tackles and an interception at safety last season, had won the job. McEvoy is known for his mobility and athleticism, which may prove invaluable for the Badgers against the usually speedy Tiger defense.
New quarterbacks have long been the desired dish for hungry LSU defensive lines of old, and this year is no different. Sophomore defensive tackle Christian LaCouture and a slew of redshirt freshmen will anchor the interior. Defensive ends Jermauria Rasco and Danielle Hunter are poised to terrorize opposing signal callers throughout the season. Plus, have you seen Hunter’s arms?
Wisconsin returns four started from an offensive line that paved the way for the Badgers’ to set school records for total offense (480.8 yards per game), rushing yards (3,689) and rushing average (6.62 yards per carry).
Enter Melvin Gordon. The junior running back enters 2014 as the nation’s active career leader in rushing average at 8.1 yards per carry. Gordon rushed for 1,609 yards and 12 touchdowns last season, and is poised for reach even greater heights this season.
Led by senior Mike (middle) linebacker D.J. Welter, LSU will counter the Badgers’ ferocious running attack with a deep linebacker corps featuring juniors Kwon Alexander and Lamar Louis as the Will and Sam starters. Expect youngster Kendell Beckwith and junior Deion Jones to play big roles as well.
LSU sophomore place kicker Colby Delahoussaye returns after an uncannily accurate freshman season that saw the New Iberia native connect on 13-of-14 field goals and 56-of-57 point-after touchdowns. Wide receiver Travin Dural and running back Terrence Magee with likely share the return duties. Wisconsin’s special teams prospects don’t look as promising: the Badgers will trot out freshman place kicker Rafael Gaglianone. Badger return specialist Kenzie Doe will field both kicks and punts for Wisconsin.
The Tigers are simply more talented, especially on defense. LSU’s powerful running game and experience and depth on the defensive side will eventually wear the Badgers down. Replacing the Badger defensive front seven is a tall task, and say what you want about the inexperience of Harris and Jennings, but would Tiger fans rather have a former safety taking snaps? LSU begins the quest for a fifth straight 10-win season in Houston with a victory.
“The hard work is done and the grueling task of getting through camp is over,” Miles said. “It’s now about preparing for that team, and certainly the feel of excitement and the energy in our building is very good.”
LSU 31, Wisconsin 20