LSU and Wisconsin both fully intend on contending for their respective conference titles and believe they can be part of the first-ever College Football Playoff, but they’re heading into a high-stakes season opener with some question marks under center.
While it seems both teams have a plan in place, it would appear that only the 14th-ranked Badgers have settled on a true No. 1.
Former safety Tanner McEvoy is expected to make his first start at quarterback for Wisconsin on Saturday night at Houston’s Reliant Stadium, while Les Miles and No. 13 LSU are set on going with two signal callers in this battle of national heavyweights.
The Tigers capped a 10-3 season in 2013 with an Outback Bowl win over Iowa, while Wisconsin stumbled in its Big Ten finale before finishing a 9-4 season with a Capital One Bowl loss to South Carolina.
LSU got a look at the beginning of a new era under center when the inexperienced Anthony Jennings was forced to play QB after Zach Mettenberger tore his ACL in the regular-season finale, but it appears the now-sophomore will be splitting time with a freshman.
Brandon Harris enrolled at LSU in January, allowing him to challenge Jennings in both spring practice and fall camp. And with the Tigers’ first meeting with Wisconsin since 1972 days away, Miles decided earlier this week he’s giving time to both.
"Our team understands that we have talented quarterbacks," Miles said. "But right now they have not separated themselves, and we are not certain. If we were certain, then I promise you, we would play the one guy that would give us all the advantage.
"But if two guys can give us greater advantage than one guy, then let’s certainly play two," Miles added.
Though Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen hasn’t officially named a starter, it reportedly won’t be the QB who took nearly all the snaps last season.
According to running back Melvin Gordon, the Big Ten’s second-leading rusher (1,609 yards) in 2013, McEvoy will get the nod over incumbent Joel Stave, who threw four interceptions in Wisconsin’s final two losses last season.
"I think Joel’s a great player, people definitely overlook him," Gordon said. "But, even though Tanner was named the starter, I think Joel will continue to work and wait for his chance."
He added: "They’re going with Tanner. Obviously I hope Tanner plays well and I wish the best for Tanner and I hope he can lead our team."
While Stave is more of a pocket passer, McEvoy, who started three games at safety last season and also played wide receiver, gives Andersen the more mobile quarterback he prefers.
"Obviously, we feel like he’s throwing the ball much better to even be in the QB race," Andersen said. "He would have to be solid and consistent throwing the football. But the biggest thing for Tanner is the growth within the offense."
Andersen does not equate McEvoy’s lack of playing time at quarterback with lack of experience.
"The one thing I would say is he has played in big-time games," Andersen said. "He’s been a starter at free safety, which is the quarterback of our defense. He has a lot of alignment issues, it’s very technical back there. There’s a ton of communication that has to take place. So he’s been in that moment. He’s prepared to play in Big Ten games. He’s prepared to play in a bowl game."
Regardless of who starts at quarterback, the Badgers will rely heavily on a running game powered by Gordon.
"We want to run the ball first," Andersen said. "We want to take some shots with our play action. Our goal is to obviously be a physical, power football team that gets in the fourth quarter and ultimately tries to wear people down and ground it, pound it. That will never change."
The same could be said for the Tigers’ approach. Terrence Magee, who was LSU’s second-leading rusher last season, is back along with fellow senior Kenny Hilliard. Miles said freshman Leonard Fournette, widely regarded as one of the top high school running backs in the nation last year, is expected to make his college debut against the Badgers as well.
"He’s going to want the opportunity to do everything that he can do. And certainly he’ll play a role in this game," Miles said. "No reason for him to think about winning the Heisman (Trophy) tomorrow, OK. … Just make a contribution. Do the things that you’re slated to do."
The running backs may have to carry the load given the inexperience at quarterback and receiver. Gone are top wideouts Odell Beckham and Jarvis Landry, both picked in the first two rounds of the NFL draft. That leaves sophomore Travin Dural, who had only seven catches last season, as the most experienced receiver on the roster.
True freshman Malachi Dupre and redshirt freshman John Diarse appear primed to emerge as regulars as well.
Wisconsin has lost its biggest non-conference game in each of the last two regular seasons to Pac-12 opponents – Oregon State in 2012 and Arizona State in 2013 – and now faces an even bigger test. LSU has won 45 straight regular-season non-conference games since 2002, the longest streak in the nation, and it’s won a school-record 11 straight season openers.
The Tigers have beaten a ranked opponent at a neutral site to open three of the last four seasons.