MADISON, Wis. — The matchup outwardly screams snoozer, lending credence to the notion that Wisconsin should drop FCS opponents from future schedules. It must happen, many have argued, for the sake of a paying fan base and enhancing schedule strength as a four-team college football playoff approaches.
Tennessee Tech has played nine FBS opponents since head coach Watson Brown took over the program in 2007. The Golden Eagles have been outscored by an average of 46-6 during that time and have lost all 29 games against FBS teams since 1978.
It’s no wonder, then, why Las Vegas oddsmakers have pegged No. 21 Wisconsin as a 45-point favorite against Tennessee Tech for the teams’ 11 a.m. game Saturday at Camp Randall Stadium. That’s a shade higher than the Badgers’ spread last week for UMass, one of the worst teams in the FBS.
Every facet of this week’s game seems to suggest it will be a blowout, just as it was during last week’s 45-0 pasting of UMass — just as Tennessee Tech has endured the past nine games against FBS teams.
Then again, one can never be too sure.
Oregon State was supposed to breeze past Eastern Washington last week. So was South Florida against McNeese State. Or San Diego State against Eastern Illinois. Or UConn against Towson. Or Iowa State against Northern Iowa. Or Kansas State against North Dakota State.
In total, eight FCS teams defeated FBS opponents in Week 1 of the college football season, demonstrating how much teams on the lower tier have closed the gap on the big boys. And those results certainly caught the attention of Wisconsin’s players.
“I think every Division I school fears what Kansas State and Oregon State went through this week,” Wisconsin defensive end Ethan Hemer said.
Hemer added that Wisconsin already was on its toes after nearly becoming a victim last season against Northern Iowa. The Badgers escaped with a 26-21 victory only after the Panthers’ drive into UW territory stalled in the final three minutes.
Badgers linebacker Ethan Armstrong said he watched Eastern Washington, a 26-point underdog, come back to beat Oregon State 49-46 in the final minute Saturday night after he returned home from Wisconsin’s game against UMass.
“It definitely shows that you need to be prepared for every game and you can’t take anyone lightly,” Armstrong said. “They have athletes at the FCS level that some of them go on to the NFL and have success in the NFL. There’s a lot of players there that are able to make plays, and if you don’t take them seriously and if you don’t go out there and play the way you’re supposed to play, they’ll beat you.”
Though Tennessee Tech is far from the FCS power of Eastern Washington — which is ranked No. 2 in the latest FCS poll — the Golden Eagles do possess a wealth of big playmakers that could challenge Wisconsin in ways UMass could not.
Tennessee Tech demolished NAIA opponent Cumberland 63-7 in the season opener. The Golden Eagles use a true spread offense that features a no-huddle and has been dubbed as “The Fastest 60 Minutes in Football.”
Against Cumberland, Tennessee Tech had three touchdown drives of three plays or less.
Brown recognizes his team’s customarily quick pace will be in for a much more difficult test against Wisconsin.
“Might be a little slower Saturday,” Brown said. “I think on our level, we want to try to wear people down, and we’re not going to wear Wisconsin down. We may try to play a different style than what we normally play.
“We just like to get the hat on the right person and execute the way we need to execute and hopefully make a first down or two as we go. There weren’t many made last week. That was a dominant performance by their defense. Just dominant. We understand what we’re walking into, and we know we’ve got our hands full.”
Tennessee Tech’s two biggest playmakers appear to be running back Ladarius Vanlier, who scored on a 52-yard touchdown run and on a 93-yard punt return, and quarterback Darian Stone. Last week, Stone completed 8 of 11 passes for 143 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions and ran for two more scores.
At the very least, Stone will provide the kind of dual threat Wisconsin could see against Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller on Sept. 28.
“He’s a good player, and the offense revolves around him,” Wisconsin defensive coordinator Dave Aranda said. “If there’s a critical spot, he’s going to have his hands on the ball. It’ll be a good test for us. We’re all amped up.”
If all goes according to plan, this game will represent one of the last involving Wisconsin and an FCS opponent. Big Ten athletic directors have reached an internal agreement to stop scheduling FCS teams following the 2014 season. Wisconsin will play Western Illinois next year before unofficially terminating its relationship with programs at that level.
Badgers coach Gary Andersen also understands the significance of these games to the lower-tier school. As coach at FCS Southern Utah in 2003, his team played Nevada in the season opener and nearly won, falling 24-23. It was a game Andersen said players still discuss.
“It’s going to be a sad day for those programs if that happens,” Andersen said of the Big Ten-FCS games ending. “And not just from a financial standpoint. From an opportunity standpoint for those kids to walk into games like this and be able to play. I remember it as a coach. I remember those kids being fired up for those opportunities.”
For at least one more Saturday, Wisconsin will play a game many believe shouldn’t even be held. Badgers players can’t control the opponent. But they can value the importance of respecting that opponent, of not becoming the next Kansas State or Oregon State.
“These teams thrive off the moment,” Hemer said. “A win here would be the biggest for their program ever. And we need to recognize that. We need to see this team is going to come in here thinking they’re world beaters. So we need to respect them with that.”