Countdown over, Badgers ready for big opening test vs. LSU

When No. 14 Wisconsin plays No. 13 LSU at 8 p.m. Saturday in Houston, all the pent-up emotion of a nearly eight-month layoff will be released on national television.

Badgers linebacker Joe Schobert has been counting down the days until Wisconsin's season opener Saturday against LSU since Jan. 21 and said, "That's what keeps you going in those summer workouts."

Jeff Hanisch / USA TODAY Sports

Linebacker Vince Biegel puts the origins of the countdown date at about Jan. 2, less than 24 hours after Wisconsin's New Year's Day bowl game loss. Teammate Joe Schobert's countdown began Jan. 21 on the first day of winter conditioning.

Most returning players acknowledge the same thing -- they've been waiting months on end for an opportunity to not only strap on the pads in a game but also to do so in perhaps the team's most significant season opener in program history.

When No. 14 Wisconsin plays No. 13 LSU at 8 p.m. Saturday in Houston, all the pent-up emotion of a nearly eight-month layoff will be released on national television.

"That's what keeps you going in those summer workouts," Schobert said. "Why am I doing this? You just look forward to the game."

The implications at play for Wisconsin are noteworthy: A victory would further elevate the program nationally in recruiting, and it would put the Badgers squarely into the conversation as a viable candidate for the inaugural four-team College Football Playoff. Given the team's manageable remaining schedule, it is a topic fans no doubt have discussed all offseason.

Wisconsin players, meanwhile, are doing their best to avoid any talk about the windfall a victory could bring.

"Even though that is in the back of our head, we know that we can maybe make the playoffs, that's only if we take one game at a time," Badgers linebacker Marcus Trotter said. "So just focus on the present and worry about the future later."

LSU's offense presents potential matchup problems all over the field for Wisconsin. The Tigers' backfield already was strong with returning tailbacks Terrence Magee (626 yards, eight touchdowns) and Kenny Hilliard (310 yards, seven touchdowns). Throw in freshman Leonard Fournette, the most highly regarded running back out of high school since Adrian Peterson, and the Tigers have the potential to be as potent as Wisconsin's talented backfield tandem of Melvin Gordon and Corey Clement.

Tigers coach Les Miles has declined to publicly announce a starting quarterback, but he has said sophomore Anthony Jennings and freshman Brandon Harris will play against the Badgers. Both players have dual-threat ability, and Wisconsin isn't preparing much differently to face either quarterback.

"Typically, the quarterbacks you would play one different than the other, and they both have a similar skillset," Badgers defensive coordinator Dave Aranda said. "I think the younger quarterback is a little bit more comfortable being out in space. The quarterback they had last year is a little bit more comfortable being in the pocket. How we're preparing is similar."

Wisconsin, of course, had its own quarterback competition on its hands during fall camp. Though reports have indicated junior-college transfer Tanner McEvoy has won the job over incumbent starter Joel Stave, it remains to be seen whether the coaching staff will use both players. Stave, a prototypical pocket passer, is 13-6 in 19 career starts. McEvoy, a dual-threat quarterback, has yet to throw a pass in a Division I game, though he did appear in 10 games at safety last season.

"People come to this school to play in big games," McEvoy said. "We've got LSU the first game. That's about as big as it gets in a big NFL stadium."

The fact Wisconsin is opening against an SEC team only adds to the significance of the opener. The SEC has won seven of the last eight national championships, including LSU's title in 2007. The Tigers also lost the 2011 national championship to Alabama.

LSU has won 44 games over the last four seasons, and Badgers coach Gary Andersen is aware of the challenge.

"It shouldn't matter who we're playing," Andersen said. "But we know if you're able to get a victory against LSU, you clearly got a victory against one of the best teams in college football year in and year out."

Saturday's game serves as a vast departure for Wisconsin in competition level for a season opener. Consider that Wisconsin's last four season openers have come against UMass, Northern Iowa and UNLV twice. Northern Iowa is an FCS team, while UMass and UNLV went on to finish those seasons a combined 5-32.

The decision to play LSU is part of a larger strategy to begin seasons with marquee games. That provides Wisconsin an opportunity to compete for a national title as strength of schedule becomes more important in determining playoff teams.

In order for Wisconsin to win, however, it will have to buck a recent trend of coming up short against teams from the power-five conferences outside the Big Ten. The Badgers are 0-5 in their last five games against such teams: South Carolina and Arizona State last year, Stanford and Oregon State the year before and Oregon in the 2012 Rose Bowl.

"We're not going to treat this as different from any other game we play," Badgers defensive lineman Warren Herring said. "Yeah, it's an SEC team. We don't have a chip on our shoulder against the SEC, but we want to go out there and show everybody what Wisconsin can do and continue to have success here at Wisconsin as we have done."

Follow Jesse Temple on Twitter