This is the first in a 12-week Friday series looking at the Wisconsin football team’s 2014 opponents.
You wanted a significant step up in Wisconsin’s early season strength of schedule? You got it.
This time around, the Badgers didn’t settle for an opener against one of those FCS patsies. Instead, Wisconsin will kick off its season against LSU in one of the most important openers perhaps in Badgers football history.
We have no idea how good Wisconsin’s team actually is given questions about the Badgers’ starting quarterback, receivers, kickers and safeties, among others. But the Badgers will have a pretty darn good idea after they walk off the NRG Stadium field in Houston the night of Aug. 30.
LSU finished last season 10-3, including a victory against Iowa in the Outback Bowl. Tigers coach Les Miles hasn’t won fewer than eight games in any of his nine seasons there, and the team has won at least 10 games in each of the past four seasons.
Given that Wisconsin’s last game was a 34-24 loss to fellow SEC foe South Carolina in the Capital One Bowl, Badgers players ought to feel as though they have something to prove. Whether they actually prove anything in four months, however, is another matter.
Personnel: Sophomore quarterback Anthony Jennings is the leader in the clubhouse to be LSU’s starter as summer workouts approach. Jennings, some Wisconsin fans might remember, was a hero last season on senior day when he bailed out LSU with a 99-yard touchdown drive against the Bret Bielema-led Arkansas Razorbacks to keep Bielema winless in the SEC.
But true freshman Brandon Harris excelled during the Tigers’ spring game in early April. Harris completed 11 of 28 passes for 195 yards with three touchdowns. He also rushed six times for a team-high 75 yards and another touchdown. Jennings completed 9 of 17 passes for 157 yards with one touchdown and two interceptions.
LSU has the nation’s top incoming running back in Leonard Fournette, who could make an impact immediately. Some have called Fournette the best running back to come out of high school since Adrian Peterson.
Terrence Magee currently sits atop the running back depth chart. He carried 86 times for 626 yards and eight touchdowns last season. He and fellow senior-to-be Kenny Hilliard (310 yards, seven touchdowns) could share carries. Whoever is running the ball will do so behind an offensive line that brings back four starters, which could make LSU’s ground game difficult to stop.
At wide receiver, the Tigers return Travin Dural, who ranked fourth on the team in receptions a year ago (seven for 145 yards with two touchdowns). Senior Quantavius Leslie also emerged in the spring. But LSU put together the No. 2 recruiting class in the country for 2014, according to Scout.com. And two of those players are five-star receiver Malachi Dupre and four-star man Trey Quinn. If those players develop as well as coaches hope, LSU could have some explosive playmakers on the field against Wisconsin.
Defensively, outside linebackers Kwon Alexander (65 tackles)) and Lamar Louis (25 tackles) will likely pair with inside linebacker D.J. Welter, who finished second on the team in tackles last season (80) Cornerback Jalen Mills is the leading returning tackler in the secondary (67). He also finished with three sacks and three interceptions.
Up front, ends Jordan Allen (16 tackles) and Danielle Hunter (57 tackles, three sacks) could play alongside tackles Christian LaCouture (11 tackles) and Quentin Thomas (nine tackles).
LSU returns seven total starters on defense and will be one of the quickest and most aggressive defenses Wisconsin will see all season. A year ago, the Tigers ranked No. 15 nationally in total defense (340.7 yards allowed per game) and No. 13 in passing defense (197.5 yards allowed).
Bowl game success: LSU and Wisconsin rank among the national leaders in consecutive bowl game appearances. LSU has been to 14 straight bowl games and ranks sixth in the country. Wisconsin, meanwhile, has gone to 12 consecutive bowl games and ranks tied for seventh with Boise State. The only schools ahead of LSU and Wisconsin: Florida State (32), Virginia Tech (21), Georgia (17), Georgia Tech (17) and Oklahoma (15).
NFL draftees: The Tigers broke the school record with nine players selected in the 2013 NFL Draft. The previous mark of eight was set back in 1948. Over the past five NFL drafts, the Tigers have had 32 players selected. Wisconsin has had 19 players taken over the past five seasons.
Strong odds: LSU was given 16-to-1 odds to win a national championship, according to Bovada, which is behind only six teams in 2014 (Florida State, Alabama, Oregon, Ohio State, Auburn, Oklahoma). Wisconsin was given 33-to-1 odds, which ranks tied for the 13th-best odds.