ESPN’s College GameDay will kickoff the year in Texas as Alabama meets Wisconsin Saturday night at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, to open the season. The two teams met once before in 1928 when the Badgers shutout the Tide 15-0 at Camp Randall Stadium.
There are no shortage of storylines heading into this one as Alabama, a model of consistency in recent history, enters the year with looming questions regarding its depth and contributions from several inexperienced players that will assume starting roles. Crimson Tide head coach Nick Saban has yet to name a starter at quarterback and is unlikely to do so until kickoff. And even then, there’s a good possibility that he will continue to shuffle between two signal-callers before the night ends.
Wisconsin, which plays its second straight season opener against an SEC team, ushers in year one of the Paul Chryst era. Chryst served as Wisconsin’s offensive coordinator from 2005-11 before accepting the head coaching job at Pittsburgh. Chryst’s offenses at Wisconsin during his final two seasons averaged 42.9 points per game. His opening act will be a tough one as Wisconsin looks to replace the offensive production of running back Melvin Gordon with contributions from junior running back Corey Clement.
Alabama vs. Wisconsin
Kickoff: 8 p.m. ET (Saturday)
TV Channel: ABC
Spread: Alabama -10.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Who lines up under center for the Crimson Tide?
When Alabama released its depth chart for quarterback this week, four possible candidates were listed: Jake Coker, Cooper Bateman, Alec Morris, Blake Barnett or David Cornwell. Practice reports from Tuscaloosa have Coker and Cornwell tied neck-to-neck and it won’t be a surprise to see either of the two run out with the first team on Alabama’s opening series Saturday night. It also won’t be a surprise to see Saban alternate between two QBs as he did last season with Coker and Blake Sims. A strong opening from whichever quarterback gets an opportunity in Arlington could help force Saban’s hand in permanently naming his guy.
2. Can Alabama’s run game carry the offense while it searches for its quarterback?
At times last year, Alabama offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin more closely resembled a mad scientist. With offensive weapons Blake Sims (quarterback), Amari Cooper (wide receiver) and Derrick Henry (running back) at his disposal, Kiffin experimented with a variety of offensive formations and play calls that typically netted successful results. Sims and Cooper are gone, but Henry returns and should shoulder the brunt of Alabama’s early-season offense. Behind Henry’s team-best 990 rushing yards in 2014, Alabama averaged 5.1 yards per rush and 206.6 yards per game. The Tide returns junior running back Kenyan Drake, who will join Henry in the backfield. Drake’s 2014 season was cut short after suffering a broken leg during a 10-yard reception in last year’s game against Ole Miss. While Henry provides Alabama the option of a bruising running game, Drake’s strength lies in his ability to make defenders miss. Kiffin has used Drake as a receiver in some of the team’s passing packages during practices and the shifty speedster is certain to see time again this year at the slot position. Production from both backs is needed Saturday to aid whichever Bama quarterback is thrust into action. While SEC defenses routinely receive accolades for being among the nation’s stingiest at stopping the run, Wisconsin’s defense in the last two years has allowed 100-yard rushing games to only six opposing backs. The Henry-Drake tandem will have its work cut out for it.
3. Will Wisconsin’s run game be effective against Alabama’s defensive line?
When facing any Wisconsin team, you can be certain of one thing: Expect a massive, physical offensive line to clear the way for a power-rushing attack. Wisconsin runs and everyone knows it. How to stop it, however, is the quandary. In the last four years, Wisconsin has churned out four consecutive 1,600-yard rushing seasons and its streak of 10 consecutive seasons of producing a 1,000-yard ball carrier tops the nation. The Badgers last year averaged 320.1 yards per game behind a gaudy 6.9 yards per rush. Gordon, who currently plays for the San Diego Chargers, amassed 2,587 yards in 2014 courtesy of an offensive line that returns four upperclassmen as starters. Wisconsin’s run game shouldn’t suffer much drop-off in 2015. Clement finally takes the reins from Gordon after stringing together a noteworthy 2014 campaign in which he ran for 949 yards and nine touchdowns on 6.5 yards per rush. Wisconsin’s offensive line will tangle with a ‘Bama defensive front that figures to be one of the best in the nation for yet another season. Alabama allowed just five rushing scores last season, and its defense under Saban has surrendered 100-yard rushing games to just 10 opposing backs.
The last time these two teams took the field in 2014, the potential reward for a victory was the chance to play at AT&T Stadium in the inaugural College Football Playoff final. Ohio State ended Wisconsin’s hopes after trouncing the Badgers 59-0 in the Big Ten Championship Game. The Buckeyes thwarted Alabama’s chances one month later in the College Football Playoff semifinal. A twist of fate brings both teams to Arlington where they will begin another run at the title.
Despite Wisconsin’s continued success with its power brand of football, Alabama’s size and athleticism on the defensive line will be too much to overcome. Look for Wisconsin to hang with Alabama for much of the contest before the Badger defensive line wears down physically and is unable to stop the run later in the game. Saban’s quarterback doesn’t need to be perfect, just efficient enough to keep the Tide in control. Saturday’s SEC-Big Ten matchup should resemble a heavyweight fight — think Holmes vs. Norton. The Tide will win this one courtesy of a late rushing surge by Henry and Drake.
Prediction: Alabama 28, Wisconsin 17
— Written by Elton Hayes, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. A Washington, D.C.-based sports writer, Hayes is a member of the Football Writers Association of America (FWAA) and he also has been an invited guest on “The Paul Finebaum Show.” Follow him on Twitter @EHDC12.