It’s a classic Big Ten versus the SEC matchup on Saturday night, as Wisconsin and LSU meet in Houston for a neutral site kickoff for the 2014 season. The Badgers return just eight starters from last year’s 9-4 squad, but coach Gary Andersen should have this team in the thick of the Big Ten West Division race. LSU also had a significant amount of roster turnover from last year and several freshmen are expected to see time on Saturday night.
LSU owns a 2-0 series edge against Wisconsin. This is the first matchup between these two schools sine 1972. The Tigers and Badgers are slated to meet again in 2016 in Green Bay.
Wisconsin vs. LSU (Houston)
Kickoff: 9 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: LSU -5.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Leonard Fournette
As mentioned above, LSU could play a handful of freshmen on Saturday night. And while several garnered national acclaim through recruiting, the one receiving the most hype is running back Leonard Fournette. The true freshman has everything coaches want in an every-down back. Fournette isn’t guaranteed to handle the full workload, as seniors Terrence Magee and Kenny Hilliard are slated for a big role in the offense. Fournette ranked as the No. 1 prospect in the 247Sports Composite and is running behind an offensive line that is considered among the best in the SEC. With Wisconsin replacing its entire front seven (in terms of starters), the Tigers should be able to use their offensive line to clear the way for Fournette to a big performance on Saturday night.
2. The Quarterbacks
Both teams enter Saturday night with question marks surrounding the quarterback position. LSU plans on using both sophomore Anthony Jennings and true freshman Brandon Harris, while Wisconsin is slated to start Tanner McEvoy. Jennings played sparingly last year and completed 13 of 29 passes for 181 yards and one score. Harris ranked as the No. 3 dual-threat passer in the 247Sports Composite and enrolled in time to compete with Jennings in spring practice. The gap between Jennings and Harris does not appear to be wide (if any at all), so expect to see both quarterbacks play a couple of drives. McEvoy beat out last year’s starter (Joel Stave) for the starting job this fall, and the former South Carolina passer is back under center after playing safety in 2013. McEvoy did not attempt a pass for Wisconsin last season, but he fits what coach Gary Andersen and coordinate Andy Ludwig want under center. McEvoy gives the Badgers’ offense more mobility, which could be an asset against a fast and athletic defense on the other side.
3. Melvin Gordon vs. LSU’s defense
LSU did not have a vintage shutdown defense last year, allowing 170.3 rushing yards per game in SEC contests. The Tigers allowed only 22 points per game, but there was room to improve in the yardage allowed. Coordinator John Chavis had personnel concerns to address in the offseason, starting up front at tackle. Last year’s starters (Ego Ferguson and Anthony Johnson) departed, leaving Frank Herron, Quentin Thomas, Christian LaCouture and Maquedius Bain as the top options in the middle. All four are talented, but there’s not a ton of experience returning from this group. Considering this is McEvoy’s first start, expect to see Wisconsin’s gameplan based on getting running back Melvin Gordon 25-30 carries. The Badgers own one of the Big Ten’s top offensive lines, and with the uncertainty up front for LSU, Gordon should be able to find running room. And when Gordon needs a break, expect to see talented sophomore Corey Clement in the backfield.
This matchup is perhaps the most intriguing game of Week 1. Both teams usually replace departed talent with few problems. Expect much of the same in 2014, as LSU and Wisconsin will both push for 10 wins. Both teams should have success running the ball, which is critical due to the inexperience at quarterback. The Tigers may not have a prolific day through the air, but a big offensive line and trio of backs – led by Fournette – eventually wears down the Wisconsin defense.