The Friday night lights will be shining in Tampa as the South Florida Bulls host the Wisconsin Badgers in a clash between AAC and Big Ten programs looking to bounce back into the thick of their respective conference championship hunts. For USF, the chance to open the season with a win against a solid Wisconsin program is a great opportunity to get a big season started under Charlie Strong. For the Badgers, a season-opening road test against a motivated program is not one to overlook. On the other sideline, USF will look to send a message to those watching that the Bulls are ready to compete not just for a conference championship, but perhaps a shot at a New Year's Six bowl game.
The last time Wisconsin lost a season opener against a team from a non-power conference was 1988, when the Badgers lost their season opener to Western Michigan in Madison by a score of 24-14. The Badgers would go on to a lowly record of just 1-10 and two years later would hire Barry Alvarez to be the head coach. Paul Chryst is 3-1 in his season openers, with the lone loss coming in his Wisconsin coaching debut in 2015, a loss to Alabama in Arlington, Texas. Charlie Strong is 2-0 in season openers since being hired by USF, and the Bulls have not lost a season opener since a stunning blowout loss to McNeese State to open the 2013 season.
Wisconsin at South Florida (USF)
Kickoff: Friday, Aug. 30 at 7 p.m. ET
Spread: Wisconsin -13
When Wisconsin Has the Ball
It is no secret that the recipe for success for Wisconsin will come with running the dang football. The Badgers are equipped to do that year in and year out with a beefy offensive line and a top running back like Jonathan Taylor. Taylor is a 2,000-yard rushing threat, and he just so happens to be ready to feast against a Bulls defense that was the second worst in the AAC against the run last season. USF allowed 247.54 yards per game on the ground and gave up 36 rushing touchdowns, and they don’t even have a game against Navy to blame for the poor results. With Wisconsin having a significant size advantage on the line of scrimmage against the USF defensive line, expect the Badgers to find success on the ground early and often.
The big question for the Badgers will be what kind of quarterback play they will get. Jack Coan has been named the starter for the season opener. Coan completed 60.2% of his passes last season with five touchdowns and three interceptions in mostly back-up duty behind Alex Hornibrook. But with a stud quarterback recruit in Graham Mertz waiting in the wings, it may be important for Coan to get things on track through the air early on to build some confidence from head coach Paul Chryst.
When South Florida Has the Ball
Bulls quarterback Blake Barnett enters his fifth and final year of eligibility looking to leave on a high note. That could start with a solid showing against a Wisconsin defense that had its slips last season, but the Badgers are hoping to tighten up the defense a little bit this fall. Barnett also had his inconsistencies last season with 12 touchdowns to 11 interceptions (the Badgers gave up 14 touchdown passes and picked off 14 passes last season, but four of those interceptions came in the bowl game). If Barnett can get in a groove by completing some passes early, USF could become a viable upset threat.
Protecting Barnett and creating room for the running game should also be the focus for the Bulls. Last year, Wisconsin had 19 sacks, good for 12th in the 14-team Big Ten, but USF allowed 38 sacks in 2019. Only Tulsa allowed more sacks among AAC schools last season.
Although the idea of playing a road opener in Tampa sounds like it could be a weather obstacle for Wisconsin, the game will be played at night and out of the hot Florida sun, although the weather could still be a factor with rain and thunderstorms throughout the day. Regardless of the heat, humidity or possibly inclement weather conditions, Wisconsin has a sizable advantage on the line of scrimmage, and that should be more than enough for the Badgers to weather the storm. Taylor should be able to rack up a good rushing total to begin his season on the right foot, and the Badgers should manage to return home with a decent victory.
Prediction: Wisconsin 34, South Florida 20
— Written by Kevin McGuire, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. McGuire also contributes to College Football Talk and hosts the No 2-Minute Warning Podcast. Follow him on Patreon, on Twitter @KevinOnCFB and Like him on Facebook.