LSU Tigers vs. Wisconsin Badgers Complete Game Preview
LSU head coach Les Miles is not afraid of challenges in season openers. The Tigers' matchup against powerful Wisconsin in the 2014 AdvoCare Texas Kickoff is further proof of that.
The Tigers will play a ranked, nonconference opponent at a neutral site to start the season for the fourth time in the past five years. Miles has never lost a season opener and is undefeated against ranked, nonconference opponents in the regular season.
Wisconsin's Gary Andersen had a solid first year in Madison. The Badgers went 9-4 and continued their offensive rushing prowess. But Andersen undoubtedly benefited from a below-average Big 10 and went 0-3 in games decided by one possession or less.
LSU enters 2014 ranked No. 13 and Wisconsin sits at No. 14 in the preseason AP Top 25. The evenly ranked teams will play in one of the most heavily anticipated opening-week matchups in college football.
What You Need to Know
Time: 8:00 p.m. CT
Place: NRG Stadium; Houston, Texas
Spread: LSU by 4.5, via Vegas Insider
Stats, rankings and additional information provided by cfbstats.com, LSU Sports Information, and Wisconsin Sports Information. Recruiting informations provided by 247Sports. Quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. Follow me on Twitter @CarterthePower.
Bleacher Report's Michael Felder and Barrett Sallee break down LSU's cross-conference matchup with Wisconsin.
LSU Keys to Victory
Control the Trenches
Miles will look to dominate the line of scrimmage against Wisconsin.
To assist in that, the Tigers return a bevy of experience on the offensive line, led by preseason All-SEC senior left tackle La'el Collins. Senior Terrence Magee is slated to be the starter a running back, but expect 5-star freshman Leonard Fournette to get his fair share of touches.
On the other side of the ball, the Badgers finished an impressive second in the Big 10 in run defense last season, giving up 102.5 yards per game, but the unit lost leading tackler Chris Borland to the NFL along with most of its front seven. Wisconsin does run a 3-4 defense, which gave the Tigers offensive line problems away from Tiger Stadium last year.
Force Wisconsin into Tough Down-and-Distance Situations
Wisconsin, like LSU, is going to pound the football on offense. Heisman hopeful running back Melvin Gordon should get at least 20 carries. Backup Corey Clement has breakaway speed.
In the passing game, the Badgers will start Tanner McEvoy at quarterback over experienced junior Joel Stave, per Jeff Potrykus of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. McEvoy started three games at safety before switching to quarterback this offseason.
This bodes well for the Tigers, as LSU defensive coordinator John Chavis has feasted on inexperienced quarterbacks with exotic blitz schemes. Those blitzes are more effective out of his nickel and dime defenses, particularly his 3-2-6 mustang package. Chavis, more often than not, uses these defenses on 2nd- and 3rd-and-long.
If LSU can stifle the run on early downs and force McEvoy to make plays on passing downs, Chavis should feel good about his chances.
Wisconsin Keys to Victory
Be Unpredictable on Offense
Coach Andersen wishes he could win the game by repeatedly handing the ball to Gordon and Clement. But Andersen knows that will not work against a talented LSU defense.
Offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig broke Wisconsin records last season, including an all-time Badger best 480.8 yards per game. Ludwig is creative enough to give McEvoy some easy completions to boost his confidence early.
Wisconsin lost its best receiver in Jared Abbrederis, but 6'4'' Jordan Fredrick has the talent to be a big-play threat. Ludwig must take chances, particularly on first down, throwing the ball deep to keep LSU's secondary honest.
Keep Discipline on Defense
Miles has yet to publicly make a decision between freshman Brandon Harris or sophomore Anthony Jennings at quarterback. No matter who starts, do not expect either to provide a potent passing attack anytime soon.
But both Harris and Jennings are mobile. Wisconsin's defense cannot allow LSU's quarterbacks to make plays with their legs. Rush-lane discipline from the Badgers defensive line could be the difference in the game.
LSU offensive coordinator Cam Cameron loves to take chances down the field. Wisconsin's safeties cannot be beat deep and allow the Tigers gain big chunks of yardage.
Cameron will challenge Wisconsin's defense with different offensive sets throughout the game. The Badgers must try their best to not be fooled.
LSU Players to Watch
LSU running backs Magee and Fournette should feel comfortable behind senior fullback Connor Neighbors, as he is a bruising fullback who is known for creating huge holes for the running game.
Attempting to stop the trio will be Wisconsin senior linebackers Marcus Trotter and Derek Landisch, who are under immense pressure to fill the production left behind by Borland. LSU will be a tough early test for Trotter and Landisch, and Neighbors will provide a good barometer as to whether the pair can stand up to top running games.
LSU must find ways to get the football in the hands of freshmen Trey Quinn and Malachi Dupre, as the pair holds a ton potential.
Outside of sophomore Travin Dural, there is much uncertainty of how the Tigers will look out wide, and the freshmen may provide answers should they perform well against the Badgers. Quinn and Dupre have created some buzz in fall practice, but Cameron may not play them over returnees John Diarse, Quantavius Leslie and Avery Peterson.
Quinn and Dupre should get their chance to shine against the Badgers. How much they will play is yet to be seen.
Middle linebacker D.J. Welter should have a monster game against Wisconsin. The Badgers love to run between the tackles, which is where Welter is at his best.
Welter must make sure the defense, which will have some new faces, is aligned correctly pre-snap. After that, he must stop talented running backs Gordon and Clement.
Wisconsin Players to Watch
Wisconsin left tackle Tyler Marz, left guard Dallas Lewallen, center Dan Voltz, right guard Kyle Costigan and right tackle Rob Havenstein can take over football games up front. The Badgers' powerful stable of running backs, if given massive holes, can punish linebackers and safeties.
LSU's defensive tackles are an inexperienced and unproven group. If the sophomore Voltz, the youngest of the offensive linemen, makes all the right calls up front, the Badgers should feel comfortable moving the football on the ground.
Warren Herring is the most critical piece in Wisconsin's defensive front.
Herring had 4.0 sacks last season, second on the team to then-fifth-year senior Brendan Kelly's 4.5, and has terrific explosion up the middle. He will likely get double-teamed throughout the game. If he can not hold his ground, expect the the Tigers to shred Wisconsin's underwhelming linebackers.
What They’re Saying
The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel's report concerning McEvoy being Wisconsin's starting quarterback was not confirmed by Andersen, nor will it be, as he is playing things close to the vest.
"We may know who the starter is, but we're not going to say who the starter is until we jog out on the field for the LSU game," Andersen said Monday, according to Adam Rittenberg of ESPN.com.
Elsewhere on the field, Wisconsin's Trotter said the Badgers' similarities to LSU's offense have gotten them prepared for Saturday's matchup, per Jake Kocorowski of Bucky's 5th Quarter:
Even just going against our offense this whole camp, we're getting ready going against them. They're very, very similar in terms of pound-by-pound football, so I think we're definitely getting looks. Even though in the first game they always throw some crazy gadgets here and there, but every offense has their base scheme -- they always do.
Miles said at his weekly press conference he has a starter at quarterback, but he will not name him publicly, per Shea Dixon of Geaux247.com.
Miles said junior defensive back Jalen Mills is "preparing to play," per Jim Kleinpeter of The Times-Picayune. Mills had a charge of second-degree battery reduced to a misdemeanor at the beginning of fall camp for an alleged off-the-field incident in July.
Miles announced Ethan Pocic will start at center and Hoko Fanaika at right guard, per Ross Dellenger of The Advocate.
In keeping with Trotter's comments, the similarities between LSU and Wisconsin seem endless.
The Tigers and Badgers both have uncertainty at quarterback, wide receiver and the defensive front seven. Both, though, have experienced offensive linemen, explosive running backs and experienced secondaries.
The game could easily be decided on special teams. LSU must be prepared cover returner Kenzel Doe, who returned a kick 91 yards for a touchdown against South Carolina last year. On the other hand, the Badgers will be breaking in true freshman kicker Rafael Gaglianone.
LSU is a 4.5-point favorite, and rightfully so. Outside of running back, the Tigers have equal or more talent at every position.
Miles is 54-60-5 against the spread in his career but is 23-18 in nonconference play, per Dave Bartoo of CFBMatrix.com (subscription required). The Tigers will cover the number behind a 100-yard debut from Fournette.
Final Score: LSU 24, Wisconsin 14