For the first time since the Thursday night Badger debut of one Russell Wilson in 2011, Wisconsin will be one of several national focal points on opening weekend. This time though, it’s not UNLV and a special player that, at that time, only UW fans and other assorted segments of the national hardcore considered a must-see. Nope, this time UW is set to take on powerhouse LSU at Houston’s NRG Stadium in Saturday primetime on national television.
Wisconsin added this game, Alabama in 2015 at Arlington, Texas, and LSU again in 2016 at Lambeau Field, in order to beef up its non-conference schedule in anticipation of the now-arrived College Football Playoffs. Starting August 30, Wisconsin is poised to have the most eyes on its team since that 2011 season.
If you could take away Michigan State’s Week 2 tilt at Oregon, UW-LSU would easily be the Big Ten’s most highly anticipated non-conference match-up. Both teams enter the season in the top 15 and both are firmly among the stronger brands in their respective, high-profile conferences.
UW is a contender in the new Big Ten West, and LSU, as usual, is a contender in the vaunted SEC West, and probably in more than that. Wisconsin brings a true Heisman candidate in Melvin Gordon, while LSU brings, among other, more accomplished talents, running back very much-hyped Leonard Fournette who, although a true freshman, is the nation’s consensus top overall prospect. In other words, this game has plenty of national juice.
For Wisconsin’s image and that of its conference though, there’s even more on the line than winning a single big game. For starters, the Badgers are one of just two Big Ten teams playing an SEC team in its non-conference slate (middling Indiana at Missouri is the other) and will, in fact, be facing their second consecutive SEC opponent. Like many of its conference brethren in recent times, UW could not get over the hump against a team from that conference in a New Year’s Day bowl.
In 2014, Wisconsin gets the first real crack of anyone, from the Big Ten or elsewhere, at challenging the SEC’s current supremacy. Winning this one would not only be a (quite large) feather in Wisconsin’s cap, it would be a very welcome addition to the Big Ten’s. Plus, with the SEC being what it is, especially in the new playoff environment, the rest of college football would warmly embrace such a tear in the king’s robe. Don’t think any of this is or would be lost on ESPN.
It’s also clear that a strong showing, let alone a win, would help cement UW’s stature with high school stars across the country, many, if not most, of whom will have their eyes glued to this game. Gary Andersen has made recruiting within the SEC’s footprint – talent-rich Georgia, South Carolina, and of course, Florida and Texas – a top priority. With a win over LSU, Andersen and his staff will be able sell the fact that their players can make names for themselves by playing and beating the best in the country.
In fall camp, it already looks like Andersen can deliver the coveted early playing time to recruits from these areas. The trio of freshman receivers, George Rushing, Natrell Jamerson, and Krenwick Sanders, all from Florida or Georgia, will certainly contribute this season. Defensive backs D’Cota Dixon, Austin Hudson, and Derrick Tindal, all from Florida, don’t appear likely to redshirt, and nose guard Jeremy Patterson, Sanders’ prep teammate, is clearly on Andersen’s list of freshmen he wants “on the plane” to Houston.
These players at least look like they’ll begin to narrow the talent gap that was apparent, even to Andersen (just watch the looks on his face), against South Carolina. Several more are on the way for 2015. Looking good in Houston would no doubt go far to keep these supply lines running.
As if all that wasn’t enough, it was leaked out last week through “sources” (Andersen still has not confirmed) that Tanner McEvoy will start at quarterback over experienced incumbent Joel Stave. Most in the media felt that the fall camp tea leaves pointed to Stave and his 13-6 record as a starter and wondered just what Andersen meant by “if you watched practice, you should have an idea.” Many fans lit up social media and message boards on whether this “surprise” move meant the end of the power running game, the pro-style offense, and “Wisconsin” football (some media members did, too).
In actuality, Andersen from the first said he values a dual threat quarterback and while McEvoy has no FBS experience at quarterback, he fits right in this mold – it can be seen as a bold, and perhaps career-defining, move for Andersen, but if McEvoy turns out to be something close to Chuckie Keeton, the wins will come and no one will mind.
Plus, although Stave has (big game) experience, just how maddening was he a lot of the time last year? Finally, this will be fourth consecutive season-opening starter for Wisconsin (seven of the last eight, amazingly) – fans should be at least a little bit used to this by now.
An honest appraisal right now suggests that UW should be in this game until just about the end. Both teams have unanswered questions on both sides of the ball and LSU still hasn’t decided who its starting quarterback will be. Most (but not all) predictions have LSU winning a close one and Vegas has Wisconsin a consensus 4.5 point underdog, but if UW’s passing game and defense develop ahead of schedule and before our watching eyes, it could very well be LSU trying to get the lead back in the fourth quarter.
A loss is not catastrophic for the 2014 Badgers, and obviously has no bearing whatsoever on who will play for the Big Ten title, but a victory over LSU would be a statement for UW under Andersen. It would be a great big advertisement to future recruits, pundits, and (yes,even) the CFP Selection Committee.
It would also say that at least one team from north of the Mason-Dixon Line really can get the best of a traditional SEC power – and at least suggest that the Big Ten Conference might someday get its on-field football performance to where its media and business eminence so boldly tells us it is.