BY MICHAEL LEESE
In Texas, even opening week is big. This year, college football opens with the LSU Tigers facing the Wisconsin Badgers in the AdvoCare Texas Kickoff. The two powerhouse programs kickoff the season at Reliant Stadium, the home of the Houston Texans, on August 30. Yesterday, both programs were mentioned in an ESPN.com story as potential candidates to appear in the first College Football Playoff.
In Baton Rouge, head coach Les Miles enters his tenth season at the helm of the Bayou Bengals. The Tigers are coming off a 10-3 season, highlighted by a defeat of SEC Champion Auburn, and a dominating 21-14 Outback Bowl victory over Iowa.
Many questions will need to be answered early for the Tigers, as they’ll may lose as many as seven players to the NFL draft. The offense loses both yards and touchdowns — among the departed are quarterback Zach Mettenberger, leading rusher Jeremy Hill (1,401 yards and 16 touchdowns), and wide receivers Odell Beckham and Jarvis Landry who combined for 2,345 yards and 18 touchdowns! The offensive line will return four of five starters, which should provide a security blanket for the winner of the spring quarterback battle between Brandon Harris and Anthony Jennings.
The defense looks to be the strength of the team as seven starters return. The linebacking corps and secondary will be the strength of the defense, as they look to improve upon the 20 points per game allowed last season. Defensive linemen Ego Ferguson and Anthony Johnson are both are leaving early for the NFL draft.
But the Tigers have answers. The Mad Hatter (Miles) welcomes in a top-five recruiting class, highlighted by the nation’s top overall recruit, Leonard Fornette. The 6’1″ 226 lb. running back should make an immediate impact! The Tigers also add Malachi Dupre, the nation’s top-rated receiver and safety Jamal Adams, ranked second nationally at his position. I’ll be looking forward to seeing these young players battle in the spring game this weekend.
Meanwhile in Madison, Gary Andersen enters his second year with the Badgers after leading the team to a 9-4 record in his inaugural season. The Badgers finished 6-2 in BIG 10 Conference play, and closed the season with a 34-24 loss at the hands of SEC power South Carolina in the Capitol One Bowl. The Badgers return only nine starters from last year’s squad, but have plenty of solid players waiting to step into starting roles.
The two biggest losses on an offense that averaged 34.8 PPG are tailback James White who rushed for 1,444 yards scoring 13 TDs, and receiver Jared Abbrederis who caught 78 passes for 1,081 yards and seven scores. The good news on offense is that leading rusher Melvin Gordon (1,609 yards and 12 TDs) is back, as is quarterback Joel Stave. Coach Andersen has said that the quarterback position will be opened up during spring ball, as super-recruit Bart Houston is hot on the heels of Stave for a starting spot. The Badgers return four of five starters on the offensive line.
On defense, the Badgers return only three starters from an obnoxious unit that allowed 16.3 PPG last season, good for sixth in the nation. The entire front seven must be replaced! The Badgers do get back three of four starters in the secondary making this the strength of the defense. Heated battles for the open spots will go all spring and summer long before the season opener with LSU.
This classic game is huge for both programs as the loser is likely out of a potential playoff berth in the new playoff format! In the next few weeks, we’ll have stories from the Wisconsin and LSU spring games, as well as the history of what could become a great rivalry.