Game Time: 3:30 p.m. ET
TV: ABC (Check local listings)
Watch Online: WatchESPN
Odds: LSU (-9.5), -380 (LSU Moneyline), +320 (Wisconsin Moneyline), 44.5 (O/U)
Wisconsin and LSU opened the season against each other back in 2014. The site was Houston, Texas, and the Tigers had a 21-point effort in the second half to erase a 10-point halftime lead that Bucky and the Badgers had previously built up. The comeback effort had been highlighted by a 28-yard scamper by then-LSU running back Kenny Hilliard, and the Tigers walked away from Houston with a 28-24 victory.
Two years later these foes will once again lock horns. This time though, it won’t be played in the Tigers’ backyard. Instead, the matchup moves up to the Badgers’ territory in the form of historic Lambeau Field in Green Bay. The second meeting is poised to bring about as much excitement as the first did, and will serve as one of the main courses on an absolutely loaded Saturday in the world of college football.
The Ground Game
Like the last matchup, much of the attention will be squarely supplanted on the shoulders of a premier running back. The last time around the spotlight shone itself down on Badgers running back Melvin Gordon. If you remember though, there was a young pup on the Tigers’ sideline. Leonard Fournette was his name, and the back who had built up a good deal of hype going into his freshman campaign would only amass eight carries for 18 yards that night.
Don’t expect a repeat performance for one of the Heisman Trophy frontrunners this time around. No, Fournette is very likely to outdo that performance and then some and the nation’s best running back will have all the attention fixated on him as LSU’s most talented and most impactful skill player.
That’s not to say Wisconsin doesn’t have its fair share of talented running backs though. Quite the opposite. Seniors Corey Clement and Dare Ogunbowale will be toting the rock for the Badgers and don’t overlook the abilities of redshirt sophomore Taiwan Deal either. He’s the second-leading returning rusher on the team behind Ogunbowale, and after an injury-riddled season, Clement is back and ready to be the bell cow that many expected him to be in the 2015 season.
The defensive side of the ball will also prove to be a fascinating watch if for no other reason than who will be the signal caller for the vaunted Tigers defense. Wisconsin had previously been one of the best defensive units in the country under the direction of coordinator Dave Aranda. Now though, Aranda is patrolling one of the best defensive groups in the country in Baton Rouge, and while there’s no bad blood or animosity, it serves as a storyline nonetheless. How much knowledge of the Badger offense did Aranda carry along with him on the trip from Madison to the Bayou, and how big of a difference will it make with the players in his 3-4 scheme who will look to snuff Bucky out each and every time they’re out on the field?
Entering the 2016 season, Badgers quarterback Bart Houston has only played 15 games in his three-year career in Madison. The mightiest of his efforts came a season ago in a road matchup against the Illinois Fighting Illini in which the Dublin, California native went 22-for-33, collected 232 yards through the air with a pair of touchdowns and interceptions. Suffice it to say, Houston is going to have his hands full figuring out a Tigers defense that is filled to the gills with stars. He’ll have to stare at linebacker Kendell Beckwith while under center, hope to not have edge rusher Arden Key breathing down his neck and look to figure out what is one of the most talented and divisive secondaries in the country. Headed by cornerback Tre’Davious White and safety Jamal Adams, the Tigers secondary is nothing to mess with, and Houston’s ability to figure that secondary out on passing downs will be crucial to the Badgers’ success.
That’s not to say that it’s going to be a walk in the park for Fournette, quarterback Brandon Harris, and wide receivers Malachi Dupre and Travin Dural. Wisconsin has plenty of returning players on a defense that ranked seventh overall in S&P+, 13th against the run and eighth against the pass. Chikwe Obasih, Conor Sheehy and Alec James are all back as is nose tackle Olive Sagapolu who did well last season. The linebacker corp is one of the strongest in the Big Ten, with Vince Biegel being the player in the spotlight. LSU’s star tailback indicated as much, so the phrase “real recognize real” gets life breathed into it. Elsewhere are Jack Cichy, Chris Orr, Ryan Connelly and, you guessed right, another Watt in the form of TJ who should get plenty of reps as a junior. SBN’s Bill Connelly keys him in to replace the awesome Joe Schobert who departed Madison last offseason, and how he does off the edge will be pivotal for Wisconsin’s successes on the defensive side of the ball in this game.
It’s fixing to get ferocious between two terrific batches of front sevens, folks. Don’t expect the scoreboard to be lit up too much in Green Bay if both defenses play up to their ability levels.
So, what happens?
The point spread would indicate LSU is a heavy favorite even on a semi-neutral field. That’s a fair take as the Tigers are thought to be a College Football Playoff frontrunner as a team that is jumbled with talent. Wisconsin may be headed for a lean year by their standards if for no other reason than an absolutely merciless schedule that includes this meeting with the Tigers and later matchups against Michigan State, Michigan, Ohio State and Iowa (Have I mentioned that those are all in a row and three of the four are on the road?) but the possibility is that although that schedule is daunting, the Badgers may be better than their record and the consensus thinks they are. Especially so if Corey Clement can perform up to expectation levels, and the defense shows out again even with a coordinator change.
My belief is that this will be a very well-played game and could be one of the biggest highlights of the loaded weekend. I sense Wisconsin playing their tail off but can see a situation develop where their shortcomings under center don’t put them in prime position to take the lead, and a tired defense is tasked with combating and stalling Fournette. That’s an unenviable task even for a defense that’s fresh.
Prediction: LSU 24, Wisconsin 17