The new-look Wisconsin Badgers will run out of the tunnel to face a talented LSU Tigers team in one of the most enticing games of college football’s opening weekend.
The top-25 showdown features two of the most hyped running backs on Saturday night at 9 p.m. EST from Houston.
Freshman phenom Leonard Fournette begins his much-anticipated college career for No. 13 LSU, while Melvin Gordon likely would have been the top running back selected in the NFL Draft, but returns to No. 14 Wisconsin.
Jeremy Hill was the second running back drafted in May and led LSU with 1,401 and 16 touchdowns on the ground.
In steps Fournette. Listed as the No. 1 overall recruit by 247Sports composite rankings, the 6-foot-1, 230-pound true freshman Fournette ran for 7,619 yards and 88 touchdowns for St. Augustine High School and is the only player in the state to win Louisiana’s Gatorade Player of the Year Award twice.
It is unknown how much Fournette will contribute right away, but it would be surprising if head coach Les Miles did not get him involved early. He is listed behind seniors Terrance Magee and Kenny Hilliard on the depth chart, likely because of seniority.
Wisconsin’s front seven returns zero starters, but second-year defensive coordinator Dave Aranda has excelled at stopping the run. In the first year under Aranda’s 3-4 scheme, the Badgers allowed one player to rush for more than 100 yards in a game and were fifth in rushing defense. Prior to Wisconsin, Aranda coached under Gary Andersen at Utah State and the Aggies ranked No. 12 at stopping the run in 2012.
Heisman-trophy candidate Melvin Gordon with sophomore Corey Clement and an experienced offensive line creates a powerful running game that Wisconsin football is known for.
Gordon and James White, now with the New England Patriots, broke an NCAA record with 3,053 rushing yards by teammates in 2013. As the No. 3 running back, Clement rushed for 547 yards, seven touchdowns and averaged 8.2 yards per carry. The running game should continue to be the best in the nation.
LSU will try to cut down the run game with junior Danielle Hunter, who is poised to have a monster season at defensive end. He may have spent every offseason second in the weight room as proven by photos that surfaced on social media of his Hulk-like physique. Hunter started 10 games last season and recorded eight tackles for loss, including three sacks. Talented senior Jermauria Rasco will start as the other defensive end of LSU’s 4-3 defense. He started every game and led the Tigers with four sacks.
Offensive tackles Rob Havenstein and Tyler Marz will be given the task of clearing space for running backs. The 6-foot-8, 333-pound fifth-year senior Havenstein has made 27 consecutive starts at right tackle and is the leader of the offense. Marz was benched during the regular season finale loss against Penn State, but bounced back in the Capital One Bowl against South Carolina. He held his own while lining up across from Jadeveon Clowney, the No. 1 overall selection in the 2014 NFL Draft.
Marz and Havenstein have to be able to protect Tanner McEvoy, who is making his first start at quarterback. McEvoy was in a camp battle with the incumbent Joel Stave, but according to Jeff Potrykus of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, McEvoy will begin the season under center. Andersen has yet to make an announcement, but Gordon spilled the beans during an interview.
Offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig installed an option package during camp that suits McEvoy well as a mobile quarterback.
The Tigers will likely stack the box to stop the running game, so McEvoy has to keep the Tigers’ defense honest with his arm. McEvoy has the same dilemma the LSU quarterbacks have: finding someone to throw to. The initial depth chart lists redshirt sophomore Reggie Love, senior Kenzel Doe and sophomore Alex Erickson as the wide receivers, trying to replace Jared Abbrederis, who caught 202 balls for 3,140 yards and 23 touchdowns for his career.
LSU had a quarterback competition of his own during camp between freshman Brandon Harris and sophomore Anthony Jennings. It must have been a draw because Miles said both guys will play against the Badgers.
Odell Beckham and Jarvis Landry are both in the NFL, leaving the Tigers thin at wide receiver. Travin Dural is the most experienced wideout with seven catches. LSU brings in quite a recruiting class with Malachi Dupre, the No. 1 recruit at the position by ESPN, and No. 3 on the list is Trey Quinn.
The first big game of the season always delivers with a great atmosphere. Saturday night in NRG Stadium will be no different, as the Lone Star Sports Entertainment announced that all tickets have been sold out. Football is back.