MADISON - Les Miles operates like a commissioner of a fantasy football keepers league.
Over the last three seasons, LSU has lost 21 players to the NFL before their graduation expired, yet the Tigers have won at least 10 games for four straight seasons. The list of programs that can lose that much and rebuild are small, which is a recognition of the depth, talent and athleticism that No.13 LSU will be bringing to the season opener against No.14 Wisconsin at NRG Stadium in Houston Saturday.
The Tigers broke their 1948 school record when nine players were selected in the 2013 NFL draft, but few schools reload a roster like LSU. The Tigers (10-3, 5-3 in 2013) had the second-best recruiting class last season, according to Scout.com, and Miles said anywhere from 6-12 true freshmen will play, with six playing vital roles. And it’s easy to see where they are going.
LSU lost 94.5 percent of its passing yards last season but brought in one of the nation’s top dual-threat quarterbacks in Brandon Harris. The Tigers lost 63.7 percent of their rushing yards, but brought in the nation’s top recruit in Leonard Fournette. They also lost 84.2 percent of their receiving yards but brought in four wide receivers headlined by five-star Malachi Dupre.
“We’re a team that will expect some of these freshmen to come in and play,” said Miles. “Leonard Fournette, Malachi Dupre and Brandon Harris are freshmen we expect to have great impact on our season.”
Wisconsin is in the same boat with its youth, losing 13 starters a season ago, and both the Tigers and the Badgers have similar dossiers they will present during the primetime matchup. Both teams have offenses with strength in numbers at running back and on the offensive line, lack dependability at wide receiver and have two quarterbacks who will play this season.
And while secondary has a good deal of quality and experience on both sides, both teams will have plenty of fresh blood coming into the mix to try and create more pressures. Wisconsin was disappointed that despite blitzing on over 40 percent of downs last season generated fewer tackles for loss and sacks than the 2012 team that blitzed less than 10 percent of the time.
LSU had at least 88 tackles for loss from 2010-13, but registered only 69 tackles for loss last season, which has motivated junior defensive end Danielle Hunter and senior end Jermauria Rasco, probably the best tandem ends the Badgers will see this season.
“They're tremendous pass rushers,” said Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen. “They're very gifted athletically, and they're also very powerful. They've shown that on tape, so you have to you've got to be on guard. You've got to make sure the offense hopefully can help them a little bit as far as help our tackles a little bit, keeping people off base as far as what we're doing.”
LSU enters the opener riding an FBS-record streak of 45 consecutive nonconference wins in the regular-season, a streak that dates back to the 2002 season opener against Virginia Tech. That streak also includes a trio of neutral site wins over North Carolina (2010), Oregon (‘11) and TCU (’13), the latter two coming in Arlington, Texas.
“(Wisconsin is) a big, powerful, very physical Big Ten team,” Miles said. “I think our preparation has been conditioning, strength development and speed. That's not really changed. Not in the summertime. But in camp, certainly we're prepared for a different style of offense than we've seen out of a North Carolina and Oregon and some other teams that we've played in the first game. These guys are talented and in a different way.”
Since LSU’s streak began on Sept. 7, 2002, the Tigers and Badgers rank 1-2 nationally in both wins and winning percentage in regular-season non-conference games, with LSU boasting a 45-0 record (1.000) and the Badgers owning a mark of 43-3 (.935).
“I think it's a great challenge to our team,” Miles said of Wisconsin. “I recognize the advantages of having this kind of test early on in the season. I look forward to competitive games and this is going to be - you're going to be prepared to play 60 minutes.”
Not only are the two programs comparable with the areas they need to fix on the field, they are similar with their mindsets off of it. Andersen had to be told where Wisconsin was ranked to start the season and quickly dismissed the ranking with a team full of inexperience who hadn’t earned that type of distinction.
Miles quipped that his position on his team is “don’t bother us, we don’t care and we just want to work,” a philosophy that has served him well.
“We want to get better, we want to improve, we want to play one game at a time and get pointed to the next opponent,” said Miles. “We know if we continue to do the things that we’ve done in the past, we’ll earn our way. I like us, and I like us in every game.”