HOUSTON - The 2014 opener against LSU is the biggest opening fame for Wisconsin since the 1995 game at Camp Randall against Colorado. With all due respect to the Buffs, this game arguably has a higher profile attached to it. It is a neutral site game and SEC teams have the highest profile in college football.
The five keys are easier to read than might be expected, simply because so many players on both squads will be getting their first starting assignments. LSU’s starting lineup was cleaned out by the NFL draft, and the Badgers saw significant change as well. So two themes stand out; consistent play from the new players and deceptive play from returning groups.
1, QB Play
Coach Gary Andersen seemed to shock many by picking Tanner McEvoy as his starting quarterback. Those observers who were surprised perhaps shouldn't have been since Andersen has always preferred a QB who can run, which would exclude Joel Stave. Additionally Stave threw a conference-leading 13 interceptions in 2013. For LSU? The decision seems to have been made by head coach Les Miles in favor of sophomore Anthony Jennings, but freshman Brandon Harris is expected to play. So which team is favored? The team which gets consistent play, avoids long yardage and avoids turnovers should win. In theory this must mean a slight edge for Wisconsin based on McEvoy's experience, even if it is not from FBS game situations. There is little evidence to make judgments for the No.1 key, but that doesn't change its obvious nature.
Compared to the QB question, there is a wealth of information for this key. Marz and Havenstein are the returning offensive tackles for the Badgers while Rasco and Hunter are the returning defensive ends for LSU. All are very good players. Rasco and Hunter are listed as weighing 240 and 247, respectively, making them perhaps a little slight for top defensive ends from the SEC. Wisconsin’s linemen both send the scales circling three times. If Rasco and Hunter use their explosiveness around the edge to disrupt the new starting QB, it’s a big edge for LSU. If instead Melvin Gordon and McEvoy (on designed runs) make big yardage gains between tackle and guard, it’s a big edge for UW.
3, A key outlet receiver for McEvoy
This is perhaps an usually specific key. UW enters a season for the first time in many years without a tight end of proven pass-catching ability. Additionally this group of wide receivers, while reported to be improving, is not stellar. Combine that with McEvoy's weakness at QB (timing routes on deep passes) and UW can only hope that McEvoy quickly develops a rapport with starting tight end Sam Arneson or perhaps with Alex Erickson, a wide receiver who might be categorized as a possession receiver. LSU's secondary is relatively young with three sophomores and one seniors, but this is still a significant advantage for LSU.
4, Melvin steps up, through the middle
Melvin Gordon, a true Heisman candidate for UW, will be asked to run more power football in the middle of the field than in previous years. UW's inside combination of Dallas Lewallen, Dan Voltz and Kyle Costigan gives UW the advantage. It will be up to Gordon to take advantage and he certainly has the skill.
5, UW's Unsettled Defense
Through injuries and turnover, the Badgers front seven on defense will be doing a lot of learning tonight. As recently as the end of fall camp, Konrad Zagzebski and Warren Herring changed positions (nose tackle and end) while the linebackers (Vince Biegel and Marcus Trotter new as starters) also missed significant time during the practice sessions with injuries (Derek Landisch).