For the third year in a row, Wisconsin opens against a powerful SEC West team, having lost in Texas to LSU in 2014 and Alabama in 2015.
This time they’ll square off with the Tigers at the friendlier Lambeau Field, which might have provided a nice advantage for the Badgers if the game were in December, rather than September.
The Tigers have a great deal more at stake, thanks to their aspirations for a Playoff berth. For the Badgers, this is considered more of a recruiting play and a tune-up challenge before attempting to win the Big Ten West. However, an upset win by UW would change that ceiling in a hurry.
For the fans, there’s a "who’s the toughest?" issue to settle. The Badgers bring a pro-style, run-centric style and well-regarded defense against the bruising and athletic Les Miles Tigers. Big Ten and SEC bragging rights are also on the line, since both conference identities revolve around running the dang ball and winning slugfests.
On the field, the most critical storyline could be that of Dave Aranda, the former star Wisconsin defensive coordinator who’ll now be on LSU’s side.
In 2010, Aranda took over as Hawaii's coordinator and improved the Warriors from 109th in Def. S&P+ to 78th. He took over the Utah State defense in 2012, and the Aggies improved from 96th to 12th. He followed Gary Andersen from Utah State to Wisconsin 2013, and his first defense improved from 16th to 14th. After brief regression to 29th in 2014 (thanks in part to a complete rebuild of the front seven), Wisconsin surged back to eighth in 2015.
Here’s a glimpse of what will determine the winner.
First, is the Badger interior ready to hold up against Leonard Fournette?
In their 2014 bout, the Tigers did most of their damage to Wisconsin through the air. Anthony Jennings completed only 9 of 23 passes, but those nine went for 239 yards. RB Kenny Hilliard added 110 yards and a TD on 18 carries.
The Badgers were replacing multiple defensive linemen and star middle linebacker Chris Borland, and the new starters were not ready to withstand the Tiger run game.
The following year, Derrick Henry went for 147 yards and three touchdowns on just 13 carries. A Badger line that was better at stunting and moving couldn’t hold the point of attack against the Tide’s inside zone:
Later in 2015, the Badgers promoted freshman nose tackle Olive Sagapolu (6’2, 332) to the starting role and ended up finishing 14th in rushing S&P, with much stronger performances against run-centric opponents like Iowa and USC.
The late-season Badgers had a much tougher front to root out, even for burly offensive linemen:
Here, even though Cody Kessler throws the bubble option (which safety Michael Caputo cleans up), USC’s double team on Sagapolu gets zero movement. The Trojans struggled to establish the run, which made them all the more vulnerable to the Badgers’ pass rush.
If the Badgers can maintain the line of scrimmage, they can protect their inexperienced safety tandem, likely Leo Musso and D’Cota Dixon, from Fournette running through the second level with a full head of steam. If they can do that, then it puts much more onus on Brandon Harris realizing a breakthrough as a passer in Week 1. Against Vince Biegel (eight sacks in 2015) and the Wisconsin pass rush, that will be a tall order.
That said, the Tigers will undoubtedly benefit from Aranda’s scouting tips. He is intimately familiar with the Wisconsin personnel, if not their playbook under new DC Justin Wilcox.
How will Wisconsin’s offense fare against its old coordinator?
Wisconsin has bigger issues at quarterback, including the question of who will start between redshirt senior Bart Houston and redshirt freshman Alex Hornibrook. The smart money could be on the senior getting the nod against a national contender.
Houston saw some action in 2015 when Joel Stave went down against Illinois. He responded with 33 passes for 232 yards, two TDs and two interceptions. The interceptions came on a miscommunication on the goal line, when he threw a comeback and his receiver ran a fade, and a misguided lob into the end zone when the contest wasn’t really in doubt. Overall, the game was a positive indicator of his ability to run the Paul Chryst offense.
Houston has a fairly strong arm and can throw on the move, as evidenced by this rollout:
Wisconsin is returning eight offensive linemen who have started games and four of its top five receivers. The Badgers lose reliable receiver Alex Erickson, their leading receiver by a mile, but have some intriguing weapons.
The challenge for a program like Wisconsin, which is not always overflowing with NFL athletes at receiver, is getting anyone open against a secondary like LSU’s, which typically is overflowing with NFL defensive backs.
Chryst will try to mitigate that by establishing the run in order to set up play-action and by targeting linebackers in the passing game.
LSU has been vulnerable over the last two years against the run, ranking 50th there in 2015. The Badgers hope to make headway with an O-line that averages 6’5, 308 pounds. That kind of height can make it hard to drive squatty defensive tackles off the ball, but the Badgers cover people up and then control them with double teams, which is hard for big defenders to resist.
Some of UW’s key weapons include tight end Troy Fumagalli and running back Dare Ogunbowale, useful targets in the quick game. Chryst will use them through route combinations like y-stick, with the RB running an angle route on the weakside.
LSU could drop a safety over the tight end or the back, but not both. One of them will work against a linebacker on a route that’s difficult to cover. Even if LSU has all three WRs handled in man coverage, the Badger passing game can still create advantages against linebackers, even from pro-style formations.
However, the Tigers have a few aces up their sleeves, such as the Aranda blitz package. The players in Aranda’s backfield are going to make life very difficult for QBs looking for easy yardage.
In the 3-3-5 sub-package, Aranda is using second-team All-SEC cornerback Tre’Davious White as the nickel while rising sophomore Arden Key, a 6’6, 240-pound freak athlete who says he wants 20 sacks this year, will be the boundary outside linebacker. With those two, senior Kendell Beckwith at middle linebacker, and safety Jamal Adams roving around, Aranda can dial up endless ways to bring four pass-rushers from base, four-deep coverages.
They’ll normally bring Key (W in the diagram below) off the edge, but there’s no telling when he might drop back and stick his long arms into a passing window.
On this blitz, LSU rolls the safeties ($ and F) to the wide side of the field to allow that cornerback (C) and White (N) to sit on the short routes, potentially setting two traps for the QB. The first is if he fails to realize White can jump the stick route by the tight end (H). The second is if he does see that and tries to work back to Ogunbowale (R) without realizing Key is dropping into that passing window.
The biggest challenge for Wisconsin is that Aranda knows UW’s offense and defense well and will likely be deadly effective at confusing his former players. Rather than ensuring favorable matchups in coverage like LSU has done, Aranda will look to confuse Wisconsin quarterbacks. It’s a different approach, but one that will still make excellent use of the athleticism in the Tiger backfield.
Wisconsin has veteran trenchmen on both sides who could hold up in a brawl with an SEC powerhouse, but look for Miles’ double agent to make the difference.