One of the few matchups today featuring a pair of Top-25 teams captures the primetime audience as the fourteenth-ranked Wisconsin Badgers face off against the thirteenth-ranked LSU Tigers at Houston’s Reliant Stadium. Both of these teams have had to shuffle the deck under center, but nonetheless expect to be in the mix for College Football’s first-ever National Playoff. The Badgers finished last season 9-4, but capped off their campaign with a two-game leading streak, including a 34-24 defeat in the Capital One Bowl against South Carolina. That disappointing skid is the reason for the change under center, as Gary Andersen is placing his trust in former Safety Tanner McEvoy, a much more mobile option when compared to incumbent starter Joel Stave.
By no means was Stave terrible last season; in fact, he completed 61.9% of his passes for 2,494 yards, 22 touchdowns and 13 interceptions. However, the junior struggled mightily down the stretch; Stave was dismal in the Regular Season Finale against Penn State (31-24), completing just 29-of-53 attempts for 339 yards and 3 touchdowns, but three interceptions as well. Then, on New Year’s Day, he was listless against the Gamecocks’ defense, going 9-of-13 for 80 yards, a pair of scores and a pick. Andersen must see something in the athletic McEvoy to make such a switch, but let’s be honest folks, this is Wisconsin, and whomever the trot out there at Quarterback will likely be handing the ball off quite a bit. The Badgers averaged 283.8 rushing yards on a hefty 42.8 carries per game, racking up 6.6 yards per attempt. The Cerburus-like attack of James White, Melvin Gordon, and Corey Clement trampled opposing defenses for a combined 3,600 yards last year, and even with White departed for the NFL, don’t expect this group to slow down anytime soon.
Simply put, Melvin Gordon is the reason for such optimism. the cruising junior Tailback ranked second in the Big Ten in rushing in 2013 (1,609 yards), and that was while splitting carries with White, whom actually toted the ball more times (221) than his teammate (206). Gordon topped 140 yards in six of his first seven games last year, but managed to eclipse the century mark just once over the final five outings before the Bowl Game against South Carolina. There however, he battered a stellar Gamecock defense to the tune of 143 yards on 25 attempts. With a plethora of projected carries, it’s no wonder that this kid is a serious dark horse candidate for the Heisman Trophy. Paving the way for Gordon will be yet another mammoth Offensive Line that returns three of last year’s starters.
Meanwhile, LSU looks to once again insert themselves into the the National Championship picture, hoping to improve upon a 10-3 record that saw them finish third in the hyper-competitive SEC West. Les Miles’ outfit ended their 2013 campaign with a victory over Iowa in the Outback Bowl, which served as portent of things to come for the Tigers, whom will be experiencing a good deal of change this season. First and foremost, Zach Mettenberger is gone to the NFL, leaving Miles to choose between Anthony Jennings and true freshman Brandon Harris. The former started the Outback Bowl, with his play leaving a lot to be desired; Jennings completed just 7-of-19 attempts for 82 yards and an interception, though he did manage to rush for a score. Harris enrolled back in January, and has competed with Jennings throughout the Spring and Summer. However, Miles has said on a number of occasions that neither has really separated themselves over the past nine months, perhaps forcing him to play the more experienced of the two. With that said, expect Jennings to be on a short leash.
As is the case with their opponent tonight, whomever LSU starts under center will no doubt be handing the ball off quite a bit. Yes, the Tigers lost a wealth of talent on he offensive side of the ball, particularly at the skill positions, but Miles has yet another star-studded recruiting class just waiting for their opportunity. Chief among them is the nation’s top-ranked recruit, Leonard Fournette, whom has drawn comparisons to one Adrian Peterson. Joining the prodigy in a loaded backfield will be Terrence Magee and Kenny Hilliard, whom together rushed for 936 yards and 15 touchdowns last season. Freshmen Malachi Dupre and John Diarse look to feature prominently in the passing game, compensating for the loss of Odell Beckham and Jarvis Landry whom together hauled in 134 passes for 2,310 yards and 18 scores. Thankfully, the Tigers return four starters from a solid Offensive Line, bringing some sorely-needed continuity to an offense that will no doubt experience some growing pains in 2014.