Badgers open season with a bang

If you’re a University of Wisconsin football fan, you’d rather not have the Badgers open against the nation’s fifth-ranked team as a 10-point underdog, with a defense that has to deal with a running back who is part bulldozer and part Usain Bolt, in a “home” game with 25,000 visitors in the stands.

Then again, what an opportunity to make a statement.

If the Badgers go on to earn a bowl invitation this year – a big if, given their murderer’s row schedule – that game won’t be any bigger than this one:
Wisconsin vs. Louisiana State, 2:30 p.m. (CT) Saturday at Lambeau Field, with ESPN’s College GameDay in town and a national television audience tuned in.

It’s the biggest thing to hit Green Bay since Gilbert Brown. In a college football opening weekend with all sorts of marquee matchups, Wisconsin-LSU is the Ali-Frazier. Not so much because it’s a great rivalry – the teams have played each other just three times since 1971, with LSU winning all three – but because of where it’s being played.

No football stadium in America out-mystiques Lambeau Field. LSU fans have done Tuscaloosa and “The Swamp,” but they’ve rarely ventured north of the Mason-Dixon Line and have never experienced our version of pigskin nirvana, not to mention our cheese curds and bratwurst.

Technically, it’s a neutral-site game and many Badgers fans will be visiting Lambeau for the first time, too. But LSU will be seeing red, and plenty of it.

On paper, it doesn’t look good for Bucky. NFLDraftScout.com ranks Louisiana State as the #2 program in terms of draft potential on the current roster. This is a team awash in talent and speed, and one with national championship aspirations.

The Tigers are led by junior running back Leonard Fournette, who is coming off the most productive rushing season in SEC history. The 6-foot-1, 230-pound Fournette has the speed to make defenders miss and the power to make them pay. He kicks off his Heisman Trophy campaign in a stadium once graced by another hard-to-tackle LSU back: Jim Taylor.

The Badgers, meanwhile, didn’t name a starting quarterback until August 25, and it would be helpful if Bart’s last name were Starr and not Houston. At least he was named after the Packers’ Hall of Famer, which might be a good omen.

Wisconsin led the nation in scoring defense last year (13.7 points per game) and was second in yards allowed (268.5). But that was under coordinator Dave Aranda, now at – where else? – Louisiana State.

And then there’s this: The Badgers will dress 13 seniors, and of the Power 5 schools only Kentucky (11), Penn State (12) and Baylor (12) have fewer.

The LSU game represents a come-to-Curly moment for second-year coach Paul Chryst and his program. A lot of people think the Badgers were propped up last year by a defense led by its now-departed coordinator and don’t belong on the same field with the Tigers, even if that field is Lambeau.

It’s an opportunity for Chryst and his players to prove them wrong. The Badgers don’t have to upset the Tigers to make a statement, but they do have to be competitive. If they cover the spread, all the better.

After LSU, the Badgers host Akron and Georgia State at Camp Randall, so put them down for 2-1 worst case. Then they get, in order, Michigan State, Michigan and Ohio State, all ranked among the preseason top 12. It’s the first time since 2010 that all three are on Wisconsin’s schedule. UW also travels to #17 Iowa.

For all the Badgers fans who have long complained about Wisconsin’s strength of schedule: Hope you’re happy.

“It is a heck of a schedule and we’ve been talking about it, that is why this group of players chose Wisconsin, to play in big games,” Chryst said this week. “I think our kids are excited about the schedule. Absolutely, it’s a challenging schedule, but that also can be great opportunities.”

First up is the Lambeau Field College Classic. If the Badgers can’t beat the Tigers, perhaps their fans can pull off an upset. According to one dubious ranking of the top 25 colleges for tailgating, LSU is No. 6 and Wisconsin is No. 10.

As they would say down on the bayou, them’s fightin’ words.

I’m predicting the Badgers pull off the upset of LSU with a 27-24 victory.

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