This is the third of a series previewing LSU’s Southeastern Conference Eastern Division and non-conference opponents in 2016.
Two seasons ago, LSU rallied for a 28-24 victory against Wisconsin in Houston.
The Tigers and Badgers will get together to open the 2016 campaign at Lambeau Field in Green Bay. Wisconsin linebacker Vince Biegel acknowledged this matchup should be a delight for members of the media.
“There are a lot storylines,” Biegel said. “There are a lot of things for the media to write about. You have (defensive coordinator) Dave Aranda leaving Wisconsin and going to LSU. You have Leonard Fournette. Then, you have a big-time game at Lambeau Field.”
Second-year Wisconsin coach Paul Chryst admitted such an opener gets everyone excited. Last year, the Badgers lost to eventual Alabama 35-17 in their first game.
“I do know this is a heck of a way to start a season,” Chryst said. “The first game is always exciting. These young men put in so much time. To finally be able to play the season is a big deal. Then you get to do it in a stadium like Lambeau which is big especially for our in-state players who dreamed of playing there.
“Then, to play an opponent like LSU is the trifecta. Our kids are excited. This game comes about because of the teams and the players that have come before at Wisconsin. They’ve made Wisconsin a special place.”
The Badgers won three straight Big 10 championships before coach Bret Bielema left for Arkansas. There have been no conference titles the past three seasons, but Wisconsin has won 30 games – 20 under coach Gary Andersen and 10 under Chryst.
The Badgers are expected to challenge Iowa and Nebraska for the Western Division championship. Wisconsin returns a nucleus on both sides of the ball – six returning starters on offense and defense. More tinkering has to be done on defense with a new coordinator – Justin Wilcox.
“Our defense was fun to watch last year,” Chryst said. “We’ve had changes. We lost two coaches and some really good football players. I’ve known Justin for a number of years. I coached against him. Our kids have made an easy transition.
“We’ve got guys who played a lot of football last year and will step into a new role. I like the way they’ve transitioned with a new defensive coordinator. I’m excited about the pieces of our defense. We have guys that have played significant snaps and now they’ve got to be leaders.”
Biegel, who plays outside linebacker, and TJ Edwards, who plays inside linebacker, are the top returnees on the 3-4 defense. Biegel, who made 66 tackles, had eight sacks and quarterback-hurries last year. Edwards had a team-high 84 tackles. Edwards may miss the LSU game because of an injury.
Two of the Badgers’ three starters up front are back – ends Conor Sheehy and Chikwe Obasih. Those two players combined for 72 tackles last season. Cornerback Sojourn Shelton is the only returning starter in the secondary. Sojourn had one interception and seven pass breakups in 2015.
Biegel is looking forward to the game against LSU and Fournette, who saw limited action against Wisconsin two years ago.
“Each running back has his own flavor and skill set,” Biegel said. “I played with Melvin Gordon. I played against Zeke Elliott at Ohio State. Leonard Fournette is a big-time player like Melvin and Zeke. These three guys are similar. They are great running backs at the highest level.
“We just have to go back to our roots on defense when we go against Fournette. We have to do what has made Wisconsin football successful. We can’t buy into the hype or overanalyze things. We have to do what we know how to do. We must play old tough Wisconsin football.”
Wisconsin’s offense continues to be built around its running game. Last year, the Badgers averaged just 150 rushing yards per game as an injury limited Corey Clement to 48 carries for the year. Clement is now back along with Dare Ogunbowale and Taiwan Deal, who combined for 1,300 rushing yards in 2015.
“I appreciate what Dare was able to give us last year,” Chryst said. “Certainly Corey’s year didn’t go the way he hoped. I like the way he has responded. Taiwan was able to gain some valuable experience.
“We’ve certainly got the opportunity to be deeper and better at the running back position. For us to be good, that group has to be good. They are certainly capable of that.”
Chryst must find a replacement at quarterback for Joel Stave, who threw for nearly 2,700 yards and 11 touchdowns last season. Bart Houston, Stave’s backup, and redshirt freshman Alex Hornibrook are competing for the job. Houston threw 47 passes a season ago.
“Both guys have done a great job to this point of not worrying about the question of who is going to be the starter,” Chryst said. “They have spent their time improving the things in their control. I don’t know when we’ll name a starting quarterback.
“Our job as coaches is to make sure that both of them are ready to play and play well in the first game. Their job is to focus on being the best quarterback they can be. In the offseason, they have been good and it’s given our players confidence in them. Both need to be good for us this year.”
LSU vs. Wisconsin at Lambeau Field (Green Bay)
Saturday, Sept. 3; Kickoff: 2:30 p.m. CDT (ABC)
Head coach: Paul Chyrst, 10-3 in one year at Wisconsin
2015 record: 10-3, 6-2 in Big 10 (tied for second in Western Division)
2015 postseason: beat Southern California 23-21 in Holiday Bowl
Returning starters: 13 (6 on offense, 6 on defense, 1 specialist)
Top offensive returnees
RB Dare Ogunbowale, Sr. – 194 carries, 819 yards, 7 touchdowns
QB Bart Houston, Sr. – 47 attempts, 27 completions, 57 percent completion, 281 yards, 3 touchdowns, 2 interceptions
WR Robert Wheelwright, Sr. – 32 catches, 416 yards, 4 touchdowns
Top defensive returnees
LB TJ Edwards, So. – 84 tackles, 6½ tackles-for-loss
LB Vince Biegel, Sr. – 8 sacks, 9 quarterback-hurries
S Leo Musso, Sr. – 2 interceptions
CB Sojourn Shelton, Sr. – 7 pass breakups
Top special teams returnees
KR Natrell Jamerson, Jr. – 20 returns, 448 yards, 1 touchdown
K Rafael Gaglianone, Jr. – 18-of-27 FGs, 40-of-40 XPs
All-Big 10 candidates: OL Dan Voltz, RB Corey Clement, DL Olive Sagapolu, LB Vince Biegel, LB Jack Cichy, DB Sojourn Shelton, K Rafael Gaglianone.
Next: Jacksonville State