After weathering the brutal conditions and rigorous schedules of summer workouts and fall camp, most football players are ready to hit someone other than their teammates.
LSU coach Les Miles and his players expressed that sentiment this week as the No. 13 Tigers prepare to square off against No. 14 Wisconsin at 8 p.m. on Saturday at the AdvoCare Texas Kickoff in Houston. Though the Badgers will be wearing different colored jerseys, the Tigers might as well be lining up against a replica of themselves.
Similarities pervade this ranked showdown, starting with uncertainty at quarterback.
LSU’s quarterback controversy is well documented, and Miles has yet to reveal which of his signal-callers will start against Wisconsin. But whether it’s sophomore Anthony Jennings or freshman Brandon Harris starting under center, the Tigers hope to maintain offensive continuity.
“Those guys are very much alike,” said freshman receiver John Diarse. “[Offensive coordinator Cam Cameron] tells us all the time ‘Just do your job.’”
Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen also declined to publicly name his starting quarterback this week, and he quickly shot down rumors that junior Tanner McEvoy won the job over incumbent Joel Stave.
Stave started all 13 games last year, throwing for 2,494 yards and 22 touchdowns while maintaining a 138.1 passer rating. McEvoy played wide receiver and safety last season after transferring from Arizona Western College, where he accounted for 35 total touchdowns as the starting quarterback in 2012.
McEvoy’s switch back to quarterback in spring practice ignited this heated battle for the position, something LSU is all too familiar with. LSU junior cornerback Jalen Collins said practicing against Harris and Jennings has prepared the defense for facing multiple quarterbacks.
No matter who starts at quarterback for the Tigers and the Badgers, both teams figure to lean on their rushing attacks on Saturday night. LSU’s projected starting offensive linemen boast 61 combined starts, and they’ll be paving the way for senior running backs Terrence Magee and Kenny Hilliard and freshman Leonard Fournette.
Fournette is widely viewed as one of the most promising running backs heading into the season, but Wisconsin’s Melvin Gordon has generated similar hype.
Gordon, a junior, exploded for 1,650 yards and 12 touchdowns last season despite splitting time with senior James White. Gordon appeared on numerous preseason award watch lists and is poised for an even more productive season behind the Badgers’ veteran offensive line.
“They definitely like to run the ball,” Collins said. “What they’re good at is trying to outsmart the defense, get you outnumbered with shifts and motions and things like that. They’re definitely big and physical. That’s the stereotype for the Big Ten, and they definitely fit that stereotype.”
Both running games present stiff challenges for the opposing defenses, which field inexperienced players at key positions. Wisconsin returns only three defensive starters, all of whom are in the secondary.
Meanwhile, the Tigers’ defense features seven returning starters but is riddled with youth at both defensive tackle spots. LSU’s front seven is drastically undersized compared with the Badgers’ offensive line, which may force the secondary to provide extra run support.
“We know we’re going to need some extra guys, so it’s been something that we’ve been working on a good bit,” Collins said. “Just coming up and helping support the run because we’re probably going to have to do that.”
Each secondary may have the freedom to support the run because of inexperienced wide receiver corps. The Tigers lost a pair of 1,000-yard receivers in Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham Jr., and Wisconsin’s Jared Abbrederis graduated after accounting for more than 42 percent of his team’s receiving yards last season.
While both squads are identical at nearly every position, the prospect of a ranked matchup is enough to make LSU forget.
“It got our players’ attention a long time ago,” Miles said. “I think it happens in the summer when they run 110s and when they lift. I think there’s a comfort of saying ‘This is about the opener, this is about Wisconsin.’”
You can reach Marcus Rodrigue on Twitter @rodrigue_TDR.