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June 20, 2014
Better know your foe: LSU
We're less than three months away from the start of another season, so it's time to take a closer look at what Gary Andersen and his Wisconsin Badgers are up against in his second season on campus.
Unlike Andersen's first season, this year's season-opener won't be a laugher. The Badgers will head down to Houston for a neutral-site game against LSU on Aug. 30, and a win over the Tigers at Reliant Stadium could set the Badgers up for big things in the first year of the College Football Playoff.
With that said it's time to get to know LSU a bit more, and see just what the Badgers will be up against in their first game of the season.
Recruiting isn't everything, but if you can recruit well it certainly sets your team up for success down the road. And like a lot of other SEC teams, the Tigers have recruited well under head coach Les Miles.
Four of LSU's last five recruiting classes have finished in the top six of Rivals.com's national rankings, which means that the Tigers' current roster is flush with top-shelf talent. Their 2014 signing class was particularly strong. Led by five-star running back Leonard Fournette, the Tigers signed the No. 2 overall class.
Normally that would be good enough for the top recruiting class in a conference, but Alabama finished with the No. 1 overall class for the fourth straight season. Such is life in the SEC West.
LSU's recruiting map is probably close to what you expected. Like a lot of SEC teams they pull their talent from their backyard: the Tigers received commitments from 70.1 percent of the Louisiana prospects they have offered over the last four seasons. They have done fairly well in nearby states as well: 18.8 percent of their offered prospects from Texas and Mississippi have ended up signing with the Tigers.
But the Tigers have one curious "weak" spot on their recruiting map in that they don't have a lot to show for how often they recruit in Florida. They've offered more prospects from Florida over the last four years than from any other state, but only six prospects have ended up signing with the Tigers. Florida has to support seven in-state programs every year, but that 6.3 percent "success rate" seems a little low for a team that has invested so heavily there.
Wisconsin's season-opening game will be interesting for numerous reasons, but make sure and pay attention when LSU's offense has the ball. Both teams will be working with new units in that scenario: the Badgers return just three starters (all defensive backs) from last year's defense, whereas the Tigers return five offensive starters: four on the offensive line and a tight end.
That means that both teams will be retooling what was their strongest unit from the previous season. Wisconsin's defense ranked No. 10 in Football Outsiders' S&P+ formula, which measures an offense or defense's efficiency and explosiveness and adjusts for strength of schedule. Led by an experienced group of skill position players, LSU's offense ranked No. 13 in S&P+.
And while you should always expect some regression to the mean when a good unit loses good players, the Tigers have recruited well enough where the drop-off might not be so severe. Take quarterback, for example: the Tigers are waiting to see if either Brandon Harris or Anthony Jennings win the starting job this fall, but both players were ranked as four-star prospects out of high school. Neither player will be able to duplicate what Zach Mettenberger brought to the table as a senior last year, but their base talent level could ensure the Tigers against a steep offensive decline.
The same goes for the rest of LSU's vacant skill positions in that they have a rich talent pool to pick from. Incoming freshman running back Leonard Fournette was Rivals.com's No. 4 overall prospect last year, and could play right away. He'll have to compete with senior Terrance Magee, though, and Magee has generated early buzz for next year's NFL draft. The Tigers also have a plethora of highly touted wide receivers who could replace Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry. John Diarse and Travin Dural both earned four-star grades in high school, and Malachi Dupre signed this last winter as a five-star prospect.
Defensively it looks like the Tigers are going to rely on returning players at every level: both defensive ends are back, along with two linebackers and three of their four starters in the secondary. S&P+ ranked LSU's defense No. 35 last year, and had them a little worse against the run than against the pass. They'll need to find some stout defensive tackles to help improve their run defense, but getting four players back from last year's front seven could help in that respect as well. That should make for an interesting matchup against Wisconsin's vaunted rushing attack.
A win in this game could set the Badgers up for big things down the stretch, but the Tigers' returning experience and overall roster quality will make this arguably their most difficult contest of the season.
John Veldhuis covers Wisconsin football, basketball and recruiting for BadgerBlitz.com on the Rivals.com network. Follow him on Twitter at @JohnVeldhuis.