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August 29, 2014

All-Out Blitz: LSU

Welcome to the first All-Out Blitz of the 2014 season, where you'll find everything you need to know about Wisconsin's next opponent.

The Badgers open their season down in Houston with a neutral-site game against the Louisiana State Tigers in the Advocare Texas Kickoff. Here's what you need to know about the Tigers before the big game.

Program info

Head coach: Les Miles (10th season @ LSU), 123-45 (52-20 SEC)
LSU All-Time Record: 753-398-47 (.648)
2014 Record: 0-0 (0-0 SEC)
Ranking: 13 (AP), 13 (Coaches Poll)
All-Time record against Wisconsin: 2-0-0

Pre-season outlook

The Tigers finished 10-3 for the second straight season in 2013, with losses to No. 9 Georgia, No. 1 Alabama, and Mississippi. They were able to hand Auburn their only conference loss, but ultimately three losses in SEC play kept them from winning their division. Ultimately the Tigers finished their season ranked No. 17 in Football Outsiders' F/+ rankings, just two spots above the Badgers.

The Tigers will have a hard time replacing the offensive firepower they lost from last year's team, though. Only five of last year's offensive starters (including four offensive linemen) are back this year, which means they're working with a set of entirely new skill position players. Defensively they have a little more to work with: seven of last year's starters are back, but they need to replace both defensive tackles to shore up the middle of their defense.

All in all the Tigers have a talented roster, even if it is an inexperienced one. Les Miles always has his teams in the hunt for an SEC title, but playing in college football's toughest division leaves them precious little margin for error.

What to expect when LSU has the ball

LSU had a quarterback battle of their own to sort out this fall, but they did a better job of keeping the results under wraps. Les Miles has been saying that both sophomore Anthony Jennings and freshman Brandon Harris will play against the Badgers, but it's impossible to say just how much either player will see the field.

Jennings has more experience in the offense, but he didn't have a lot of success in relief of Zach Mettenberger last year. Jennings completed just 11 of 26 passes against Arkansas and in their bowl game against Iowa, throwing for just 158 yards in the process. Harris, meanwhile, has only been with the Tigers for two camps after he enrolled early and participated in spring camp. They like his mobility, but he's untested as a passer.

In the end it would be surprising if the Tigers stick with two quarterbacks for the whole season. Miles and the Tigers had a two-quarterback system in 2011 with Jarrett Lee and Jordan Jefferson, but that's not how they want to run their offense. For now the best bet is that Jennings starts, with Harris rotating in throughout the game.

The Tigers also need to figure out who their eventual quarterback will be throwing passes to. They lost four or their top five receiving leaders from last season, and will need some younger players to step up and produce. As of now Quantavius Leslie and Travin Dural are listed as their starting wide receivers, but they'll probably have to count on a few underclassmen like true freshman Malachi Dupre.

The running game could be solid again even without Jeremy Hill, who left for the NFL after last season. The Tigers return an experienced offensive line and two running backs who combined to rush for 963 yards last year in Kenny Hilliard and Terrence Magee. You should also expect to see freshman Leonard Fournette make his college football debut. He was Rivals.com's No. 1 running back last year and the No. 4 player in his class, and expectations are already sky high now that it is clear he will avoid a redshirt.

When Wisconsin has the ball

To me the defensive line looks like the biggest question mark for the Tigers. They return both of last year's starting defensive ends, which is a positive. Danielle Hunter and Jermauria Rasco combined for seven sacks and 14.5 total tackles for loss last year, and will be a tough test for Wisconsin tackles Tyler Marz and Rob Havenstein.

But the Tigers need to find some answers up the middle, and quickly. Christian LaCouture and Frank Herron (or Quentin Thomas) will man the middle of LSU's defensive line on Saturday, and they'll be tasked with stopping Wisconsin's running game. That's a tough test for any defensive line, let alone three players with one game's worth of starting experience put together.

The back end of LSU's defense looks like the strongest part of that unit. Two of three starters are back at linebacker, and both of last year's starting cornerbacks are back as well. They'll need some answers at safety, though: junior Jalen Mills seems unlikely to play after he ran afoul of the law during the offseason, and there isn't a lot of starting experience back at safety anyway.

Matchup to watch: Wisconsin inside running game vs. LSU defensive tackles

LSU has the more athletically talented roster. To keep things close or even maintain a lead if they can build one, the Badgers are going to have to rely on their bread and butter plays in the running game to try and wear down LSU's interior defense. I think they have a matchup advantage there, and if they can't establish the run it's going to be hard for them to win if they have to rely on a young and relatively untested passing game.

The pick: LSU 24 Wisconsin 21

The Badgers are set to break in a new quarterback and a young wide receiver corps, so I have a hard time picking them to win this one. I think they'll be able to keep things close with the running game though, which could allow them to eke out a win if they get a few things to bounce their way. A loss here wouldn't be devastating, but a win could set the Badgers up for much bigger things down the road.

The point after:

It has been a while since the Badgers played an SEC team in the regular season. The Badgers played LSU in back to back years in 1971 and 1972; the Badgers lost both games by a combined 30 points.

John Veldhuis covers Wisconsin football, basketball and recruiting for BadgerBlitz.com on the Rivals.com network. Follow him on Twitter at @JohnVeldhuis.

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