By Chris Emma-
(CBS) Many college football teams shy away from a challenge in the season opener. It’s a chance to destroy a cupcake opponent and get the starters out by halftime.
Wisconsin does it differently. Its opener is one of the toughest of anyone in the country will face. The Badgers will face the powerful LSU Tigers in front of more than 70,000 fans in Houston’s Reliant Stadium on Saturday night. That’s a long way from home, where an FCS school could’ve been scheduled instead.
“We’re playing an SEC team and, quite frankly, we’re playing traditionally over the last few years, one of the best teams in the country,” Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen said . “We get to find out exactly where we sit early in the season. I think that’s a positive for us.”
It sure won’t be easy for the Badgers. The Tigers carry a No. 13 preseason ranking, are considered a contender to reach the College Football Playoff and feature one of the nation’s toughest and most highly touted running backs in freshman Leonard Fournette.
But No. 14 Wisconsin is fairly similar, both in brand and style. The Badgers have their own dynamic running back, Heisman contender Melvin Gordon, and can match the physical play of the Tigers.
We’re comparing apples to apples here. And LSU’s a national power, so nothing will be simple.
“There’s nothing really easy about preparing for them,” Andersen said. “But if we just talk scheme-wise, there are some similarities to what we like to do and what they like to do. They want to run the football. They want to take shots down the field. They want to give their playmakers an opportunity to be involved highly in the game plan.”
LSU coach Les Miles isn’t one for secrets, proving to be true again this week. He announced that LSU would play two quarterbacks, dual-threats Brandon Harris and Anthony Jennings. Wisconsin knows what to prepare for.
The Badgers are attempting to keep their cards close. Andersen hasn’t named a starting quarterback between Tanner McEvoy and Joel Stave, but all indications — including a slip of the tongue from Gordon — suggest it will be the versatile McEvoy.
“We’re preparing for the best offense they have, that would be run and pass,” Miles told reporters in Baton Rouge this week. “He’s got some abilities to move his feet. We would expect the same route tree be used, the same offense, with a little bit more mobile quarterback.”
This won’t be the only challenge for Wisconsin this season, which faces a loaded Big Ten slate. It won’t be the last time it faces a juggernaut to open the season, either, with Alabama waiting in 2015 and a rematch with LSU set for 2016 in Lambeau Field. It’s a trend the Badgers plan to continue.
Andersen wants a challenge for his squad, something to set the foundation for the season and build for the program’s future.
“It’s a great experience for the kids,” he said. “They get to go into an NFL stadium and be able to play. That’s something that’s memories that should last a lifetime for them.”
The memories will be sweeter with a win over the Tigers. At the very least, the Badgers have a measuring stick for its season. This definitely isn’t a cupcake.
Chris Emma covers the college sports scene for CBSChicago.com. Follow him on Twitter @CEmma670.