HOUSTON – There are mysteries galore surrounding the University of Wisconsin football team as it prepares to makes its 126th debut.
Is Wisconsin, brimming with youth and rebuilding for speed, really one of the top 15 clubs in the nation as two major preseason polls suggest?
With nine of 22 starters back on offense and defense are the 14th-ranked Badgers up to the task of facing perennial national power LSU right out of the gate?
After a season of gentle transition to a new coaching style how much different will Wisconsin look in the second year of the Gary Andersen Era?
Will the quarterback carousel spin all season or will one guy – the versatile Tanner McEvoy or strong-armed Joel Stave or someone else – emerge?
That’s just the start to a long list of mystifying thoughts as Wisconsin prepares to meet the 13th-ranked Tigers at sold-out NRG Stadium tonight.
Andersen said he hasn’t read a newspaper article in 20 years – good, bad or indifferent – but he knows LSU is formidable even though its quarterback, wide receivers and running backs are new and largely unproven.
“It’s a tremendous football team,’’ he said.
The Tigers claimed national championships in 2003 and ’07 and have won 45 consecutive non-conference games – a record for Football Bowl Subdivision schools – since 2002.
NRG Stadium, home to the Houston Texans of the NFL, has a capacity of 71,500. LSU reportedly sold 35,000 tickets for this duel, which translates to a home-field advantage for the Tigers at this first of two neutral site meetings between the schools. They meet again at Lambeau Field in Green Bay to open the 2016 season.
During his four seasons as coach at Utah State, Andersen took underdog clubs to Oklahoma in 2010, Auburn in ‘11 and UW in ’12, dropping three close games by a combined 12 points. He said his approach to this game won’t be any different.
“Your team has to be able to take the field, be calm, be collected, be excited, which you know they’re going to be the first game,’’ he said. “You’ve got to handle your emotions.
“Whenever we go on the road in a hostile environment, the key is to do what we do. Don’t let other people affect you. Don’t listen to everything going on outside.’’
That’s easier said than done.
Prior to the start of preseason camp, Andersen was asked about the notion that his players might enter this nationally televised encounter feeling slighted.
“I hope that wouldn’t affect how they’re working or training,’’ he said. “Not saying they wouldn’t care about it. It might make them a little bit edgy, but we’re not going to jump up and say, hey, we’re being disrespected or whatever. We’re not going to do that.’’
Yet that attitude has been referenced throughout camp. No specific examples have been cited by Wisconsin players; just the sense that college football observers have overlooked them even though the Associated Press and ESPN coaches’ poll suggest otherwise.
Some of it can be traced to the fact that the Badgers have but three starters back on defense – all in the secondary – and the depth in some spots is iffy. In addition, the retooled front seven has traded in bulk for speed, which could translate to a mismatch with the veteran, sizeable LSU offensive line.
“There are a lot of guys who have played a lot of games – maybe not as starters – and we have a big chip on our shoulders,’’ Wisconsin senior inside linebacker Derek Landisch said of the defense. “We’re going to prove a lot of people wrong this year.’’
Some of the edginess can be traced to the marquee, which pits two Power Five conferences – the Big Ten and the Southeastern – against one another. SEC teams have won seven of the last eight national titles and fans of the league aren’t the least bit shy about touting that superiority. That tone is especially grating to those in the Big Ten, which hasn’t won a national championship since 2002 and hasn’t had a finalist since 2007.
“They look at the SEC as the top conference and they try to say the Big Ten’s the third (best) conference,’’ Wisconsin senior wide receiver Kenzel Doe said, noting the perceived strength of the Pac-12 Conference as the No. 2 entity. “People aren’t going to give us that much respect.’’
Some of the crotchety feedback from Badgers players can be linked to the perception that SEC teams have bigger and better all-around athletes.
“You just constantly hear about the size and speed (of the SEC) and it gets to you a little bit,’’ Wisconsin senior tight end Sam Arneson said. “We believe in ourselves. We believe in what we have and we plan to show it.’’
Of course, it’s possible the flow of angst might be coming from within. UW senior offensive tackle Rob Havenstein said having so many new faces in the lineup is the reason his teammates might be feeling crusty.
“A lot of guys kind of want to prove themselves to us older guys,’’ he said.
The Badgers come in having won 16 straight season openers, the third-longest streak of its kind among FBS schools. Extending that streak will be a major challenge, one that starts with an attitude.
“To get respect you’re got to earn it,’’ Doe said. “We’ve just got to go show them and get their respect on the field.”