Our weekly college football pick series for 2014 kicks off with a high-scoring, neutral field upset ripe with intrigue and, ultimately, value. Wisconsin and LSU will travel to Houston, Texas for an evening clash that should close out Week 1 emphatically. Though this may not be a precursor to an eventual rematch up the road in Arlington for the College Football Playoff Championship in January, LSU vs. Wisconsin should be a thrilling game that comes down to the wire between two clear top 10 teams in the country.
Wisconsin enters the season ranked seventh overall in our College Football Power Rankings. The Badgers rank 18th in offense and ninth in defense. Thanks to one of the top three offensive lines in the nation and experienced running back Melvin Gordon (not to mention star sophomore RB Corey Clement, 8.2 yards-per-carry last season, or new, dual-threat QB Tanner McEvoy), Wisconsin grades as the most efficient running team in the country. By the numbers, Wisconsin out-scored its opponents by an average score of 34.8 to 16.3 while facing the 49th ranked schedule nationally and ending the year 8-3 against-the-spread.
The Badgers do have some concerns and question marks. Though there is far more experience on defense than the returning starters - just three and all are in the secondary - would indicate, rebuilding a defensive front seven from last year is a potential issue. Second-year head coach Gary Andersen has been superb throughout his career at developing players, especially on defense at linebacker, so much of the concern there should be resolved with the expected improvement of every player under Andersen after the coach's rookie campaign in 2013. McEvoy, who, at 6'6", 220lbs, started at safety for the Badgers late last season, is also a wild card now at quarterback, but for anyone to beat out incumbent Joel Stave we must anticipate that he must be as good (overall) as Stave, which is promising for the Badgers. McEvoy, a junior college transfer (after 2012 season), adds play making ability with his legs as well.
LSU ranks ninth overall in our preseason power rankings. The Tigers are not higher than tenth in any of our efficiency categories, yet rank within the top 40 in everything we evaluate. LSU averaged 35.8 points a game and allowed 22.0 points a game in 2013 against the country's 25th ranked schedule. That ultimately led to just a 5-6 against-the-spread record on the season, including close straight-up losses at Georgia and Ole Miss. Wisconsin is a similar caliber opponent to those teams.
Whereas Wisconsin has to overhaul its defensive front seven, LSU is turning over its skill position players. Head coach Les Miles has already said that at least two quarterbacks will get time within the game, neither of which (like McEvoy) has started at this level before. The starting running backs and wide receivers will all be either freshmen or sophomores. With lack of experience at the skill positions for LSU and a reboot of the defensive front seven for Wisconsin (a net wash), plus elite secondaries and two great offensive lines, this game is incredibly close in the numbers. The lone difference (assuming true neutral field) is Wisconsin's proven star play maker in Melvin Gordon. Incoming freshman for LSU Leonard Fournette will get buzz going into the game, but look for Gordon to shine the brightest and end the contest on top.
Both offenses finished in the top 30 in scoring last season and games involving either Wisconsin or LSU averaged 55 total points in 2013. Neither of these teams is going to run no-huddle spread while airing it out all game, but both offenses are prolific enough, especially with their matchups in the trenches and at running back, for this to be a shootout.
According to 50,000 games played by the Predictalator, Wisconsin wins on average 51.4 percent of the time and by an average score of 30-28. As five point underdogs winning outright in the predicted upset (our closest projected game of the day on Saturday), Wisconsin covers the spread 58.1 percent of the time, which would warrant a $60 wager from a normal $50 player. The OVER (50) is actually the strongest play in this game and one of the stronger plays of the entire week. It covers 61.3 percent of the time, enough to justify an $94 play from a normal $50 player. A total of seven picks cover greater than 60 percent in the simulations this week.