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Saturday's SEC Action

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WISCONSIN BADGERS vs. LSU TIGERS
Sportsbook.ag Line and Total: LSU -5.5 & 50

The marquee non-conference Week 1 college football game takes place at NRG Stadium in Houston on Saturday night as No. 13 Wisconsin takes on No. 14 LSU.

The staple of the Badgers the past few seasons has been their rushing game, and in Gary Andersen's first year as head coach in 2013, that trend continued. The Badgers ranked eighth in the country in rushing (283.8 YPG), and once again have the makings of one of the best ground games in the nation. Melvin Gordon (1,609 rush yards, 7.8 YPC, 12 TD) is one of the elite running backs in the country, and last year, he was splitting carries with James White, who rushed for 1,444 yards himself.

With White gone, a 2,000-yard season is a definite possibility. However, if the Badgers (9-3 ATS, 8-5 UNDER) are going to contend for a Big Ten title, they will have to get much stronger play in the passing game. Junior Tanner McEvoy, who played receiver and safety for the Badgers last season, will get the nod here. Joel Stave (2,294 pass yds, 22 TD, 13 INT) was the starter last season, but was inconsistent at times and allowed the defenses to focus on the running game. At 6-foot-6, 222 pounds, McEvoy is a prototypical quarterback who has a strong arm. The ability to throw it deep will play a huge role this season, as the play-action fake could open things up even more for a rushing game that has four starters back on the offensive line.

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Unlike the Badgers, the Tigers are bringing in a lot of young players on the offense, but there is a ton of talent. All of the talk in Baton Rouge this offseason has been about incoming freshman RB Leonard Fournette, who is already being heralded as the best player ever from the state of Louisiana, even before he plays a game at LSU. At 6-foot-1, 224 pounds, Fournette is a rare combination of size and speed for the running back position. The ground game of the Tigers (5-7 ATS, 8-4 OVER) will be key as the team has very little experience at the quarterback position. Sophomore QB Anthony Jennings and freshman QB Brandon Harris are both players with a lot of talent, but have very little experience. Both teams are going to rely on the rushing game, while also playing terrific defense. The Badgers benefit from underdogs of 3.5 to 10 points in the first two weeks of the year coming off a bowl season and two straight defeats going 34-10 ATS (77%) since 1992, but the Tigers are 6-0 ATS on a neutral field where the total is between 49.5 and 56 in this same timeframe. Neither team has any significant injuries, but LSU will be without suspended S Jalen Mills.

Wisconsin is going to heavily rely on Gordon in the ground game, because of a new quarterback and a team that is missing its top four receivers from last season. Sophomore WR Alex Erickson (nine catches, 127 yards) has some potential to be a very good player, but it is still yet to be known if he is ready to be a No. 1 receiver on a conference championship contender. The passing game ranked 96th in the country last season (197.1 yards), and that was with much more experienced receivers. McEvoy is an intriguing prospect because of his size and the ability to throw the deep ball, but he will be tested on Saturday night as the Tigers could put eight, or even nine men in the box. The defense of the Badgers was very good last year, (6th in FBS in points allowed, 16.3 PPG) and will be counted upon to carry the team, especially early. Marcus Trotter (23 tackles) did not see the field a lot last season, but he will be taking over the middle linebacker spot for Chris Borland, who is currently with the San Francisco 49ers. The secondary should be a strength of the team, with three starters coming back. Safety Michael Caputo (63 tackles) is the leading returner on the defense, and brings that nasty mentality you want to see from the safety position. In this game, he may be playing in the box a lot more than usual, as the LSU Tigers do not figure to be throwing the ball down field a ton.

Last season, the Tigers were blessed to have Zac Mettenberger at the quarterback position, as he had one of the biggest arms in all of college football. The Tigers averaged 35.8 PPG on offense last year (26th in FBS), while finishing 29th in rushing (202.3 YPG). While Fournette has gotten all the talk, senior RB Terrence Magee (759 rush yards, 9 TD) will also get a lot of carries as well. In Les Miles’ tenure at LSU, his best teams have been able to use two or three different running backs to get the job done. This will be especially important this season, as the Tigers are in the same boat as the Badgers, losing some serious receiving talent. Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry were one of the best receiving duos in all of the country last season.

Travin Dural (seven catches, 145 yards, 2 TD) is the top guy returning. The sophomore is 6-foot-2, and has many of the same talents that Landry and Beckham have. There are a lot of question marks on the offensive side of the ball, but if the Tigers are going to make some noise this year, it will be because of their defense. The unit ranked 21st in the country last season, allowing 22.0 PPG. The back seven has the chance to be as good as any in the country, but the defensive line is where the question marks remain. Jermauria Rasco (56 tackles and four sacks) is a talented player returning from a defense that ranked third in the SEC against the run, but this unit will need to be strong. Tre’Davious White (55 tackles, 2 INT) and Rashard Robinson (16 tackles, 1 INT) have a chance to be the best secondary duo in the country. LSU has been known as the DBU in recent years with Patrick Peterson and Morris Claiborne making it to the next level, but this duo has a chance to be just as special.

CLEMSON TIGERS at GEORGIA BULLDOGS
Sportsbook.ag Line and Total Georgia -7.5 & 54.5

For the second consecutive year, No. 16 Clemson and No. 12 Georgia will meet for their season opener when they do battle at Sanford Stadium on Saturday afternoon.

Clemson was tremendous last year with an 11-2 record, but could not beat out Florida State for the first spot in the division. The ACC was a fairly weak conference besides FSU and Duke, so their performance does not stand out quite as much, and the team lost the bulk of their key offensive players with QB Tajh Boyd and WRs Sammy Watkins and Martavis Bryant all heading to the NFL. The program has been very successful lately with double-digit wins in each of the past three seasons, but with the losses of all this offensive talent, Clemson is supposed to take a step back this season. On the flip side, Georgia played well below expectations last year as they came into the season ranked fifth in the nation and finished the year 8-5 overall (5-3 in the SEC). A loss to Clemson to start of the season really got things off on the wrong foot, as the team was defeated 38-35 as a 1.5-point favorite on the road.

Georgia is yet another team that lost a longtime starter from their program with four-year starter QB Aaron Murray graduating and being drafted in the fifth round of the NFL draft. Picking up his slack will be a tough task as he put together four consecutive seasons with 3,000+ yards and at least 24 touchdowns. As mentioned previously, the Tigers won the last meeting between these two teams and that was their only victory when facing the Bulldogs since 1992 as they were 0-4 SU (1-3 ATS) previously. As far as trends are concerned, Clemson is 27-13 ATS (68%) as an underdog of 3.5 to 10 points since 1992 while the Bulldogs are an impressive 22-9 ATS (71%) against ACC opponents in that same timeframe.

With the losses of their signal caller and top two receivers, it is tough to imagine that the Tigers will be able to replicate what was a great offensive season last year in which they ranked eighth in scoring (40.2 PPG) and 10th in total offense (507.7 YPG). With Boyd out of the picture, it will be up to QB Cole Stoudt to pick up the slack. In three seasons as a backup, he is 86-for-119 (72%) for 742 yards (6.2 YPA) with 8 TD and only 1 INT. He threw double-digit attempts just twice last year, but should be able to catch on quick with the offense after being with the team for three full seasons now. Aiding him in the backfield will be HB D.J. Howard who is a senior that had 57 attempts in 2013, where he gained a meager 213 yards (3.7 YPC) with two touchdowns. He was an asset in the passing game as well with eight catches for 123 yards (15.4 YPC) and a touchdown. WR Adam Humphries is the best ball catcher coming back this year and he totaled 483 yards on 41 catches (11.8 avg.) while scoring two touchdowns; both of which came in the same contest at Syracuse. DE Vic Beasley (13 sacks, 40 tackles) is expected to be a very high pick in next year’s NFL Draft and he hopes to help the team improve on a defense that was solid last year, allowing opponents to score 22.2 PPG (24th in FBS) while keeping the other team’s quarterbacks yardage down to 201.0 YPG (16th in nation).

Georgia’s subpar 2013 season was not due to a lack of offense as the club scored 36.7 PPG (21st in the nation) and passed for a very solid 314.2 YPG (15th in FBS). Much of this production came at the hands of standout QB Aaron Murray who is no longer part of the team after four tremendous seasons. The torch will be passed to QB Hutson Mason who did well last year as Murray’s backup, throwing for 968 yards (8.8 YPA) with 5 TD and 3 INT. His transition into the role as starter should be much smoother knowing that HB Todd Gurley is still in the mix. The dynamic player ran for 989 yards (6.0 YPC) with 10 TD last year while adding 441 receiving yards (11.9 avg.) and 6 TD through the air. His best game coincidentally enough came in the season opener against Clemson when he popped off for 154 yards on just 12 carries (12.8 YPC) and added two touchdowns in the loss, including a 75-yard TD scamper. The receiving part of his game occurred late in the season, as 26 of his 37 receptions came in the final four games; meaning Gurley should have a more prominent role in the passing game in 2014.

The teams’ top two receivers, Chris Conley (651 rec. yds, 4 TD) and Michael Bennett (538 rec. yds, 4 TD), are both back with the team and should provide more solid experience for Mason in the passing game. Where the program faltered most in 2013 was on the defensive side of the ball. The Bulldogs allowed opponents to score 29.0 PPG against them (79th in nation), but there are many positives going into this year as the core of ILB Ramik Wilson (133 tackles, 4 sacks) and OLB Jordan Jenkins (5 sacks, 45 tackles) make their cases to be early picks in next year’s draft.

  
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