Two ranked programs coping with significant roster turnover meet on Saturday night at AT&T Stadium in Dallas, when the No. 3 Alabama Crimson Tide face the No. 20 Wisconsin Badgers in the most anticipated college football season opener of 2015.
The Tide are coming off a bitter 42-35 loss to eventual national champion Ohio State in the first College Football Playoff semifinals after posting a 12-2 overall mark and the SEC title. Head coach Nick Saban will be looking to new stars to fill in across the offense, but remains mum on who will be his starting quarterback.
The competition to replace Blake Sims has come down to senior transfer Jake Coker, sophomore Cooper Bateman, or junior Alec Morris. Freshmen Blake Barnett and David Cornwell are likely out of the running due to their age and inexperience at the college level, though offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin has developed several first-year quarterbacks while at USC. Saban said he wasn’t evenly splitting reps between Coker, Bateman, and Morris, and wouldn’t elaborate any further during Monday’s press conference.
However, Coker does seem like the frontrunner as he’s the only one with any game experience since transferring from Florida State after the 2013 season.
In need of some reinforcements on the defense, especially at safety and linebacker, Saban revealed Alabama’s first depth chart earlier this week, with defensive backs Geno Smith and Eddie Jackson listed as the first-team safeties, and redshirt freshman Marlon Humphrey the starting cornerback beside senior Cyrus Jones.
Humphrey isn’t the only underclassman expected to garner plenty of opportunities this year, with true freshman defensive lineman Daron Payne challenging senior Darren Lake for the starting nose guard job.
Meanwhile, senior linebacker Reggie Ragland, one of last year’s leaders in tackles-for-a-loss, leads an upperclassmen-laden corps of Dillon Lee, Reuben Foster, and Denzel Devall, and how they perform against the Badgers vaunted rushing attack will be a matchup to watch.
Wisconsin begins their first season under new head coach Paul Chryst, who was hired away from Pittsburgh after the sudden departure of Gary Anderson. Chryst must figure out how to keep the offense humming with star running back Corey Clement taking over for last year’s Heisman finalist Melvin Gordon. In 2014, Wisconsin scored at least 24 points in 12 games of their 14 games.
The Badgers are coming off a 11-3 record from last season, punctuated by the disappointing 59-0 loss to Ohio State for the Big Ten title. They recovered against Auburn, winning the Outback Bowl, 34-31, in overtime.
Clement, a junior, still managed to gain 949 yards and nine touchdowns off 147 carries behind Gordon last season, but Wisconsin doesn’t have much proven depth on the offensive line. Left tackle Tyler Marz is the only senior on the line, with center Dan Voltz and Walker Williams juniors, and redshirt freshman Michael Deiter and sophomore right tackle Hayden Biegel rounding out the unit.
It’s a solid group, but right now redshirt freshman Micah Kapoi stands as the backup for both Voltz and Williams, and redshirt freshman Jacob Maxwell is Marz’s relief.
That group will also protect fifth-year senior quarterback Joel Stave, who suffered plenty of ups and downs, including losing and regaining the starting job last season. He looks to build off an uneven performance in 2014, during which he completed only 53.4 percent of his passes for nine touchdowns and 10 interceptions.
The Badgers have no shortage of experience in their secondary, with senior safety Michael Caputo pegged as a team captain and playmakers like junior corner Sojourn Shelton and senior corner Darius Hilary working the sidelines. Caputo led the team with 106 total tackles last season.
Wisconsin will also ask sophomores Conor Sheehy and Chikwe Obasih to anchor the defensive line, but they’ll at least have junior outside linebacker Vince Biegel backing them up. Biegel was second on the team with 7.5 sacks last year.
Betting Odds: Alabama -10.5
Over/Under: 49 points
Early Prediction: Alabama over Wisconsin, 37-24