Big Game Hunting: Badgers get their shot at Alabama

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New Wisconsin coach Paul Chryst has the mother of all debuts against Alabama on Saturday in Arlington, Texas. (AP/Gernaro C. Armas)

Three Septembers ago, Michigan was eighth-ranked and coming off an 11-win season when it took the field in Arlington, Texas, for its opening game. What ensued — a seemingly interminable 41-14 beating put on the Wolverines by mighty Alabama — was hard to watch. Michigan never really recovered and finished the 2012 campaign a disappointing 8-5.

Which brings us back to Arlington for No. 3 Alabama vs. No. 20 Wisconsin (7 p.m., Ch. 7), one of the marquee matchups on the first Saturday of the college football season. Do the Badgers, who also won 11 games last year, have a legitimate shot to beat the Crimson Tide? Perhaps more important, is this Badgers team — the first under new coach Paul Chryst — built to withstand an early, high-profile defeat and still live up to expectations in the Big Ten?

“I like where the guys are at right now,” said Chryst, whose players surely have glorious upset on the brain. “But I think we all have a healthy respect for Alabama.”

How could anyone not? The Tide roll into yet another season as SEC favorites, yet they don’t have things settled under center — the reason some believe Wisconsin can hang with them. Jake Coker, Cooper Bakeman and Alec Morris all could play Saturday, and the Badgers’ veteran core of linebackers and defensive backs will try to pounce on their mistakes.

That 2012 Alabama team, which went on to destroy Notre Dame for the national championship, was one of the most impressive of the bygone BCS era. It’s hard to believe Nick Saban’s 2015 squad is quite at that level. But this is still Alabama, whose typically hellacious defense could feast on the Badgers’ inexperienced offensive line.

It’s tempting to pick this one as a close game, but an upset? Not tempting at all. Badgers fall rather hard, 27-13, but live to tell about it.

No. 6 Auburn vs. Louisville (2:30 p.m., Ch. 2) in Atlanta is being hailed as the much-anticipated unveiling of Tigers quarterback Jeremy Johnson, though we’ve seen the 6-5, 240-pound junior before. Johnson started last season’s opener against Arkansas and was brilliant — for two quarters, after which Nick Marshall was finished serving a half-game suspension.

Johnson was the backup for two years to the dual-threat star Marshall, but many wondered if he was the most talented quarterback on the Auburn campus. Take a good look at a player listed on most preseason Heisman Trophy lists and don’t be surprised if the words “Cam” and “Newton” sneak into your thoughts. Auburn all day, 38-21.

There’s nothing “neutral” about No. 15 Arizona State vs. Texas A&M (6 p.m., ESPN) at Houston’s NRG Stadium, which sits a mere 100 miles from College Station’s Kyle Field. The Sun Devils have far more momentum carrying over from a terrific 2014, but the Aggies will have the crowd — a huge deal, especially early in the season.

TAMU also has a boatload of returning starters as well as new defensive coordinator John Chavis, who had a great run in that role at LSU. Aggies in a thriller — let’s say 34-31 — on what’s shaping up to be a heck of a day for the SEC.

Upset alert: BYU at Nebraska (2:30 p.m., Ch. 7) could be a wrong-way kind of day for the favored Huskers. New coach Mike Riley has installed the offense his teams ran with success at Oregon State, but it’s an offense that takes a lot of getting used to. How will quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. fit into a true NFL-style West Coast attack?

The Cougars are a lot further along in terms of identity: Led by quarterback Taysom Hill, they run the ball stubbornly and physically — and play defense with a similar mindset.

“This [matchup] is what we want,” Hill said. “It gives us a chance to showcase what we’re capable of against Power Five talent, or whatever you want to call it.”

Am I the only one who detects the wafting stench of Week 1 failure for Riley and his crew? BYU gets it done, 27-20.

Another Big Ten West team could be in for an uncomfortably tight squeeze on its home field. Might Illinois State at Iowa (11 a.m., BTN) result in yet another demoralizing non-conference defeat for Kirk Ferentz and the Hawkeyes?

If the Redbirds play like they did during their run to last season’s FCS title game — it’ll be nice to see you again, Tre Roberson and Marshaun Coprich — then this one should be competitive throughout. Alas, the Hawkeyes get it together in the nick of time and escape with a 31-28 victory.

Follow me on Twitter @SLGreenberg.


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