The 14th-ranked Wisconsin Badgers and the 13th-ranked LSU Tigers will be put under the spotlight in prime time on opening Saturday when the squads meet up in the second annual AdvoCare Texas Kickoff at NRG Stadium in Houston.
Wisconsin may have lost Brett Bielema to Arkansas prior to the 2013 season, but with former Utah State head coach Gary Anderson at the helm last year, the squad didn't skip a beat, finishing 9-4 overall and 6-2 in the Big Ten with its 12th straight bowl appearance.
As strong as the Badgers' season was, they were left with a bad taste in their mouth at the end. After dropping a 31-24 decision at home to Penn State in the regular season finale, they lost to South Carolina in the Capital One Bowl, 34-24, for their fourth straight bowl loss.
The Tigers were in the hunt in the SEC Western Division for most of the 2013 season, but their hopes for a trip to the conference championship game were officially dashed on Nov. 9 when they lost to rival Alabama, 38-17. Although they were a step behind the conference's best, they still finished up an outstanding 10-3 (5-3 SEC) after dismissing Iowa in the Outback Bowl, 21-14.
LSU has qualified for a bowl in 14 straight seasons, including nine in a row under Les Miles, who is an outstanding 95-24 in his career at LSU with seven double-digit win campaigns.
LSU has defeated Wisconsin in both previous meetings, which came in 1971 and 1972.
Wisconsin's offense was a well-oiled machine in 2013, racking up 34.8 ppg and 480.8 ypg, and similar success is expected this season with the return of one of the nation's best running backs.
Melvin Gordon is a threat to bust lose every time he touches the ball. He averaged an incredible 7.8 yards per carry over 206 attempts for 1,609 yards and 12 touchdowns, and with his running mate James White (1,444 yards, 13 TDs) now playing for the New England Patriots, the stars are aligning for Gordon to flirt with 2,000 yards and a Heisman Trophy.
There was an open competition in camp to determine the starting quarterback but, for the first game at least, Joel Stave (2,494 yards, 22 TDs, 13 INTs) and Tanner McAvoy will split time under center.
"We've got two quarterbacks that I think are going to help this football team throughout the year, and whoever takes the first snap doesn't necessarily say he's going to be the guy for the whole season," Anderson said. "We've got two kids who want to compete and will continue to compete. That's where we're going to stay with it."
The quarterback duo will have to throw to an inexperienced crop of receivers. Jordan Fredrick is the top returning threat, and he only had 10 catches last year.
Defensively for the Badgers, the good news is that both its scoring (16.3 ppg) and total defense (305.1 ypg) ranked in the top-10 nationally last season, but the bad news is that only three starters from that outstanding unit are back this time around.
All three returnees are in the secondary. Michael Caputo was second on the team in tackles with 63 tackles. Sojour Shelton picked off four passes and Darius Hillary (30 tackles, INT, FF) was also solid.
LSU's pro-style offense was in top form last season, as the unit ranked sixth in the SEC in both scoring (35.8 ppg) and yardage (453.3 ypg), but it'll basically have to start from scratch in 2014 after losing quarterback Zach Mettenberger (3,082 yards, 22 TDs, eight INTs), running back Jeremy Hill (1,401 yards, 16 TDs) and receivers Odell Beckham Jr. (59 receptions, 1,152 yards, eight TDs) and Jarvis Landry (77 receptions, 1,193 yards, 10 TDs) to last spring's NFL Draft.
Replacing Mettenberger's production under center will be no easy task, and just like the Badgers, the Tigers will begin the season with a two-quarterback system, with Anthony Jennings and Brandon Harris splitting reps.
"The quarterbacks are really competing," Miles said. "(Offensive Coordinator) Cam Cameron, a guy who's made a career mentoring quarterbacks, will do exactly the right things with those guys."
No one left on the roster caught more than seven passes a season ago. Travin Dural and Quantavius Leslie are listed as the starting wide receivers.
The Tigers had the good fortune of landing the consensus top offensive recruit this offseason in Leonard Fournette, who is considered one of the best running back prospects since Adrian Peterson. Terrence Magee (626 yards, eight TDs) and Kenny Hilliard (310 yards, seven TDs) will also figure prominently in the backfield.
Miles' teams are known for having top-notch defenses, and the 2013 version of the squad did not disappoint, ranking in the SEC's top five in both points allowed (22.0) and yards allowed (340.7 ypg). Just as it must on offense however, LSU will also need overcome a large turnover on the defensive side of the ball, as just five starters return.
Middle linebacker D.J. Welter is the senior leader of the group and is looking to improve upon a strong 2013 (80 tackles). Kwon Alexander (65 tackles) and Lamar Louis (25 tackles) round out the linebacking corps.
After a strong freshman season in a reserve role, Danielle Hunter (57 tackles, 8.0 TFL, 3.0 sacks) is poised for a breakout campaign with full-time snaps. Jermauria Rasco (6.5 TFL, 4.0 sacks) will line up at the other defensive end position.
Three sophomores will start in the secondary, including Tre'Davious White (55 tackles, two INTs).