Adding to the intrigue of this year’s Jan. 1 ReliaQuest Bowl matchup between LSU and Wisconsin is the reacquaintance of a relationship between two opposing coaches who were close allies for five years.
When Wisconsin head coach Luke Fickell sees LSU’s dynamic offense which leads the nation in points scored and total offense, he realizes the challenge will be steep in trying to slow down the Tigers. He understands the depth of the task in trying to devise a defensive scheme to stop offensive coordinator Mike Denbrock, his former offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach at the University of Cincinnati for five years (2017-’21).
“I don’t know if you can stop it,” Fickell said of LSU’s offense during Thursday’s press conference in Tampa, Florida to sign the contract for the bowl which kicks off at 11 a.m. “We’ve got to find a way to contain them. Their offensive coordinator and I go back. We’ve got a little bit of history for five years coaching together.
“They’ve got a uniqueness,” Fickell said. “They’ve got really, really good players. They do a great job of getting their players the ball, playing in space. It’s going to be a unique challenge for us. We’ve got a lot of work to do. I don’t think it’s something we’ve seen this the entire season.”
LSU has the only offense in the country that ranks in the Top 10 nationally in both rushing and passing.
Just what that unit will look like is uncertain.
Quarterback Jayden Daniels, a candidate for Saturday’s Heisman Trophy, has not announced whether he’ll play in the bowl or begin preparations for the 2024 NFL Draft. The Tigers also have not had any indication whether NFL-eligible wide receivers Malik Nabers or Brian Thomas Jr. will play in the game.
“We had a (weight) workout (Wednesday), and we had our entire team there,” LSU coach Brian Kelly said. “There’s going to be some guys certainly not to play or transfer. That happens in every program. This is going to be a team that’s well representative with its stars. They want to play in this game, and they want to be part of it. Some will have other decisions to make but this will be a football team focused to play this game and is excited to play.”
Wisconsin (7-5) became bowl eligible with wins over Nebraska and Minnesota to close out the regular season. The Badgers’ leading rusher, Braelon Allen, has opted out of playing in the bowl for the NFL Draft.
Senior quarterback Tanner Mordecai, a two-time transfer from SMU and Oklahoma, completed 177 of 274 yards with 1,688 yards with four interceptions and six touchdowns. Two of his top targets, Skyler Bell and Chimere Deke, have entered the NCAA transfer portal.
No. 13 LSU (9-3) closed with six wins in its last seven games, capped by a 42-30 win over Texas A&M. The Tigers are in search of their second straight 10-win season under Kelly with a bowl win over Wisconsin.
“This was a preferred destination for our football team,” Kelly said. “When we won our last game, we felt like this was going to be the place we wanted. We were pulling for it. I know our athletic director Scott Woodward wanted to be here, so we’re excited about getting the opportunity to play here and play a Big 10 opponent in Wisconsin. I think it’s a great matchup and it’s on New Year’s so all players, when they think about playing, they think about New Year’s Day. So, it’s pretty exciting.
“When you go into the season you’re thinking about the playoffs and New Year’s Day,” Kelly added. “Those are things that kind of come to mind and now that the playoffs are on New Year’s Day, we kind of open up the day. This will be the first game out of the chute, and I think we set the standard for what football will be that day and I know our guys are excited when it pops up as a New Year’s Day game. I think they feel like a part of the pageantry in postseason.”
PORTAL UPDATES: LSU lost a pair of players for seven total with senior center/guard Marlon Martinez announcing that he’s entering the transfer portal. He saw action in six games and played a total of 75 snaps in 2023 and finished with career with four starts in 45 games … Redshirt freshman defensive end Quency Wiggins is also leaving the program. The 6-foot-6, 265-pound Wiggins, a former four-star player and nation’s No. 9 defensive lineman at Baton Rouge’s Madison Prep, played in nine games and recorded seven tackles during his career. He played in four games in 2023, seeing time against Grambling State, Auburn, Army and Georgia State, with two tackles. Playing behind veterans BJ Ojulari and Ali Gaye in ’22. Wiggins saw action in five games with a career-high five tackles coming against Purdue in the Citrus Bowl.