LSU football coach Brian Kelly could be apprehensive.
When his No. 7 Tigers (9-3) face Wisconsin (7-5) in Monday’s ReliaQuest Bowl at 11 a.m. at Raymond James Stadium, Kelly won’t have his Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Jayden Daniels or offensive coordinator Mike Denbrock.
LSU, which is riding a three-game winning streak, does have 21 of 22 regular starters for the game with the keys to the nation’s top-rated offense being turned over to redshirt sophomore Garrett Nussmeier and the tandem of Joe Sloan and Cortez Hankton as co-offensive coordinators.
The game will be televised by ESPN2 carried statewide by 98.1-FM.
“Well, I’d love to play with Jayden Daniels on my team. Who wouldn’t? He’s fun to watch,” Kelly said. “Obviously we feel really good about Garrett as our No. 2. The offense, he knows it well. He’ll be able to do the things that we need to do offensively, run it, throw it, do the things that are necessary to be a championship football team.
“I think what’s really most important internally, is the organization of the offense because a lot of that is already in place and has been in place for the last four or five months,” Kelly added. “I think the way it’s really filtered out is they’ve handed off different assignments within the staff itself. Joe has focused a lot on the run game protections, things that would center around the quarterback. Cortez much more on the passing game. They’ll keep their assignments. Joe is in the (press) box and Cortez is on the sideline. Those plays will generally probably come from the box to the sideline. There will be collaboration on a game plan. They’ll both be part of it.”
LSU’s a 9 ½ point favorite in the game in part because of the Tigers’ ability to arrive in Tampa with basically the same intact that it finished the regular season with.
Daniels was the lone player to opt out of playing in the game and of the 11 players that entered the transfer portal, none were starters and two others (Fitzgerald West and Tygee Hill) are still with the team and available to play in the game.
“The culture we’ve built here is very special and guys just love playing for each other,” LSU junior linebacker Greg Penn III, the team’s leading tackler with 82. “Guys that are far sure leaving, they just want to go out and play one last time.”
The players he referenced are two of the focal points of LSU’s No. 1 offense in junior wide receiver Malik Nabers and Brian Thomas Jr.
Instead of both opting out to begin preparations for the 2024 NFL Draft where they’re both projected to be first-round picks, Nabers and Thomas have remained with their teammates in their pursuit of a second straight 10-win season under Kelly.
Nabers is the school’s all-time leader with 186 receptions and needs 22 yards to also be in possession of the school’s receiving yardage mark. A finalist for the Biletnikoff Award and first team All-American, Nabers caught 86 passes for 1,546 yards and 14 touchdowns.
Thomas, a semifinalist for the Biletnikoff Award, has 60 receptions for 1,079 yards and a nation’s best 15 touchdowns.
“It’s 90% what they’re built like and 10% they love to play football,” Kelly said of players such as Nabers, Thomas and defensive tackle Mekhi Wingo. “They love their teammates. They love playing football. Look, everybody that plays this game, I think the core of it is you got to love to play. You can’t be playing for other reasons. If you love to play this game, and you love it for the old-fashioned reasons of, ‘I love my teammates, I love playing for LSU’, then you’re going to have guys playing these games.”
Wisconsin, which is riding the nation’s third-longest streak of playing in its 22nd straight bowl games, found its backs to the wall in November in order to keep that stretch alive. The Badgers were 5-5 going into their final two games but responded with a 24-17 overtime win over Nebraska and 28-14 triumph at Minnesota.
First-year head coach Luke Fickell has lost several key members of his arsenal with 16 players, including six starters, either opting out of the game or entering the transfer portal.
The most glaring omission on Wisconsin’s depth chart is the departure of running back Braelon Allen to the NFL Draft. He ranks ninth on the school’s career rushing list with 3,494 yards.
The Badgers are also without their top two receivers, center, defensive end, linebacker and nickel back.
“We’ve had our ups and downs,” Fickell said. “Ultimately, we were in a position to have an opportunity to play a great LSU team.”
Wisconsin’s struggled at time this season offensively, failing to score 20 points in four games. The Badgers rank No. 100 in scoring (22.8) nationally, No. 57 in rushing (163.8) and No. 75 (370.8) in total offense.
SMU transfer Tanner Mordecai is the team’s quarterback, having returned from a broken hand in the last three games, to throw for 1,688 yards (177 of 274) for 6 TDs and rushed 77 times for 305 yards and 4 scores.
“They do a little bit of everything, a little more than I thought,” Penn said. “They have a pretty good offensive line. The starting back’s not playing but the backups are pretty good, too. Downhill runners that are probably bigger than we’ve played all year. In the SEC we see faster, more scatback, powerful. These guys are powerful backs, guys that want to get downhill right away. They pose a pretty good challenge for us. I think if we go out and execute, we’ll come out with a victory.”
Wisconsin counters with a defense that ranked No. 26 against the pass (193.4), No. 31 in total defense (331.7) and No. 44 against the rush (138.2). The Badgers are led by All-Big 10 first team safety Hunter Wohler with 113 tackles – the most in 32 seasons.
Nussmeier makes his first career for an offense that’s first nationally in total offense (547.8) and scoring (46.4). The Tiger also compiled 500 total yards in nine games but will someone other than Daniels running the show for the first time in two years.
Nussmeier has passed for 196 yards and a TD in games. Junior Logan Diggs was the team’s second-leading rusher (118-652, 7 TDs) who will have the comfort of running behind a Joe Moore finalist offensive line that remains intact.
“I never questioned it. I knew this was the place I wanted to be,” Nussmeier said. “I knew I wanted to be in this building. I knew I wanted to represent this university. It’s about waiting on the timing, and I wanted to push and get better and better. I’ll wait for my time, so I’m really excited about it.”