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Breaking down Alabama vs. Wisconsin: A closer game than expected?

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Keys to the Alabama vs. Wisconsin matchup

SEC Network's Greg McElroy, Marcus Spears and Maria Taylor break down Alabama's season opener against Wisconsin.


There are a bunch of quality games during Week 1 of the college football season, but only one features a pair of Top 25 teams. And this is it.

Key to the Alabama offense: You know Wisconsin is going to put nine men in the box to stop Derrick Henry and the running game. So at some point it’s going to come down to the quarterback position for Alabama, whether that’s any one of the three possibilities there: Jake Coker, Cooper Bateman or Alec Morris. Coker, who transferred from Florida State last season, is likely to start, but the leash could be short if he commits turnovers. -- A.S.

Key to the Wisconsin offense: Quarterback Joel Stave and running back Corey Clement will be the engines that make the Badgers go. Stave, at 21-7 in career starts, has as much experience as anybody in college football. But this is the first time the fifth-year senior opens a season as the clear-cut No. 1 signal caller without a QB competition, and he’ll need to be a more consistent passer. Clement rushed for 949 yards and nine touchdowns last season in a backup role to Heisman Trophy finalist Melvin Gordon. Now, it’s Clement’s turn to be the Badgers’ featured tailback. -- J.T.

Key to the Alabama defense: Unlike the end of last season, the secondary has to do its part. Alabama’s front seven on defense, with stars like defensive tackle A’Shawn Robinson and linebacker Reggie Ragland, is in the conversation of the best in college football. But safety is a concern, with two new starters there that each began there careers at cornerback. And at corner, is Marlon Humphrey ready after redshirting last season? -- A.S.

Key to the Wisconsin defense: Retaining defensive coordinator Dave Aranda for a third season at Wisconsin was vital. Despite new coaches everywhere else, the defense has continuity with Aranda in charge. Aranda wants to create more pressure in the backfield this season, and outside linebackers Vince Biegel and Joe Schobert are the men to do it. They combined for 30 tackles for a loss last season. The Badgers also will be strong in the back end: They return three starters in the secondary. -- J.T.

Alabama X factor: The focus has been on the quarterbacks, and rightfully so. But there are three new starters at wide receiver, too. So keep an eye on ArDarius Stewart, who will be a starter. The 6-foot-1, 204-pound redshirt sophomore showed flashes of big-play ability last season, averaging 12.4 yards per catch. Ever since then, he’s had praise coming in from players and coaches by the truckload. If he can make some plays in space and become even a fraction of the player Amari Cooper was last season, he could make the quarterback’s life a lot easier. -- A.S.

Wisconsin X factor: Wide receiver Tanner McEvoy hasn’t taken an in-game snap at the position since he was a junior in high school six seasons ago. After opening spring camp as a starting safety, he was moved to receiver to fill a need for the Badgers. At 6-foot-6, 231 pounds, he has the body type and athleticism to be the kind of dominant force Wisconsin rarely finds at wideout. Alabama must be ready to handle him as a potential deep threat over smaller defensive backs. -- J.T.

Predictions: A double-digit point spread makes no sense to me here. With a new starter at QB, a new starting running back, three new starters at wide receiver and three new starters on the offensive line, what exactly leads us to believe that Alabama will be able to put up points against Wisconsin? I see both the Badgers and the Tide attempting to control the clock with their running games. I see a few costly turnovers as well. But in the end, Wisconsin doesn’t have enough firepower to pull off the upset. Alabama 21, Wisconsin 17. -- A.S.

Wisconsin beat Auburn in overtime at the Outback Bowl on Jan. 1, and that victory went a long way toward repairing the Badgers' psyche in big games. But in Wisconsin's past seven games against Power 5 conference teams from outside the Big Ten dating to 2011, the Badgers are 1-6, with close losses to SEC foes South Carolina and LSU. Wisconsin has the ability to beat Alabama but hasn't consistently shown it can put the pieces together. Alabama 31, Wisconsin 24. -- J.T.