<
>

Fascinating duel awaits as Wisconsin faces former DC Dave Aranda in opener

MADISON, Wis. -- Vince Biegel was spending a quiet winter night at home after a long season when his cell phone flashed to reveal the one name that filled him with instant dread.

For weeks, Biegel, Wisconsin's standout outside linebacker, had tried to ignore the rumor mill circulating around his position coach. That coach, defensive coordinator Dave Aranda, was calling him. Biegel braced himself for the worst before picking up.

"I knew it wasn't going to be a very good phone call at that point," he said.

Aranda's words were heartfelt and to the point. He had appreciated being Biegel's coach the past three seasons but had accepted a new job.

"Where are you going?" Biegel asked.

"LSU," Aranda said. "Isn't that going to be something?"

"That's something," Biegel said.

Eight months after that phone call, Biegel and Aranda will meet again. They will stand on opposite sidelines, adversaries attempting to best each other, as Aranda leads LSU's defense in its season opener against the team from which he departed.

When Wisconsin plays No. 5 LSU on Saturday at Lambeau Field in Green Bay, the game within the game will represent one of the most fascinating chess matches of college football's Kickoff Week.

"If he tries to tip off their offense, we've changed pretty much everything, so it's not going to be that black-and-white," Badgers linebacker Jack Cichy said. "Whatever leg up they have on us, we have the same on them, knowing how he runs his scheme."

What Aranda achieved in three years at Wisconsin won't soon be forgotten in Madison. During that time, the Badgers ranked first nationally in total defense, second in scoring defense, third in pass defense and fourth in run defense. In the process, Aranda became one of the most sought-after coordinators in college football. It was inevitable that he would leave for a position that provided more stature and more money. The only question was when.

Aranda could have left after the 2014 season, when the man who chose him at Wisconsin -- head coach Gary Andersen -- bolted for Oregon State. That offseason, Aranda was one of five candidates to interview with LSU coach Les Miles for the Tigers' vacant defensive coordinator position, which was ultimately filled by Kevin Steele.

After Steele left for the same position at Auburn a year later, Miles pegged Aranda as his man. On Jan. 1, Aranda signed on as LSU's new coordinator, with a starting annual salary of $1.2 million -- far more than the $520,000 he made at Wisconsin. Badgers coach Paul Chryst filled his position with former USC defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox.

Wisconsin's players said they understand why Aranda chose LSU, citing a business decision that was best for his family. They harbor no ill will toward Aranda but instead express gratitude that he stayed for a third year. Biegel, who had one of the closest relationships on the team with Aranda, often told reporters with sincerity that he would take a bullet for his coach. Although the news of Aranda's departure was deflating, he and his teammates quickly turned the page to focus on what remained.

"I have a lot of respect for Dave Aranda and what he does as a coach, as a person, so I don't hold any of that against him," Biegel said. "But LSU is on our schedule, and we're going to take care of business and go out with the same mindset -- whether Dave Aranda is on the sideline or not.

"Would I still take a bullet for him if he was my coach? I'm sure I would. But, man, am I excited to have Coach Wilcox as my D-coordinator."

Aranda's defenses thrived at Wisconsin by confusing opponents with exotic blitzes. He disguised his 3-4 scheme so teams wouldn't know which players might bring pressure. Now he will begin the season with perhaps the most skilled defense he has ever coached. LSU's defensive line is stacked with talent, including Davon Godchaux and Arden Key. Linebacker Kendell Beckwith is a star, and defensive backs Tre'Davious White and Jamal Adams were second-team all-SEC picks a season ago.

Chryst said his team needed to avoid looking at Aranda's past and "chasing ghosts" when preparing to face him. But the Wisconsin players who know Aranda best have expressed optimism about how they will approach the seemingly daunting task.

"We know exactly what he's going to do," Wisconsin linebacker Chris Orr said. "He spent three years here. We know his scheme and the way he likes to think. Shoot, all camp he used to tell us how he would stop our offense. I think it'll be a great challenge because he's still a defensive mastermind. He knows what he wants to do."

Which side has the advantage remains to be seen. Miles told reporters this week that Aranda primarily provided LSU's staff with strengths of Wisconsin's personnel and nothing more.

"He basically gave the thumbnail sketch of a guy that just came from there that really didn't feel like, you know, [it] was all that professional to give too much," Miles said. "So he kind of gave me the overview, and that's all I asked for."

Still, given Aranda's accomplishments and his intimate knowledge of Wisconsin's offense, Badgers players won't be surprised if he has saved at least a few tricks for the opener.

"Usually, with him, there always was," Badgers center Michael Deiter said. "Sometimes it's frustrating. You've got to get it right. But it allows for a lot of opportunity."

Let the fun begin.