1. Sum up the Irish's season for LSU fans that haven't followed it. A 6-1 start gave away to a pretty rough finish. What contributed to it?
Injuries and turnovers decimated the team down the stretch. Through 3 games in 2014 things looked great for quarterback Everett Golson who had the school record for best interception ratio (6 interceptions on 414 attempts) but over the last 9 games Golson was intercepted 14 times and lost 8 fumbles. The Irish were able to overcome some of those turnovers early in the season but not against a back-loaded schedule.
The offensive line never gelled after an early-season switch of a few players, the run game didn't steadily produce, and as the defense slowly fell apart (more on this below) even more was placed on Golson to do it all for Notre Dame's offense. By the end of the season he was clearly not the same QB we saw early in the year and his confidence has suffered as a spotty line and a bunch of unlucky turnovers have zapped his playmaking ability.
The defense looked fine in the beginning of the season. However, that side of the ball has seen more injuries than perhaps any Irish defense ever. That's not a joke. Counting graduation and injuries, the Irish were basically forced to replace two full units of defenders by November which meant dipping into the 3rd and 4th string at some positions. Some criticized Brian Kelly for not slowing down and trying to protect the defense but instead he doubled down on the offense hoping they could score 40+ a game to win. It didn't work.
2. What style of offense does Notre Dame run, and how has it worked this season?
Brian Kelly is a bit of a chameleon as a play-caller but his offense is typically described as a pass-first spread scheme. It's almost exclusively a one back offense and while he's utilized two tight end heavy sets in the past he's mostly relied on one tight end in 2014. Essentially it's a four vertical passing game combined with a pretty basic spread offense ground attack that minimally utilizes the read option, jet sweeps, and other wrinkles.
Has the offense worked? Well, some would point to the 26 turnovers and inability of the offense to win at least 2 games in key moments as evidence that it did not. However, they are averaging Brian Kelly era highs in points, yards per play, and total yards. Statistically, there is a lot to like about the offense if they could get Golson focused again and a little more help from the offensive line and running game. When those areas are working in concert the offense is capable of playing as good as anyone in that second tier below the Oregon's and Baylor's of the world.
3. Defensive coordinator Brian Van Gorder is a name LSU fans know from his stints at Georgia and Auburn. How would you grade his first year? What has he brought to the table in South Bend?
It's be tough to give VanGorder anything higher than a grade of C through the regular season. Basically, it's an incomplete at this point. His more aggressive scheme (Notre Dame had a brutally conservative defense under former DC Bob Diaco) and blitzing worked early in the season, famously shutting out Michigan. However, even before most of the injuries he was admittedly unprepared for North Carolina's uber fast spread and the Heels dropped 516 yards on the Irish. From there it was all down hill with the exception of the first half against Florida State. Notre Dame's last 7 opponents have all scored at least 30 points.
Now, since early November he's dealt with an incredible rash of injuries so that's the cause for an incomplete. However, after a hot start it seemed as though teams began figuring out his blitzing schemes, going after weaknesses, while young players continued to struggle with his complicated NFL-style of playbook.
4. Is there any excitement for this matchup among the faithful? Neither team likes being in a lower-rung bowl, but at least we get a marquee matchup.
Yes and no. With the injuries and terrible ending to the season almost no one is looking forward to playing a talented LSU team. You can forgive us for that. However, I think you'll find that most Notre Dame fans are appreciative of the history and tradition of LSU and look forward to playing a name brand instead of something far less.