Bowl games are meaningless exhibitions. That's a true statement. But winning them still matters, because fans care. Oh sure, there's some dissatisfied griping with it not being the College Football Playoff, but the fact remains, win and the offseason starts off in a nicer mood and with a better memory of the season. Lose, nobody's happy. Honestly the regular season will be all but forgotten.
So you just might as well win the meaningless exhibition while you're making the trip, right?
Truthfully, there seems to be a nice amount of enthusiasm for Music City Bowl, and that's part of why the LSU coaches and administration were hoping for a draw like Notre Dame. For as long as it's been since the Irish were nationally relevant on the field consistently, they still carry a name and a cache that registers with the average college football fan.
Fun piece of trivia -- with a win, LSU can join Nebraska and Michigan as the only programs with a winning record against the Fightin' Irish in more than 10 meetings (the series currently sits at 5-5). Beating up on a program that was really something before electricity may not register as much with the younger set, but even after all the last two decades worth of futility, it's still a pretty select group of programs.
The chance is there for a young LSU squad to close out 2014 on a strong note, relaxing an aggravated fan base and setting the stage for a 2015 that will almost certainly have large expectations. And quite frankly, it's the last real taste of Tiger football that we're all getting for another nine months.
Let's do this.
What to Watch For On Tuesday (Tuesday? Tuesday.)
Oasis or Mirage?
Yeah, I called the game itself a meaningless exhibition and I meant it. Don't get me wrong, I damn sure want LSU to win, and there's some value in the game, but for this team the 15 practices were far more important going forward. And the thing about bowl games is that their meaning is almost always overstated through the offseason, and you never really know what, if anything they actually meant, until you see the next season's team in action.
Maybe a veteran team shows up ready for one final game with all their teammates, pissed off and ready to go out on top.
Maybe those veterans are all sick of each other. Maybe they're just as disappointed in their bowl destination as the fan base and maybe they just don't really care?
Maybe they enjoy the trip a little too much, and show up lethargic? Or unfocused due to poor preparation/attention to detail?
Or maybe one or more of these applies to the opponent in question. Will a dominating win inflate expectations? (See Oklahoma, 2014) Will a loss drive the returning players to work harder to get to the level that they want to compete at? (See LSU, 2003)
We just won't know until the dust really settles and we see what kind of team LSU has in 2015.
Barry Switzer had a great line about the team a coach brings into a bowl always being different from the team he closed out the regular season with. He's referring, of course, to the month-long (if not longer) layoff and what can happen in that time. Players with nagging injuries get healthy. Mental lights can come on. Game vision can speed up. Free from the grind of the season, players can loosen up and see what happens when they just go out there and play.
With a team as young as LSU, it's kind of a glimpse of the Beta version of next year's Tigers. These games tend to give us our final memories of the previous season's team (I'm starting to suspect that not having a final image of Mettenberger, Beckham and Landry carving up a defense has affected the 2013 team's legacy), but the truth is that's not what will be on the field. Don't think of this as a last look at 2014 LSU, but as a look at 2014.5. If, for example, the passing game shows some competency or even some efficiency, it doesn't mean that the struggles of the regular season are behind us. And that goes likewise for the inverse.
There's always some bitter sweetness to our last taste of LSU football before the offseason. But a nice win can make it a little more sweet than bitter.
All of that said, LSU should absolutely be able to take care of business here with a strong, sustained and focused effort. Notre Dame has some SEC-level athletes, but not enough to stand toe-to-toe with the Tigers for the full 60 minutes if LSU plays its best game.
And if that weren't enough, the Irish bring a defense that will be without a couple of starters and has been something of a mash unit through the season, giving up an extra 130 yards per game and nearly a full yard more per play, along with 14 more points per game. The defensive line returns a key playmaker in tackle Sheldon Day, although he's describing himself as just "85 percent." Players like linebacker Jaylon Smith and safety Cody Riggs, a graduate transfer from Florida, are SEC-quality, but they're the exception, not the rule here.
Defensive coordinator Brian Van Gorder is a name some LSU fans might remember from his stints with Georgia and Auburn. He's in his first year in South Bend after a long, very strange trip through the highs and lows of the assistant coaching ranks. In the early Aughts he was one of the hottest coordinators in the country leading Georgia's dominating units through 2004. From there he abruptly jumped to a position coaching job in the NFL, and then took the Georgia Southern head job for a single year before heading back to the NFL as the Atlanta Falcons' DC. After spending a year listening to Gene Chizik's death rattle at Auburn, he was back in the NFL before joining up with Brian Kelly' staff. Van Gorder's schemes have always been of the aggressive cover-two variety, looking to roll safeties into the box on running downs and bring pressure from odd angles to set up third-and-long. From there they open up the umbrella and try to force the offense to settle for an underneath completion and make the tackle.
At Georgia that worked like gangbusters with big safeties like Thomas Davis and Greg Blue flying up against the run, linebackers like Odell Thurman and Boss Bailey chasing down ball carriers and David Pollack bringing the pass rush. But at Notre Dame the Irish have ranked 50th in defensive F+ and 56th in defensive S&P+. They allow nearly four yards a carry on first down, and the pass defense allowed a passer rating of 146 in November.
LSU's gameplan should look a lot like what we saw in the season finale against Texas A&M. Heavy on the zone/spread looks early on with some of the jet-sweep action as a constraint. Hopefully that establishes a lead and allows the staff to lean on the smaller defense as the game progresses with the power game. If the offensive line can win their individual battles, let Riggs and safety Max Redfield get tired of tackling Leonard Fournette, Terrence Magee and reportedly, a healthy Kenny Hilliard.
Anthony Jennings is who he is at this point, but if he can improve slightly on what we saw in the aforementioned finale, continue to move the chains with his legs and hit one or two extra passes down the field, that could yield some big dividends.
On the other side of the ball, the Irish bring an even better matchup for the Tiger defense with a pass-heavy spread offense that really struggles to run the football. Notre Dame has averaged 150 yards a game on the ground this season but were held under that total in half their games, including three under the century mark.
Kelly's offensive background has always been steeped in the spread/Air Raid style, heavy on the four-verticals pass concept:
The play works well as a passing constraint because with an experienced group the option routes can still create a number of combinations to work through depending on the defense.
Quarterback Everett Golson got off to a hot start this year, and made some really nice plays early on but as the season went south he seemed to press more and more. He tends to miss high on his passes, and what does that lead to? Turnovers. Eight of his 14 interceptions came during the Irish's four-game losing streak in the season's final month. Film study revealed a lot of classic digging-the-hole-deeper-to-try-and-get-out-type plays. Forcing balls down the field, putting too much on out routes/comebacks and throwing them too short and inside.
Sophomore Malik Zaire may get some playing time, per Brian Kelly, but he's flashed more ability as a runner than a passer to date. So if LSU can build a lead that the Irish have to pass themselves out of that'll likely fall on Golson's shoulders. Unless Kelly gets really desperate.
The closest comparison to the Irish offense on LSU's schedule this season was probably Kentucky, as Notre Dame will work in some of the same packaged play concepts, combining zone-reads with backside screens and other pass plays. The running game won't use the Wildcat, nor do the Irish have the same level of explosiveness at tailback. They do have some athletes at receivers in William Fuller and Corey (son of David) Robinson, who flashes some special ability at times.
LSU's gameplan will still rely on using Tre White and Jalen Collins to lock up the outside guys while a combination of Jalen Mills, Jamal Adams and Ricky Jefferson handle the slot guys and run responsibilities. Make tackles quickly, force third-down and long-yardage situations and Golson will struggle. On the season he's completing less than 50 percent of his passes in third down and seven yards or longer, at just 7.7 yards per attempt with just a 35 percent first-down conversion rate.
As good as the Tiger secondary has been this season they haven't picked off many passes. So a matchup with a turnover-prone quarterback and a defense LSU should be able to push around could result in another downhill-type victory.
One potential subplot to watch: field integrity. This is a grass field in cold, wet weather. And there's an NFL game being played there Sunday afternoon. I highly doubt it'd ever get 2010 Capital One Bowl bad, where offensive linemen were pulling up sod just getting into their stance, but that kind of terrain would negate one of LSU's biggest advantages. Sure, guys like Fournette, Hilliard and Darrel Williams are well built to mud things out, but an ugly game doesn't play to LSU's strengths in this matchup.