The Music City Bowl features two teams wondering what could have been in 2014.
Notre Dame and LSU have experienced disappointing seasons this year after hot starts during each of their respective schedules. Both teams have also appeared in one BCS National Championship Game in the past three seasons, but struggled this year. Notre Dame (7-5) won its first six games of the season and appeared to be a playoff contender, until a controversial penalty cost them the game at Florida State and injuries to several important starters decimated the Irish defense, contributing to them dropping five of their final six games.
LSU (8-4) lost to No. 1 Alabama and No. 7 Mississippi State by seven points or less, and the Tigers have signature wins over Wisconsin, Texas A&M and Ole Miss. The challenging SEC schedule will give the Tigers an advantage, at least on paper, to win their ninth game of the season.
The game will be played in Nashville on Dec. 30 as both teams seek momentum heading into the spring and recruiting advantages in the South. Although this bowl game isn’t one of college football’s marquee matchups, there are many factors that will influence who wins the game.
LSU’s rush offense against Notre Dame’s front seven
The Tigers pride their offensive attack on their ability to pound the rock. Head coach Les Miles has established an offensive identity of using the ground game to set up the pass. Last season, Jeremy Hill was the standout back for LSU, and this season freshman Leonard Fournette has replaced him with success.
Fournette was the top-rated recruit in the country last year and uses his 230-pound frame to punish defenders. Fournette has eight touchdowns and averages nearly 75 yards per game. The Tigers have four rushers with over 400 yards. The Irish lost their primary run stuffer, 315-pound junior defensive tackle Jarron Jones, for the season as well as their anchor, senior Joe Schmidt. These injuries have resulted in an increase in big-yardage plays allowed by the defense because of communication breakdowns. Locking down an LSU offense that runs for more than 200 yards per contest will be the key to keeping the Irish’s defense off the field.
Which Notre Dame quarterback will stand out?
Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly opened up the quarterback competition following the blowout loss to USC and has not yet announced a starter for the matchup. Expectations are that Everett Golson will start the game, but Malik Zaire will almost certainly play. Notre Dame has averaged 33 points per game under Golson, but his 14 interceptions and multiple fumbles have caused the starting quarterback to be a polarizing force among Irish fans. Whoever starts as the signal caller must establish a rapport with leading receiver Will Fuller, who has 14 touchdowns and over 1000 yards, has established himself as one of the top receivers in the country. Middle linebacker Kendell Beckwith, strongside linebacker Kwon Alexander and cornerback Jalen Collins are three standout defenders for the Tigers that will try to limit the Notre Dame offense.
Young pieces must show promise to build on for the future.
Underclassmen Nyles Morgan, Greer Martini, Andrew Trumbetti, Torii Hunter Jr. and Greg Bryant are all candidates to take the leap to become impact performers next year. Morgan, Martini and Trumbetti have shown flashes of being playmakers on defense and compete for starting positions. Morgan and Martini have played the inside linebacker position and have a combined five starts and five tackles for loss. Morgan is seventh on the team in tackles. Hunter Jr. has just seven catches this season, but the freshman receiver can be a difference maker on the outside and may earn snaps over some of the other wide receivers during bowl practice.
Bryant has the opportunity to form a true two-headed monster at running back with Tarean Folston. Kelly called Bryant the next great Notre Dame running back. Bryant has returned kicks and punts with breakaway speed and averages 5.5 yards per carry. A commitment to running the ball could keep the pressure off the quarterback position.
Notre Dame last faced LSU in 2006 with a 41-14 loss in the Sugar Bowl. The Irish have not defeated an SEC opponent since 2005 when they defeated Tennessee. Bucking the trend of SEC struggles could generate excitement towards next season, which already shows promise with the return of several suspended players and an influx of new recruiting talent.