December 23, 2014

LSU and Notre Dame realize elite teams play for national championships.

Both teams, though, had flaws that landed them in Nashville, Tennessee, for the Music City Bowl on Tuesday.

There were points during the season when the 22nd-ranked Tigers (8-4) and the Fighting Irish (7-5) could have been those elite squads. LSU opened with a victory over eventual Big Ten runner-up Wisconsin and was riding high at 3-0 after back-to-back shutouts. However, it failed to navigate the ultra-competitive SEC West, as all of its losses came against division rivals.

Notre Dame's regression to this point was equal parts stunning and devastating. Its 6-0 start was undone by a controversial 31-27 loss at Florida State on Oct. 18, which triggered a 1-5 swoon in which its defense was exposed at levels never before seen in the Catholic school's storied history.

LSU led the country in defensive passing efficiency at 98.7, highlighting a unit that ranked fourth in passing yards allowed (162.3 ypg) and eighth in total yards (305.8). But in the four losses, the Tigers were shredded for averages of 228.5 yards through the air and 428.8 overall while giving up six of their nine passing TDs for the season.

Additionally, Brady Hoke's firing by Michigan has once more led to coach Les Miles having his name linked to the Wolverines, having rebuffed the Big Ten school when the job was available in 2007 and 2010. Earlier last month, Miles - a former Michigan assistant under Bo Schembechler - said he has not been contacted by anyone at the school, which is expected to hire ex-49ers coach Jim Harbaugh.

Miles, though, has a good thing going in Baton Rouge. This will be his 10th bowl appearance in as many seasons with the Tigers, going 6-3 in the first nine, and he already owns one bowl victory over Notre Dame - a 41-14 rout in the Sugar Bowl after the 2006 season. LSU's streak of 15 bowl games is the sixth-longest active run among FBS schools.

"There's a tradition and a culture here we've kind of established and the young men that come here really enjoy stepping into this room and being a part of that culture," Miles said. "It's interesting too, you hate to say good-bye, we said good-bye to 22 seniors at the banquet and they're a quality group of men. To think the team, they talk about their time here, and what they don't realize is they impact the people here."

While the defense has kept LSU in most games, the offense has been a season-long work in progress. Anthony Jennings threw for only 1,460 yards and 10 touchdowns, while Miles opted for a running back-by-committee approach. Leonard Fournette was the best among them with 891 yards and eight TDs, while Terrence Magee and Kenny Hilliard combined for another 976 and nine scores.

Hilliard missed the final two games with a shoulder injury but should be available, and Miles is eager to unleash a running attack that churned out 219.5 yards per game.

"You won't see much new in this game at all," Miles said when asked if he would put new wrinkles in the offense. "What we're doing is we've got young players and we're trying to grow them up and have them do the things they've done in the past here and see if they can do them better, execute well on game day."

Notre Dame boasts a proficient passing offense as Everett Golson compiled 3,355 yards and 29 touchdowns. But the senior was also picked off 14 times and committed 22 turnovers overall, and will come off the bench in this game since coach Brian Kelly announced Monday he will give Malik Zaire his first collegiate

Most of Zaire's action came in mop-up duty in a 49-14 loss to USC, and the sophomore went 9 of 20 for 170 yards in the contest.

''I don't know if we're like buddy-buddy, but I look at Malik as my little brother,'' Golson said. ''It's competition, for sure. (But) we understand that, off the field, there's no animosity.''

Regardless of who is under center, Kelly knows Notre Dame must hold onto the ball to help protect a defense that has been torched for 291 points in the last seven games - the highest total of any seven-game stretch at Notre Dame dating to at least 1980.

''We'll have to do a great job of keeping our defense off the field, and our offense has a lot to say about what goes on there,'' said Kelly, the first coach in school history to go to a bowl in each of his first five seasons. ''These are important practices and we're better at (the quarterback) position because of it.''

LSU is trying to become the first school to post three bowl victories over Notre Dame. The Tigers also beat the Irish 27-9 in the 1997 Independence Bowl.

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