Music City Bowl preview: Can Notre Dame's struggling defense contain LSU and star freshman running back Leonard Fournette?
LSU (8-4) vs. Notre Dame (7-5)
Dec. 30, 3 p.m. ET (ESPN)
• Reason to watch: None needed beyond the hilarious hyperventilation that comes with Notre Dame facing an SEC team. It is a scenario that launches a thousand generalizations about the talent and standards and arrogance of both sides, though only one side is right, so a game between a 7-win team and 8-win team must decide that for all eternity. As for the football, a Fighting Irish offense that crumbled under the weight of turnovers (26 giveaways, tied for 107th nationally) now faces LSU’s third-ranked scoring defense (16.4 ppg), a unit that didn’t allow 20 points in regulation after Oct. 11.
• Keep an eye on: Leonard Fournette and his effect on the general well-being of the Notre Dame defense. Fournette, the Tigers’ 6-foot-1, 230-pound freshman tailback, is basically a refrigerator that can run a sub-4.4 40-yard dash. This has the whiff of a game that can spark the Heisman Trophy hype for 2015, the capper after Fournette’s 891-yard, eight-touchdown debut season. He’ll face a defense that surrendered 30-plus points in each of its last seven games. The Irish should be healthier, but inside linebacker Joe Schmidt (ankle/leg) is still out and defensive end Sheldon Day (MCL) may be slowed. A thunderous day for Fournette is not out of the question, which would stoke the award chatter for next fall.
• Did you know: Uh, that LSU might determine Notre Dame’s quarterback for 2015? OK, that’s an exaggeration. But Everett Golson returned from exile and special tutoring from quarterback guru George Whitfield to finish the regular season with as many interceptions (14) as last year’s starter Tommy Rees threw last year. Golson’s total turnovers: 22. His regression was a direct indictment of Brian Kelly and his staff. Now Kelly plans to play both Golson and sophomore Malik Zaire against the nation’s No. 1 team in pass efficiency defense. Will the better man in December have a head start toward taking the first snap next September?
• Final analysis: It may come down to motivation. LSU has to be among the best teams to ever finish with a No. 23 ranking. The Arkansas loss (17-0 on Nov. 15) was a clunker, but LSU otherwise fell to Mississippi State by five, to Alabama by a touchdown in overtime, and got drubbed by Auburn. That’s three defeats, two of them tight, to teams that were in the national title hunt. Are the Tigers pushed by the Notre Dame brand name and the chance to make an emphatic statement at the end of a season spent just outside the playoff mix? Or are they out of gas for trying?
Losing five of six to end a once-promising year should have the Irish at attention. Regardless of that galvanized attitude, though, LSU’s secondary remains eligible to play in this game. Neither offense should coat itself in glory in Nashville, so the team with the opportunistic defense rates the edge.
• The pick: LSU 23, Notre Dame 16