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Citrus Bowl Preview and Prediction: Louisville vs. LSU

Lamar Jackson

Lamar Jackson

The Buffalo Wild Wings Citrus Bowl is usually one of the best matchups outside of the New Year’s Six, and this year’s version between LSU and Louisville shouldn’t disappoint. The Dec. 31 contest in Orlando features an intriguing battle between LSU – one of the nation’s best defenses – against Louisville quarterback and Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson.

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Louisville closed the regular season by losing its final two games, but coach Bobby Petrino’s team was a playoff contender for most of 2016. With Jackson delivering a breakout campaign, the Cardinals scored at least 59 points in each of their first four games. Louisville destroyed Florida State (63-20) but suffered its first loss at Clemson (42-36) before reeling off five consecutive victories. Despite the late-season losing streak, Jackson claimed the Heisman Trophy in convincing fashion and will be one of the frontrunners to win it once again in 2017. With a win over LSU, Louisville would hit double-digit victories for the first time in Petrino’s second stint with the Cardinals.

Related: College Football 2016 Postseason All-America Team

Interesting might be the one word that sums up LSU’s 2016 season. After a 2-2 start – which included a last-second loss at Auburn – coach Les Miles was fired and assistant Ed Orgeron was promoted to interim coach. Orgeron made a few tweaks to the coaching staff and promised to open up the offense during his audition for the full-time gig. Under Orgeron’s watch, LSU went 5-2 and lost by 10 to Alabama and by six to Florida. Orgeron’s audition for the full-time gig wasn’t flawless, but athletic director Joe Alleva removed the interim tag in early December. Orgeron plans on building a standout staff, which includes new offensive coordinator Matt Canada (from Pitt) and keeping defensive coordinator Dave Aranda in Baton Rouge. Bowl games don’t necessarily mean much in terms of overall momentum, but a good showing in this contest certainly wouldn’t hurt Orgeron as he officially takes over the full-time role.

This is the first meeting between LSU and Louisville. The Tigers are 2-3 over their last five bowl trips, while the Cardinals are 3-2 in that span. LSU last played in the Citrus Bowl in 2009.

LSU vs. Louisville (Citrus Bowl)

Kickoff: Saturday, Dec. 31 at 11 a.m. ET

TV Channel: ABC

Spread: LSU -3.5

Three Things to Watch

1. Lamar Jackson Against LSU’s Defense

The Citrus Bowl drew one of the must-see matchups of bowl season with Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson taking on one of college football’s best defenses. Jackson claimed the Heisman Trophy after a prolific 2016 campaign and by leading Louisville into playoff contention. In 12 regular season appearances, Jackson threw for 3,390 yards and 30 scores and rushed for 1,538 yards and 21 touchdowns. The sophomore ranked second nationally by averaging 410.7 total yards per game and guided a Louisville offense that averaged 45.3 points per contest. Jackson is the headliner for Petrino, but running back Brandon Radcliff (877 yards) is a solid option on the ground, and the receiving corps is features four players with at least 27 receptions, including tight end Cole Hikutini (49) and receiver James Quick (42).

How will LSU’s defense attempt to contain Jackson? While there’s no doubt the sophomore has improved as a passer, the best path for the Tigers on defense has to be containing Jackson within the pocket and force the Cardinals to win this one through the air. LSU’s athleticism and speed in the front seven is as good as any in the nation and only one opponent recorded more than 400 yards against this unit. End Arden Key (10 sacks) is the headliner for coordinator Dave Aranda, and tackle Davon Godchaux anchors the line off the edge. Aranda does have a major injury concern at linebacker with Kendell Beckwith sidelined due to a knee injury suffered against Florida. With Beckwith sidelined, Donnie Alexander and Devin Voohries assume the top two spots on the depth chart at middle linebacker. When Jackson drops back to pass, he will face one of the nation’s best defensive backfields. Cornerback Tre’Davious White and safety Jamal Adams anchored a secondary that limited opponents to just nine passing scores.

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Jackson’s ability to make plays with his legs or arm can change the one game with just one snap. Will LSU do something that eluded most defenses this year and contain Jackson?

Related: Predictions for Every Bowl Game

2. LSU RB Derrius Guice

In terms of raw talent and ability, Leonard Fournette ranks as the best running back in college football. Due to a preseason ankle injury, the junior never seemed healthy in 2016 and ended the year with 843 yards and eight scores on 129 carries. Due to the nagging injuries, Fournette opted to prepare for the NFL Draft instead of making the trip to Orlando to play in this game. While there’s no question Fournette will be missed, Derrius Guice is the next star in LSU’s backfield. With Fournette limited to just seven games, Guice led the team with 1,249 rushing yards and 14 scores. The sophomore is a dynamic playmaker (7.96 ypc) and reached 200 or more yards in two out of LSU’s final three games. As if stopping Guice wasn’t enough of a challenge for Louisville’s defense, the Tigers also have one of the nation’s top offensive lines.

Louisville’s 3-4 defense suffered a setback in bowl preparation, as linebackers James Hearns and Henry Famurewa were ruled out after injuries sustained in an off-campus shooting in mid-December. Hearns is the bigger loss (42 stops), but there’s still plenty of talent in place for coordinator Todd Grantham. The Cardinals ranked fourth in the ACC against the run, limiting opponents to just 2.99 yards per carry. This unit also allowed only six rushing scores in 2016. Tackle DeAngelo Brown is the leader of the line and helps to clog the interior at 310 pounds. Linebackers Keith Kelsey and Stacy Thomas are the leaders against the run at linebacker, with Devonte Fields (eight tackles for a loss) also a factor in creating havoc around the line of scrimmage.

How will Louisville’s defensive front fare against LSU’s standout offensive line and Guice? Containing the sophomore at the line of scrimmage and preventing big plays in the run is essential for the Cardinals to pull off the victory.

3. LSU’s Passing Game

When Ed Orgeron was promoted to interim head coach earlier this season, he promised to make changes to LSU’s offense. The first step was to dismiss coordinator Cam Cameron, with Steve Ensminger working as the interim play-caller for the remainder of the 2016 season. The Citrus Bowl will be Ensminger’s last as the play-caller, as Matt Canada was hired away from Pitt to call the plays in 2017.

While drastic changes during the course of a 12-game season are difficult, the Tigers showcased a better passing game under Ensminger’s watch. Quarterback Danny Etling finished with 1,906 passing yards and nine passing scores and eclipsed more than 200 passing yards in five out of the final seven games. Etling has a talented group of receivers at his disposal, including Malachi Dupre (34 receptions) and D.J. Chark (24 catches).

Considering some of the huge leads Louisville amassed in ACC play, it’s no surprise this secondary allowed 27 passing scores (on 382 pass attempts). However, the numbers look much better in terms of pass efficiency defense. The Cardinals ranked fifth in the ACC in that category and limited opposing quarterbacks to a completion percentage of 54.5. Cornerback Jaire Alexander is the best player in the secondary for Grantham and could be asked to shadow Dupre for a good chunk of this game.

Etling doesn’t need to throw for 300 yards on Saturday in order for LSU to win. However, LSU has to have some balance on offense and can’t solely rely on Guice to carry this team to a victory. Can Etling connect on enough passes to keep Louisville’s defense from crowding the box? Considering the extra attention the Cardinals will devote to stopping the run, LSU's receivers need to win the one-on-one matchups and force Grantham to respect the passing game.

Final Analysis

Lamar Jackson versus the LSU defense will be a must-see matchup. What schemes or sets can Aranda utilize to keep the dynamic sophomore in the pocket and away from the edge on long runs? The battle between Jackson and the Tigers’ defense is going to be the deciding factor in this game. If Jackson breaks free for big plays on runs and connects on a couple of long passes, then LSU is going to be in trouble. When the Tigers have the ball, Guice will see a heavy workload with Fournette opting to prepare for the NFL Draft. This matchup is a tough one to get a read on. Few teams had an answer for Louisville’s offense this season, but LSU has the personnel and talent to keep Jackson in check. The Tigers find enough on defense to slow Jackson, while Guice posts another huge performance to guide LSU to a late score and victory in Orgeron’s first game as the full-time coach.

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Prediction: LSU 34, Louisville 30