One program is from the south; one program is from the north. One is a proud member of theSEC; one is independent. But when Notre Dame and LSU meet up in the Citrus Bowl, the two schools will not be strangers having met four times in bowl games during the past 20 years. Just three seasons ago, the Irish defeated the Tigers to win the 2014 Music City Bowl.
Notre Dame and LSU both finished the 2017 regular season at 9-3 but they took different paths to get there. After dropping a game to Georgia, Notre Dame ripped off seven wins in a row and climbed to No. 3 in the College Football Playoff rankings in early November. But the Irish lost two of their last three games, falling into their Citrus Bowl bid.
LSU, on the other hand, was 3-2 after an embarrassing loss to Troyon Sept. 30. The Tigers then won six of their last seven games, losing only to Alabama. LSU comes in ranked 16th while Notre Dame was No. 14 in the final CFP poll.
Citrus Bowl Presented by Overton's: Notre Dame vs. LSU
Kickoff: Monday, Jan. 1 at 1 p.m. ET
Where: Camping World Stadium (Orlando, Fla.)
TV Channel: ABC
Spread: LSU -3
Three Things to Watch
1. The Matt Canada situation
The LSU offensive coordinator has a unique style. His players shift constantly, moving around on seemingly every play. But recent reports point to a different type of shifting: one where Canada is moved out of Baton Rouge. Multiple reports have stated there is some friction between Canada and head coach Ed Orgeron and the two have agreed to part ways after the bowl game.
How this affects the LSU offense during the Citrus Bowl will be interesting to see. The offense should remain the same even if rumored replacement Steve Ensminger takes on more responsibility. Canada runs an intricate system and a lack of cohesion in preparation could lead to a lack of cohesion in performance. It will be noticeable early on if everyone is on the same page.
2. Which team can deal with missing personnel better?
LSU will be without three key members of its defensive front seven due to injuries. Despite battling ailments throughout the year, linebackers Corey Thompson and Donnie Alexander played in the regular-season finale against Texas A&M. However, defensive end Arden Key missed the last two games with knee and finger problems. LSU is accustomed to playing without these important contributors, but it will be a challenge with all three on the sideline.
Notre Dame, meanwhile, will missing pieces in its passing game. Wide receiver Kevin Stepherson, who led the team with five touchdown receptions, was suspended after a recent arrest. Also suspended is tight end Alize Mack, who tied Stepherson for third on the team with 19 catches. And second-leading receiver Chase Claypool is out with a shoulder injury. So a Notre Dame passing game that limped home at the end of the year will be without three of its top four targets.
3. Which team can run the ball more effectively?
There was speculation that banged-up running back Derrius Guice might skip the Citrus Bowl. But as of this moment, LSU's 1,000-yard rusher is a go. The combination of Guice and senior Darrel Williams is potent, as the two combined for almost 2,000 yards and had 20 total rushing touchdowns this season. Notre Dame will be geared up to stop the run, but Guice’s inside-outside versatility and Williams’ brute force will be tough to stop.
The LSU defense will also be focused on limiting Notre Dame’s ground game, especially with so many of Notre Dame’s receivers out of the lineup. But it won’t be easy for the Tigers, either. While LSU is very quick – with linebacker Devin White (right) seemingly everywhere from sideline to sideline – the Tigers also are not very big inside and will be hampered by their missing front seven stars. It’s doubtful that Notre Dame will have a lot of success running to the outside, but the Irish's big offensive line will attempt to open up holes inside so Josh Adams (above, right) and the other ball carriers can go downhill.
When Notre Dame and LSU flourished on offense this year it was because of the running game. The Irish achieved most of their yards running behind All-American offensive linemen Mike McGlinchey and Quenton Nelson. The rushing attack includes quarterback Brandon Wimbush, who is a more accomplished runner than thrower at this time.
And Notre Dame will have to be able to run the ball between the tackles to beat LSU because the Irish are not going to win with Wimbush throwing often to this makeshift receiving group against a talented LSU secondary. Running outside versus this speedy LSU defense doesn’t appear to be a wise strategy either. If Notre Dame emerges victorious, it will be because the Irish's sizeable offensive line was able to push around the smaller (and depleted) LSU defense.
Despite the uncertainty on the offensive side of the ball, LSU will do what it has done all year. An unbalanced line on one side will become an unbalanced line on the other before the ball is snapped. The Tigers will run Derrius Guice and Darrel Williams and they will also utilize DJ Chark and Russell Gage on jet sweeps.
Tigers quarterback Danny Etling does not take a lot of unnecessary risks and as a result he only threw two interceptions on the season. But LSU will take chances downfield and whether or not these connect will go a long way in determining the Tigers' offensive output. They don’t have to make a living in this department as they only have to hit one or two times to open things up for Guice and fellow back Darrel Williams. Against Alabama, Etling missed several opportunities and LSU’s offense sputtered. But in the games that followed, Chark and Gage became involved on deep routes and the Tigers scored plenty of points.
Etling and his receivers will be able to stretch the field just enough. Williams, both as a traditional back and out of the wildcat, will be more of a factor than the gimpy Guice. Notre Dame will be able to run the ball at times, but the LSU defense will make the Irish one-dimensional and be able to get them off the field in key third down situations. As a result, LSU will squeeze by the Irish to win in Orlando.
Prediction: LSU 24, Notre Dame 21
— Written by Jon Kinne, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a college football fanatic. Kinne has been writing about recruiting for the Irish Sports Daily for 10 years. Follow him on Twitter @JonRKinne.