There's a an alternative universe somewhere, perhaps, where this game is Les Miles facing a soon-to-be-former rival of his soon-to-be team. After all, if Jim Harbaugh hadn't made his way to Michigan over the last few days, speculation about Miles heading north would be reaching fever pitch about now (denials notwithstanding). Instead, Miles is simply cheering on the man who lead his former alma mater.
Which is all the better for LSU. The importance of "distractions" can be overstated in terms of a football game, but the psyche of college-aged young men is going to be affected when questions are swirling about whether their coach is going to be their coach next year. Now, the Tigers can simply focus on the task at hand. Namely, defeating one of the marquee names in college football.
Though not exactly at one of the marquee bowls in college football. The Music City Bowl is a newcomer to the postseason world; it was first played in the middle of the Bill Clinton impeachment drama. There's been such a glut of bowls introduced since then that a 16-year-old bowl might not seem that young, but it lags well behind the brand names like the Rose Bowl, the Orange Bowl and even the Liberty Bowl. This year, though, it has some names that at least have historical resonance of their own.
1You Must Be New Around Here. The Music City Bowl isn't exactly one the grand old postseason games -- it only started in 1998 -- but it's still notable that neither LSU nor Notre Dame has ever played in the Nashville contest before. The SEC has been a partner with the Music City from the beginning; only once in 16 editions has a conference team not been in the bowl, but none of those 15 representatives has come from Baton Rouge. New destinations that bring more excitement appears to have been one of the major reasons for the SEC's new bowl pooling arrangement, which might explain LSU being here. Notre Dame is in the game because of its kinda-but-not-really-sorta membership in the ACC.
2History. In a way, these teams might have played both less and more than you might otherwise think. Notre Dame and LSU have only faced each other 10 times over the years, with each holding a 5-5 record, but all of those games happened between 1970 and the 2006 season -- meaning they played roughly once every three or four seasons during that time frame. That is, when they weren't playing twice a year; Notre Dame beat LSU 24-6 during the 1997 regular season, before the Tigers beat the Irish, 27-9, a little more than a month later in the Independence Bowl. The last meeting was in the 2007 Sugar Bowl, when LSU demolished Notre Dame, 41-14.
3Up and Down. Both of these teams had a bit of Jekyll-and-Hyde in them, but that unfolded in very different ways. In LSU's case, it was an up-and-down season almost from the beginning. LSU's rank in the AP poll changed by five or more places five times in the 2014 season, and the Tigers fell out off and then climbed back into the Top 25 twice. Notre Dame's was a more common case of late-season collapse; the Irish were 7-1 after beating Navy on Nov. 1, and haven't won since. The losses include lopsided defeats at Arizona State (55-31) and at Southern Cal (49-14). What had once been a season that promised at least a chance at playing in the New Year's Six bowls now delivers only a trip to Nashville.
4Contrasting Styles. LSU's scoring defense has been one of the best in the conference this year on average, and it's allowed the opponent to score more than 30 points just twice this season (vs. Mississippi State, at Auburn). It's scoring offense has been ... something other than that. The Bayou Bengals are averaging 27.6 points a game coming into this one, tied for 11th in the conference; LSU lost against Alabama and at Arkansas at least in part because of offensive struggles. Notre Dame, meanwhile, averages 33.0 points per game. But the Irish defense allowed at least 30 points in seven games this year, including all five losses. The lower-scoring the game, the better (probably) for LSU.
5Strength vs. Strength. And along those lines, you have to really like the LSU defense's chance to keep Notre Dame from scoring much. Notre Dame rushes for 150.8 yards a game, ranking 82nd in the nation -- and rushing defense just happens to be about the only defensive metric in which the Tigers are average in the SEC this season. Instead, the Irish are likely to be headed into the teeth of the LSU defense: Passing. The Tigers rank first in the SEC this year in passing efficiency defense. Notre Dame isn't exactly blowing the doors off of anyone in the passing efficiency department, but they're better at that (34th in the NCAA) than at running the ball. How much any of that might change with Malik Zaire at the helm remains to be seen.
THREE TO WATCH
Leonard Fournette, RB, LSU: The expectations were always probably going to be a little too high for Fournette in his first season, given that some of the preseason hype almost seemed to be setting him up for a Heisman campaign. But while he was inconsistent, Fournette also had some very good games, rushing for more than 100 yards against Florida, Ole Miss and Texas A&M (as well as New Mexico State). Fournette also rushed for less than 50 yards in three of LSU's four losses. He's not a perfect barometer -- the Tigers also won some games in which he was a non-factor -- but LSU will have a far easier time winning this game if Fournette has a good day.
Will Fuller, WR, Notre Dame: One of the most effective offensive weapons for the Irish this year has been Fuller, who has 71 catches for 1,037 yards and 14 touchdowns. In fact, Fuller was the only Irish player to break 1,000 yards in any of the all-purpose yardage categories. Particularly given the situation Notre Dame faces at quarterback -- more on that in a moment -- Fuller will need to get open.
Malik Zaire, QB, Notre Dame: It's interesting that Brian Kelly has chosen the bowl game to finally have Zaire get a full start. His passing numbers are not sterling -- 9-of-20 for 170 yards -- and while Zaire is mobile, so is Everett Golson. It might be as much about not trusting Golson as it is about trusting Zaire. Still, the fact that there's a new quarterback on the field could shake up the Irish offense and make it harder for LSU to predict what Notre Dame will do.
Given those defensive numbers, I just don't think Notre Dame is going to be able to keep up with LSU for very long. I doubt the game gets out of hand, if for no other reason than I don't trust LSU's offense to run away and hide with the lead. But I do expect a 10-14 point lead to build up at or shortly after halftime and stay pretty much there. LSU 24, Notre Dame 14