ORLANDO — While New Year’s Day is a date most associated with the College Football Playoff Semifinals, there are some other games scheduled earlier in the day that serve as a fantastic undercard to those festivities. Among them is the Overton’s Citrus Bowl held at Camping World Stadium. It will be the final of three bowls held this season in Orlando, Florida.
This pairing features the No.14 (CFP) Notre Dame Fighting Irish against the No.16 (CFP) Tigers of LSU. Both teams’ 2017 campaigns faced missteps along the way, but these programs now also find themselves in a position to post a respectable 10-win season with a victory on New Year’s Day.
While both participants faced setbacks, I don’t think many people fault Notre Dame Head Coach Brian Kelly for their 20-19 loss to No.3 (CFP) Georgia. And while falling to No.11 (CFP) Miami in a 41-8 blowout was no cause for celebration. The Irish also fell to No.15 (CFP) Stanford 28-20. This not only knocked this team from playoff contention, but left the nation questioning the prowess of quarterback Brandon Wimbush and the Fighting Irish offense.
LSU’s saga for its season had them struggling sooner rather than later. Mississippi State blasted them 37-7 back on Sept. 16. This early disappointment, fair or not, diminished confidence in Head Coach Ed Orgeron under the media spotlight from the start. That lack of confidence turned into embarrassment two weeks later after they were defeated by the Sun Belt’s Troy University 24-21. A stretch of six wins in the next seven games followed, including an “acceptable” stumble to No.4 (CFP) Bama 24-10. This closing streak of ‘W’s put Louisiana State in position for a 10-win conclusion as well should they knock off Notre Dame.
Why is that mark of 10 wins so important?
When it comes time for preseason rankings, that single victory from nine to 10 could mean a handful of spots up or down when the first listing of the preseason Top 25 for the 2018 season is released. That is over and above the typical impact of reputation in recruiting, the futures of Kelly and Orgeron as coaches, and pleasing boosters.
The key to this particular game will be which team is more balanced on offense. It can be argued that this is true of most games, but here we have a pair of teams here that thrive when establishing the running game. Whether it’s LSU’s rushing corps led by the 2017 Citrus Bowl Player of the Game, Derrius Guice or Notre Dame’s ground attack featuring Josh Adams, establishing a running game is the focal point to each respective offense. To put more icing on that cake, the moderator of the Head Coach Press Conference joked during the introductions that it would go faster if the coaches just revealed their game plans. Kelly, in the spirit of jest said, “Stop the run” to which Orgeron immediately responded, “Ditto.”
That’s not to say that Adams and Wimbush, the Irish’s second-highest total in rushing yards, will have an easy time moving the ball against linebacker Devin White, defensive tackle Greg Gilmore, and the LSU front seven. White posted 127 tackles while Gilmore is tops in sacks this season with 6.5. Coach Kelly praised his opponent’s ability on defense.
“[They are] very similar to Georgia in their presentation.” He continued, “3-down, aggressive off the edge, press coverage — they’re really dictating how they are going to play you. They’re not sitting back. It’s not a ‘bend don’t break’ defense. This is an ‘in your face’, physical, fast defense that [is] gonna force you into errors.”
Conversely, Guice and fellow running back Darrel Williams will have to contend with a Notre Dame defense that highlights linebacker Te’von Coney and defensive tackle Jerry Tillery. Coney boasts a team-high 11.5 tackles for a loss while Tillery comes in with four sacks in 2017.
Where the game will be decided is in the hands of Louisiana State field general Danny Etling. While 2,234 isn’t an impressive number for passing yards on a season, it’s still significantly more than Wimbash’s 1,818. Moreover, Etling’s top target in yardage, wide receiver D.J. Chark, finished with 811 yards supported by 400 more from Guice and Williams out of the backfield. This demonstrates a balance when the Tigers go hunting for points. Comparatively, the top Irish receiver, Equanimeous St. Brown, is having a down year with 468 yards. To make matters worse, the next three receivers on the depth chart expected to be inactive.
That’s not to say Coach Orgeron and Louisiana Tech will take his gold-helmed competition lightly. When asked what he admired more about them on film Coach O stated, “The left guard and left tackle — can’t keep my eyes off of them.” He opined further, “Their quarterback is dangerous, Obviously, he is a dual-threat quarterback. He’s dangerous with the ball in his hands.”
If LSU’s cornerback, Andraez Williams finishes strong on this season’s five interceptions and nine passes defended to shut down Brown, Notre Dame will be forced to win with only one dimension on offense.
Is it possible for the Fighting Irish to overcome that? The Tigers are missing starting linebackers and football sometimes works in mysterious ways — so maybe so. But all will be revealed come 1 p.m. EST.