Answering the burning questions about LSU and coach Les Miles
For those who are curious, LP Field, site of the 17th annual Music City Bowl, does indeed feature natural grass.
But it’s not just any natural grass, it’s Tifsport Bermuda Sod. Theoretically, that means it’s cold tolerant, is excessive-traffic tolerant, features good lateral growth and … is tasty?
We’ll likely have to wait until Game Day on Dec. 30, when No. 22 LSU (8-4) and its renowned grass-eating coach, Les Miles, takes on Notre Dame (7-5) in Nashville, Tenn., to find that out.
In the meantime, here’s an early look at Miles and the Tigers through the eyes of Baton Rouge Advocate columnist Scott Rabalais:
1. Let’s start with head coach Les Miles. Is he as eccentric as he is portrayed to be by the outside world looking in?
Miles is definitely unconventional, though there are times when I wonder whether some of his antics are a bit of an act.
I think he'd like people to underestimate him, because, by proxy, they will then underestimate his team. But it's not all an act. This is a guy who used to turn handstands on the school bus and once told a friend he wanted to be the next Johnny Carson.
2. What are his strengths as a football coach and leader?
Whether or not you subscribe to the definition of a "player's coach," Miles' players definitely like playing for him and play hard for him. He rarely, if ever, can be seen berating a player for a mistake. He's passionate but positive, always optimistic about his team and their ability to win.
He delegates a lot to his staff, the highest paid in the country, but also likes to get in there and help coach the offensive line, his old position (Miles was a guard at Michigan).
He's criticized, and rightly so, for his in-game and clock management at times, but with time to prepare LSU has been quite effective. The Tigers are 10-0 under Miles in season openers and 6-3 in bowl games.
3. Is there substance to his name being connected to the Michigan vacancy, and if so what are the chances he actually leaves LSU to take that job?
I've never been around a coach who is more overt in his love for his alma mater. He often mentions Michigan and even tweeted "Geaux Blue!!" before this year's Michigan-Ohio State game (Geaux is a popular faux-Cajun French spelling for "Go"in these parts).
I firmly believe he would have left for Michigan in 2007 if it weren't for the Kirk Herbstreit report the day of the SEC Championship Game. He was teammates with interim Michigan AD Jim Hackett in the 1970s, so there's a substantial amount of substance right there.
There are some strong headwinds against him becoming the coach at UM, though. He's 61, there's the infatuation with Jim Harbaugh, there's the fact he is successful and highly paid at LSU ($4.3 million per year) and a substantial anti-Miles contingent led by Lloyd Carr.
It's certainly possible, but I'd rate the chance of him leaving at about 30 percent.
4. Which is the truer portrait of who this LSU team really is — the one that beat Ole Miss and took Alabama to overtime in consecutive weeks or the won that got drubbed by Auburn?
It's a young team that is capable of some pretty big mood swings, as seen by the 17-0 loss at Arkansas a few weeks ago, and the offense wasn't great even against Ole Miss and Alabama.
But clearly this is a better team overall than it was at Auburn, namely because of the defense. They are much better against the run and have always been good against the pass.
5. What is LSU’s best matchup in this game and what is the quarterback situation?
LSU rushed for 384 yards and piled up nearly 500 yards total offense last time out at Texas A&M. Against a defense struggling like Notre Dame has, there isn't much suspense how the Tigers will try to attack.
I think we saw what LSU will like to do at QB against the Aggies: pass just enough to keep the defense honest and run some zone reads with Anthony Jennings.
We keep hearing Jennings and Brandon Harris are splitting time at practice, but (Harris) never sees the field. He's the better passer but I still wouldn't expect to see him play significantly in this game.
6. Do LSU fans, as some ND fans tend to do, look at what Gunner Kiel did at Cincinnati this year and wonder what might have been had he held firm in his commitment to LSU?
No doubt. LSU's had several quarterbacks leave early, including Philip Rivers' younger brother Stephen transferring to Vanderbilt, so Kiel is just one of cast of potential leading men for the Tigers.
Just as much of a question at this point is LSU's ability to develop young quarterbacks under offensive coordinator Cam Cameron. Zach Mettenberger came to LSU a much more polished product as a junior college transfer.
7. How much pressure was on freshman running back Leonard Fournette this year and how did he handle it?
A tremendous amount, some of it brought on himself with a Heisman pose after his first touchdown, but also the fact he was the nation's No. 1 recruit and an in-state product to boot. He's very mature for his age and seems to have handled it well, but there were times he looked like he was trying too hard.
8. Who is the player who can be the X-Factor for LSU in the Music City Bowl?
Wide receiver John Diarse. Travin Dural is the deep threat (and ran several jet sweeps at Texas A&M), but Diarse is developing into quite the possession receiver.
9. Is this a matchup and a venue that excited the LSU players, coaches and fans or do they view this bowl game as “settling?”
Like all fans, they feel they should be playing for the national championship every year, and certainly it was more satisfying the last time LSU and Notre Dame met in the Sugar Bowl. Given the Tigers' youth this season an 8-4 season was quite realistic that they wind up here.
That said, there is much more "juice" for this bowl game because of the team LSU is playing. Last year they were in sunny Florida for the Outback Bowl, but because it was Iowa there was a big "Meh" factor.
The southern half of Louisiana is heavily Catholic, so there has always been a strong desire to play — and beat — Notre Dame. Religion is one thing, but football religion around here is also pretty strong.
10. Is this a team with the potential to be in the playoff or “New Year’s Six” bowl next season?
If they can make marked improvement at the quarterback position, absolutely. The defense should be excellent again next season, and there will be some players who have to be replaced on the offensive line, but most of the offensive skill players are returning.
As in the last time LSU and Notre Dame played, I think the Tigers are hoping for a win to help them build momentum for a bigger 2015 season.
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Here’s how Notre Dame (7-5) and No. 22 LSU (8-4) rank in the 2014 national stats:.
Rushing offense 81 27
Passing offense 16 114
Total offense 35 77
Scoring offense 39 73
Pass efficiency 34 68
Sacks allowed 85 49
Turnover margin 89 38
Rushing defense 62 38
Pass-eff, defense 82 1
Total defense 69 8
Scoring defense 82 3
Sacks 71 97
Tackles for loss 63 67
Kickoff returns 60 14
Punt returns 43 26
Net punting 53 7