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Major Wager Bowl Preview Series: Sugar Bowl (Bowl #29)...By S.H. Austin

SUGAR BOWL (New Orleans)
1/3, 8 p.m. ET FOX

LSU by 10 points, total of 55.5

LSU: 10-2
Notre Dame: 10-2
It's funny how much the perception of where these teams rank in the big picture has changed since August. You can see that both finished 10-2. But, LSU is seen right now as being the much superior squad. That's why the pointspread is well over a touchdown. The Athlon preseason annual had Notre Dame at #2 in the country. Other pundits picked them to win the national championship, with QB Brady Quinn being a shoe-in for the Heisman Trophy. Phil Steele's publication was a bit less enthralled, but still had the Irish at #7. LSU was #11 with Athlon, and a distant #21 with Steele. The latter said they were very talented, but had a killer schedule. We still don't get why preseason picksters want to rank teams BEFORE ANY GAMES ARE PLAYED based on how they think they'll do against soft or weak schedules. Don't call them rankings. Don't call them a "Preseason Top 40" or whatever. Say they're your predictions for December. LSU wasn't the 21st best team in the country entering the season. The best team in the Big East isn't top four either. Anyway, both teams are happy to be in a BCS bowl. LSU managed to do that without even playing in the SEC championship game. They were a logical at-large pick for the New Orleans-based Sugar Bowl, as both New Orleans and Baton Rouge were greatly affected last year by Hurricane Katrina. That story will be a big part of the game coverage, no doubt. Notre Dame had an outside shot late in the year of sneaking into the BCS championship mix. Nobody's really thought of them as championship material since they trailed Michigan State 34-14 at the half of game four. The Irish had a six quarter stretch against Michigan and Michigan State that saw them down 78-35 on the scoreboard. Champions will have the occasional bad quarter, they won't have six quarters that look like THAT. The worse Michigan State got later in the season, the worse it looked that Notre Dame needed a miracle rally to beat them.

LSU: 33-13 versus the 28th ranked schedule
Notre Dame: 32-12 versus the 19th ranked schedule
It's funny that Notre Dame grades out as the better side in this particular section. Since the consensus is that they're at least a TD worse, there has to be something going on in the numbers here. The first suspect would be strength of schedule. We'll grant that Notre Dame had some tough games. They played both Rose Bowl teams, and six other opponents who went to bowl games. That "others" list includes the Purdue, Navy, and UCLA teams that lost their bowl games...and a Penn State team that looked awful much of the year. We don't think it was the 19th best schedule. LSU played in a killer conference, but had a week non-conference slate as big home favorites. It's kind of hard to judge in that light. LSU's margin was greatly padded by those home, patsy blowouts. They won those games 45-3, 45-3 (again), 49-7, and 38-6. They're not head and shoulders above other SEC teams, which is why they didn't represent their division in the conference championship game. Notre Dame matches up well with opponents like Purdue and Navy, but not at all with powers like Michigan and USC (losses of 47-21 and 44-24). It's best to explain the numbers this way: LSU routed the patsies, and at least held their own vs. tough SEC opponents. Notre Dame couldn't hold their own against top teams, but did win by impressive margins against many of the lesser teams they faced. If you flip flopped schedules, putting Notre Dame in the SEC, and LSU as a Midwest independent...we don't think that both teams would finish 10-2, or that this scoring margin category would be even. LSU would have defeated the military academies by monster margins. Notre Dame would have had more than two losses in the SEC. That fact and the Vegas line suggest LSU actually played the more demanding schedule.

LSU: 6-5-1 versus the spread
Notre Dame: 4-7-1 versus the spread
Any team picked to fight for the national championship will have a poor spread record if they fall a bit short. The Irish couldn't live up to expectations except when playing the service academies. They do match up well with undersized teams who don't know how to play catch up. Notre Dame was 3-0 ATS against Navy, Air Force and Army, 1-7-1 ATS against everyone else! The other cover was against Penn State and a rookie QB who was in way over his head in early September. For its part, LSU was 3-0-1 ATS in their non-conference home favorite games, 3-5 ATS versus everyone else. If not for a kickoff return TD at Arkansas, it would have been 2-6 ATS (Arkansas won yardage 360-328). Both teams are overrated in a big game atmosphere. It's important to remember that LSU doesn't always play up to their talent potential when the other team can walk and chew gum.

LSU: +165.4, with a season turnover differential of +2
Notre Dame: +77.5, with a season turnover differential of +5
Both teams have "bully" elements, in that they can pile up the yardage against soft opponents. LSU obliterated the non-conference patsies in the stats. To be fair, they outgained almost everyone else too. We mentioned the yardage loss to Arkansas. That was the only one all year. LSU was 11-1 in yardage, including stat victories on the road at Auburn and Florida. They had some turnover issues in their big games that we'll discuss later. In a nutshell, LSU kills soft teams, and will still have good stats against top competition. Notre Dame is an odd bird. They pass so much that it often gives them bully yardage. But, the coach tends to call off the dogs on the scoreboard when they reach the 40's. It's become common knowledge already in the brief Charlie Weis era that you go against Notre Dame when they lay a big number. It's not that the team isn't good enough to rout lesser teams. Weis calls the game in such a way that they don't embarrass the other side. At halftime, ND was on pace to beat North Carolina 62-26, and Army 54-6. The final scores were 45-26 (a non-cover) and 41-9. The Irish do different things against different types of teams, so a full-season stat average just doesn't mean anything when trying to evaluate them.

LSU: 28-8, very strong for a team with physicality
Notre Dame: 35-5, clearly the strength of the team

We've talked about this already. The best way to say it is this...LSU is a physical bully that has tons of talent. Notre Dame is a finesse bully more in the style of Louisville or Clemson. Weis chooses to "call off the jam" (an old roller derby term) earlier than those other guys do. Notre Dame could post a lot of Louisville-type scores if they wanted to. They choose not to. What's the right phrase? A bully with some class? A first half bully? In big games, Notre Dame gets exposed the way most finesse bullies do. That's the key point for this game. If they were laying 14 points against Navy or Air Force we'd be talking about what a steal they were. If they were playing Louisville, we'd be downplaying Louisville's perceived stat edges (+161.5 yards to +77.5 yards) because Notre Dame is roughly the same team as Louisville. Against a physical power, we have to let you know the defense is likely to look like a bunch of bowling pins all night.

LSU didn't play anyone that's very much like Notre Dame. The SEC isn't a finesse conference. The non-conference opponents weren't good matches either. Kentucky of the SEC did well in its bowl against the finesse approach of Clemson. LSU beat Kentucky 49-0. Compared to LSU, Kentucky is a finesse team. That's bad news for Notre Dame too. The finesse approach of Purdue lost to Maryland and its decent defense in a bowl. Purdue outgained Notre Dame head to head 490-454 but lost 35-21.

Notre Dame's game against Michigan is probably the best match. We're not ready to say that LSU is as good as Michigan. But, they're in the neighborhood. The biggest difference is that LSU can be very turnover prone in pressure situations (4 apiece at Florida and at Tennessee). Otherwise, they might as well be Michigan. The Irish lost that game 47-21, with a yardage deficit of 340-245. Notre Dame lost the turnover category 5-1...which is how Michigan could score 47 points on just 340 yards. Brady Quinn was pressured all day (24 incomplete passes and three picks). The defense was dealing with a short field all day, and couldn't do much to keep the Wolverines out of the end zone.

Notre Dame's game at USC approximates the caliber of team here. That was a 44-24 loss with 404-404 yardage. The Irish kept going for it on fourth down and failing. Obviously USC made better use of its yardage.

We're also reminded of Notre Dame's bowl game against Ohio State last year. The Buckeyes were physical. Total yardage in that game was 619-354 for Ohio State. Finesse teams have to play perfect ball to compete with physical powers. Coach Weis can talk all he wants about upgrading the program's physicality. It's not there yet.

LSU should be excited about playing in their home state.
Notre Dame might take the "us against them" mentality to its extreme and really come out fired up. They were humbled, though, at USC. That was going to be their "statement" game. All they did was remind everyone that they're a notch below the real powers in the sport.

LSU beat Miami of Florida 40-3 in the Peach Bowl, winning yardage 468-153
Notre Dame lost to Ohio State 34-20 in the Fiesta Bowl, losing yardage 619-354

LSU has alternated covers with non-covers in recent years. This isn't very uncommon, with players being flat the year after a win, but angry the year after a loss. Note that this is only LSU's second bowl appearance with Les Miles as head coach. His debut last year was great, needless to say. He's not generally thought of as a great big game coach though (with losses this year to Auburn and Florida backing that up).

Notre Dame has failed to cover in each of their last five postseason appearances. Charlie Weis was only the head coach for last year's yardage debacle.

Weird things can happen in bowls. So, even if LSU has a lot of physicality and talent depth advantages in its favor, they could still come out flat and suddenly be playing catch up. This is not a familiar role for them. Notre Dame does have upset potential.

That being said...

Here are the composite numbers from Notre Dame's games against Michigan and USC this year, and Ohio State last year:

Final Score: Opponents 42, Notre Dame 22 Yardage: Opponents 454, Notre Dame 334 Rushing: Opponents 179, Notre Dame 65

That's a lot of yards, and a lot of points for the other guys. The yards-per-point ratio isn't very good either, meaning that opponents are making efficient use of their yardage. You can see what we mean about Notre Dame having to play perfect ball to keep up. They're already behind the eight ball to begin with because the power teams are running on them. Should Quinn and company make turnovers, they've no chance to hang within striking distance.

Now, you can make a reasonable case that this LSU team isn't as good as that composite. Fine, we'll buy that. Knock five points off, and you still get a comfortable cover. Knock 75 yards off the total yardage, and you still get a stat win that's bigger than it looks because of the rushing disadvantage. Studies have shown that rushing yards have a much bigger impact on who wins big games than passing yardage does.

The goods news for Notre Dame fans is that all of that "knocking off" puts the Irish within striking distance if LSU has turnover troubles. This situation happened twice away from home in big games this year:

*LSU lost to Florida 23-10 despite a 318-288 yardage advantage because they lost the turnover category 4-2.

*LSU snuck by Tennessee 28-24 despite an enormous 478-248 yardage advantage because they lost the turnover category 4-2. Remember, this was the game Erik Ainge couldn't play for Tennessee because of injury. The backup was in way over his head...but LSU still had to score a last second TD to get the win.

LSU's been getting a lot of hype as an unrecognized super power. Be careful believing all of that. Yes, they're good. But, in the last month:

*LSU committed four turnovers and almost lost to Tennessee's backup quarterback. *LSU was less impressive statistically at home against Alabama than Oklahoma State was against that team in Shreveport. Nobody's calling Oklahoma State a top five BCS team. *LSU had to go overtime as a 27-point home favorite to beat an Ole Miss team that wasn't good enough to go to a bowl. *LSU suffered their only yardage loss of the season, but got past lame-duck Arkansas (the week before the SEC championship game) thanks to a kickoff return TD.

They have the talent to be a top five BCS team. They don't often actually play at that level.

I'd rate the percentages this way:

60% that the combination of LSU's physicality and the storybook Katrina atmosphere leads to a double digit win for the Tigers.

40% that Notre Dame hangs within the tall number thanks to a huge night from Quinn, and a few turnovers from the Tigers. A fast start for the Irish could force LSU into a style of game they're not comfortable playing.

What about the total?

A lot of the numbers we posted in the studies above suggest a high scoring game with either cheap points or a lengthy garbage time. Vegas oddsmakers have anticipated that with a very high total. LSU only made it past 55 points three times all season. There's really not much margin for error at that number, even if you're expecting a shootout. Because of respect for the scores in similar situations, we'll give a slight nod to the Over.

53% that both teams put a bunch of points on the board...and we either see a shootout or a replay of the USC/Notre Dame game.

47% that some long drives run clock before something annoying keeps the offenses out of the end zone, leading to an Under.

S.H. Austin

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