Jeff Duncan at NOLA.com had an article this morning quoting a source connected to the Citrus Bowl as stating there is an overwhelming likelihood of an LSU-Michigan State matchup in the Citrus Bowl in Orlando on Jan. 1.
Citrus Bowl officials met on Wednesday night in Orlando to vote on their preference and LSU was an overwhelming favorite to represent the SEC over Mississippi State and South Carolina, the source said. Michigan State was the choice as the Big Ten rep, with Notre Dame a distant second choice.
A remote possibility exists that could knock LSU out of the Citrus Bowl picture. If Auburn or Georgia suffered such a lopsided defeat in the SEC title game that they plummeted out of the top 12 in the CFP rankings, then the Citrus Bowl would likely take one of those schools over LSU. But that seems unlikely.
It would be LSU’s second consecutive trip to the Orlando, Fla., game and fifth overall. The Tigers defeated Louisville 29-9 in last season’s game on Dec. 31, 2016. LSU lost to Penn State 19-17 in the 2009 game, called the Capital One Bowl at the time. Iowa beat LSU 30-25 in the 2004 Capital One Bowl. LSU beat Wake Forest 31-10 in the 1979 game, which was called the Tangerine Bowl.
A bit of a fun factoid should Michigan State be the opponent – LSU has only played Sparty once, and that was also in a bowl: the Tigers plowed Nick Saban and Michigan State in the 1995 Independence Bowl by a 45-26 count. A little extra on that game: it was a bowl win for Gerry DiNardo in his first season as LSU’s head coach, as it’s Ed Orgeron’s first season as head man at LSU this year.
The two teams are fairly evenly matched, as both are 9-3 and only two losses (6-2 for LSU, 7-2 for Michigan State) in conference play in the two toughest leagues in college football. Michigan State is No. 16 in the playoff rankings; LSU is No. 17.
It’s unlikely the scenario where LSU gets knocked out of the Citrus Bowl will play out, unless you think Auburn is going to beat Georgia down in Atlanta Saturday by a similar margin they clobbered the Bulldogs in the regular season. We doubt that, though it’s possible. Alabama won’t fall out of a New Year’s Six bowl in any event and might even climb into the playoffs in the event Clemson, Wisconsin or Oklahoma lose in their conference championship games, so they can’t fall to the Citrus.
Michigan State has some of the elements of a team LSU could struggle with. They do boast a running quarterback in sophomore Brian Lewerke, who has 486 yards and five touchdowns in 110 carries, and two of LSU’s three losses this year came to teams (Alabama and Mississippi State) whose quarterbacks can run. That said, overall Michigan State isn’t all that dynamic a rushing offense. They average a respectable 163 yards per game on the ground, but only 3.9 yards per carry. They’ve been inconsistent running the ball against good defenses – 151 yards against Notre Dame, only 88 against Iowa, 158 against Michigan, just 95 against Northwestern, only 74 against Penn State, only 64 against Ohio State.
Lewerke might be, however, one of the best passing quarterbacks LSU has faced all year. He’s got a pass efficiency rating of only 124.2, owing largely to a somewhat-pedestrian 58.8 percent completion percentage, but he’s thrown for 2,580 yards this year and a 17-7 TD-interception ratio on 396 pass attempts. And at times, Lewerke has put up some video game numbers – he was 31 for 51 for 340 in the loss to Notre Dame, 39-57 for 445 yards and 4 TD’s in the overtime loss to Northwestern, and 33-56 for 400 in the win over Penn State. LSU can claim to be a better pass defense than those teams, though – LSU ranks 8th in the country in pass efficiency defense with an opponents’ QB rating of 108.40, and Michigan State played one team in the top 10, which was No. 3 Michigan at 100.19. In that game, which the Spartans won 14-10, Lewerke was 11 of 22 for 94 yards. In a 17-10 win over Iowa, which was 14th in pass efficiency defense at 110.50, Lewerke was 18 of 28 for 212 and a pair of touchdowns. In all, the Spartans only average 23.8 points per game, which is a bit on the anemic side offensively.
Where Michigan State makes a living, though, is on defense. They rank 16th in pass efficiency defense at 110.90, 31st in pass defense at 196.5 yards per game (LSU is 20th at 185.3), 23rd in scoring defense at 20.3 points per game (LSU is 17th at 18.8), 9th in total defense at 297.8 yards per game (LSU ranks 14th at 311.7) and a very impressive 5th in rushing defense at a stingy 101.3 yards per game (LSU is 24th at 126.4). That MSU rush defense only gives up 3.4 yards per attempt to opposing ballcarriers, which ranks 14th in the country.
How does Sparty stack up against a backfield like LSU’s, with future NFL’ers Derrius Guice and Darrell Williams in it? It will be fun to see if this matchup becomes reality. In the Penn State game Michigan State held Saquon Barkley to 65 yards on 14 carries. Notre Dame managed 182 yards rushing against MSU, but Michigan only managed 102. Perhaps the closest thing to a Guice-Williams backfield tandem they’ve faced was Ohio State’s J.K. Dobbins and Mike Weber, and those two went wild against the Spartans, with Dobbins picking up 124 yards on 18 carries and Weber going him one better, popping for 162 and two touchdowns on nine carries. Guice, who holds the SEC record for 250-yard games in a career with three, is capable of such heroics.
It’ll be a good game if it happens, and fans of hard-nosed defensive football will love it. We’d like to see it, if for no other reason than for it to happen this weekend’s SEC Championship game will likely have to be a good one.