NASHVILLE, Tenn . — To quote country music immortal Johnny Cash, when it comes to bowl games, I’ve been everywhere, man.
New Orleans. Tampa. Dallas. Pasadena. Atlanta. Miami. Shreveport. Shreveport again.
Often, a bowl is just a bowl, the main difference being the colors of the ugly blazers the bowl committee members wear.
In most years, a game like the Music City Bowl would fit into that category like a teal 44 long sports coat. But like Taylor Swift, place Tuesday’s LSU-Notre Dame game in the crossover artist genre.
For the Tigers, this is more than a bowl, more than the end to a topsy-turvy, maddening, “Why doesn’t Les Miles ask the fans which quarterback he should start? I still can’t believe he didn’t play Jarrett Lee against Alabama” 2014 season.
This is the first game of the 2015 campaign.
The 2014 season is going to be remembered as a bridge year. Either a bridge back to LSU’s not-so-distant glory-filled past — or a bridge to nowhere.
Since 2011, LSU has gone from 8-0 in the Southeastern Conference to 6-2 to 5-3 to 4-4. Overall, the Tigers are a fairly tepid 28-11 since that infamous loss to Alabama in the 2012 BCS Championship Game. Not bad, but not exactly great, either.
It’s a pattern. Not a pattern that suggests a dire crisis. LSU football is not Greece’s economy or the Democratic Party. But it is a disturbingly downward trend, one that the Tigers will be charged with reversing in what looms as an incredibly pivotal 2015 season.
If momentum is worth something, it’s worth it for LSU to get a jump on next year at this year’s prices.
The Tigers may have started on their road back from irrelevance with their 23-17 Thanksgiving night victory at Texas A&M.
LSU left a lot of points on Kyle Field, but the Tigers moved up and down that field for nearly 500 yards. LSU displayed some new offensive wrinkles with jet sweep runs from wide receiver Travin Dural and effective zone reads by quarterback Anthony Jennings. The results were promising for an offense that managed just 23 points in its previous three games (Ole Miss, Alabama, Arkansas) combined.
Now, the Tigers try to take the next step.
Notre Dame looks the part of a willing accomplice. The 7-5 Irish have lost four of their past five games after a 6-0 start and a scare put into Florida State (everyone puts a scare into Florida State) and are allowing more than 400 yards per game. It has the makings of a perfect blend of conditions in which the fragile LSU offense can prosper.
If the Tigers don’t scuttle themselves with mistakes, as long as they don’t litter LP Field with turnovers or penalties, they should come away with a win to finish 9-4. It will boost their postseason ranking (No. 22), extend a string of nine-win seasons to six straight and most importantly give the impression that LSU football is trending upward again.
It wouldn’t be the first time that Notre Dame is there for LSU just when they need a season-ending bounce toward next year.
After the 2006 season, the Tigers dismantled the Irish 41-14 in the 2007 Sugar Bowl to finish that season 11-2 and set the stage for the 12-2 season in 2007 that resulted in LSU’s most recent national championship.
You’re looking for that kind of sign from LSU, like in the 2011 Cotton Bowl, in many ways a prelude to the 13-1 season that followed. The game was a coming-out party of sorts for players like Tyrann Mathieu, Eric Reid and Tharold Simon, players who would fill such key roles the following season.
It’s statement time again for Tigers like John Diarse, promoted to a starting wide receiver spot in advance of Tuesday’s game, to become stars. Players like Ethan Pocic, starting at center but a likely candidate to replace La’el Collins at left tackle next season. Players like safety Jamal Adams, already being called LSU’s next Reid, but a chance to earn even more preseason recognition for 2015 with a signature play in this game.
Considering how many fresh faces like Adams have played for LSU this season — a staggering 17 true freshmen in all — making an impression on recruits that this is still a championship program could pay big dividends on the Tigers’ next big “game day”: Feb. 4, the start of the national signing period.
It’s time to leave 2014 behind, and good riddance. The 2015 season awaits, and it could be big.
Follow Scott Rabalais on Twitter: @RabalaisAdv.