Three questions to ponder as we await the re-start of LSU practice Monday in preparation for its New Year’s Day Citrus Bowl appearance against Notre Dame:
1. Who will be calling the plays?
What is it about bowl games against Notre Dame that add an air of uncertainty to the LSU coordinators situation?
In the days leading up to the 2014 Music City Bowl between the Fighting Tigers and the Fighting Irish, the question was whether then-defensive coordinator John Chavis was going to bolt for Texas A&M. He did, like a shot, sparking a massive legal wrangling over his contract buyout that lasted 30 months and was finally dismissed in September, presumably via settlement.
LSU goes into this bowl game with a question on the offensive side. A little more than two weeks before the Tigers jet off to Orlando, Florida, the question is whether Matt Canada call the game and be part of Ed Orgeron’s staff going forward.
Orgeron made it clear at the end of the regular season he believes Canada is seeking to become a head coach. But there has been little evidence that he has been a major candidate anywhere. What has become more and more evident is that Orgeron and Canada don’t mesh, whether it’s in terms of offensive philosophy or personality or a combination of the two.
It was a different case with Chavis, whom then-LSU coach Les Miles was eager to keep on his staff. Chavis didn’t like the terms of his contract with LSU and probably (rightly) feared Miles was soon for the chop in terms of his coaching tenure. What Chavis didn’t foresee was that the ground under now former Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin was almost as shaky.
Who would call the Citrus Bowl if Canada doesn’t remain? Most certainly it would be tight ends coach Steve Ensminger, who served as offensive coordinator under interim coach Orgeron for eight games last year, including the 29-9 victory over Louisville in the Citrus Bowl. Ensminger appears a strong candidate to get the job on a full-time basis should Canada go.
Still, Canada has to have someplace to go first.
2. Will LSU’s major players play?
Last year the oft-injured Leonard Fournette not only sat out the Citrus Bowl but didn’t make the trip to Orlando with his LSU teammates, having declared for the NFL draft before the game. It was an unfortunate decision by Fournette. Not that he turned pro — that was a given. But that he didn’t come to the game and wait until after to make official his intentions.
Fournette and Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey, who sat out the Cardinal’s trip to the Sun Bowl, became focal points of a significant national debate about college players deciding to protect their NFL earning potential rather than playing in a “meaningless” bowl game. Their decision stood out in sharp contrast, in fact, to the decision of former Notre Dame linebacker Jaylon Smith, who suffered a significant knee injury in the 2016 Fiesta Bowl and missed all of his 2016 rookie season after being drafted 34th overall by the Dallas Cowboys. Before his injury, Smith was considered a potential top-10 pick.
To that end, the focus for LSU leading up to this Citrus Bowl has been whether two of the Tigers’ biggest stars on both sides of the ball — running back Derrius Guice and pass rushing linebacker Arden Key — would play, because both are expected to be first-round draft picks come May.
Guice has already said he will play in the game. Key, who has been off limits to the media most of this season, hasn’t made a statement, but Orgeron said earlier this month he expects the talented junior to play as well. Their contributions will be huge factors as to whether the Tigers can beat the Irish in a bowl this time around.
3. What’s new about the Citrus Bowl?
Fans were a bit turned off by the fact the 2016 Citrus Bowl had a 10 a.m. CST New Year’s Eve kickoff. The game was moved to Dec. 31 because New Year’s Day fell on a Sunday, a date reserved for the final week of the NFL’s regular season. This year, the Citrus Bowl will be played on a Monday and reverts to its regularly scheduled time slot: noon CST on New Year’s Day.
The only other major difference is the title sponsor. Gone is Buffalo Wild Wings. In its place is a boating and outdoors store called Overton’s, which will be the presenting sponsor as in the “Citrus Bowl presented by Overton’s” instead of the “Buffalo Wild Wings Citrus Bowl.” Overton’s is owned by Camping World, which has naming rights on the Orlando stadium where the game is played, hence the rather organic tie-in.