It's fitting that the newly resplendent Superdome will be the site of an illustrious Sugar Bowl match-up featuring an LSU team participating in the Golden Age of Tiger football and a Notre Dame team that is basking in the glow of its return to national prominence.
While a national championship isn't at stake, the game between the fourth-ranked Tigers (10-2) and 11th-ranked Fighting Irish (10-2) isn't lacking in gridiron glamour.
After a one-year Katrina-induced hiatus, the Sugar Bowl returns to New Orleans, where LSU has experienced some thrilling postseason moments in recent years. The Tigers won both the 2002 and 2004 Sugar Bowls, the latter of which was the national championship game of the Bowl Championship Series (BCS).
LSU head coach Les Miles, now in his second season in Baton Rouge, inherited one of the top football programs in the nation from Nick Saban, and Miles has kept the Tigers on their lofty perch. For the first time in school history, LSU posted back-to-back 10-win seasons. The trip to New Orleans marks a school-record seventh straight bowl game appearance.
Meanwhile, Notre Dame graduate and head coach Charlie Weis is authoring a rousing comeback story in South Bend, Ind. In his first two seasons, Weis has led the Fighting Irish to back-to-back BCS bowl games. A certifiable offensive warlock who earned three Super Bowl rings as a coordinator with the New England Patriots, Weis is restoring some of the swagger to one of America's proudest college football programs.
His immediate success with the Irish won him admirers within the team's rabid fan base and earned him a new contract. In October 2005, halfway through the first year of a six-year deal, Weis signed a 10-year extension.
Despite his auspicious start in South Bend, Weis and the Irish will try to put to bed a nasty bit of history in the Superdome. Notre Dame has lost eight straight bowl games. A loss to LSU would set a new NCAA record for postseason failure. The Irish's defeat of Texas A&M in the 1994 Cotton Bowl was the team's last bowl victory.
LSU finished the regular season on a six-game winning streak, punctuated by a victory against fifth-ranked and SEC Western Division Champion Arkansas. The Tigers managed to qualify for a BCS bowl game as an at-large team despite playing a murderous road schedule. They lost to Auburn and Florida and beat Tennessee and Arkansas. It's believed to be the first time in college football history that a team has faced four top-10 teams on the road in the same season.
Notre Dame can't claim the same momentum as its opponent heading into the Sugar Bowl, though the Irish's season kicked off with boundless expectations. The Associated Press ranked Notre Dame No. 2 in its preseason poll -- the team's highest preseason ranking since the 1994 season.
After starting 2-0, the Irish were blown out by No. 11 Michigan, 47-21, in a game played in South Bend. Notre Dame then reeled off seven straight victories against mostly mediocre opponents before facing No. 3 USC in the two schools' annual rivalry. The Trojans dominated the Irish 44-24. Penn State, ranked No. 19 at the time, was the only ranked opponent Notre Dame defeated this season.
In the Sugar Bowl, the Irish are the clear underdogs. You'd be hard-pressed to find a pundit or prognosticator around the country who is picking Notre Dame over LSU.
And that's eating at Irish star quarterback Brady Quinn.
"I'm sick and tired of hearing how bad we are," Quinn says. "That's all people seem to be saying sometimes. Notre Dame is one of those universities where you're either loved or hated. It's tough that you have to deal with the criticism all the time, and until we win a big game against a great team like that, you can't really say a whole lot back."
It's not hard to see why the Irish are such a polarizing program.
Notre Dame is the Coca-Cola of the college sports world -- an internationally renowned brand name that carries cachet on six continents. Fighting Irish football exudes a rare amalgam of history and pageantry, tradition and romance. It is the only college football team with its own national television contract.
Such exclusive treatment is bound to rankle some of those who don't don the stark golden helmets.
"They're the darlings," LSU senior defensive end Chase Pittman says. "Hopefully we can knock them off their media high horse that they're always on and show everybody that they really don't deserve to be where they are half the time."
LSU and Notre Dame do share at least one common trait: each team's quarterback is the face of the program. Brady Quinn and JaMarcus Russell will certainly have a hand in determining which team wins.
Quinn, a finalist for the Heisman Trophy, has made wholesale revisions to the Notre Dame record books -- an impressive feat considering the abundance of great quarterbacks who have played in South Bend.
In 2006, the senior threw for an astounding 3,278 yards, 35 touchdowns and only five interceptions. Three of those interceptions came in a single game against Michigan. The gaudiest of his statistics were amassed against opponents like North Carolina and Michigan State, two teams that won a combined seven games. Still, his size, arm strength, mobility and leadership skills have made him a candidate to be the first pick in the 2007 NFL draft.
Notre Dame's passing game is, without question, the strongest facet of its team.
Second-team All-American Jeff Samardzija is the school's all-time leading receiver. This season, the senior has 70 catches for 958 yards and 11 touchdowns. At 6-foot-5 and 218 pounds, Samardzija has a knack for making game-changing receptions.
"When you're that big, you're a heck of a target," LSU head coach Les Miles says. "He's a very fluid athlete. He can move his body to the ball very comfortably. So we have great respect for Samardzija."
When Samardzija is covered, Quinn will look to another popular option -- senior receiver Rhema McKnight. In 2006, McKnight caught 64 passes for 885 yards and 15 touchdowns.
While Quinn's prolific abilities put a premium on the pass, the Irish offense is not one-dimensional. Junior running back Darius Walker has rushed for 1,139 yards and seven touchdowns this season. It's his second straight 1,000-yard season. He's also an adept receiver, having made 54 catches this year.
Unlike LSU, Notre Dame's tight end is an integral part of its passing game. Six-foot-6-inch senior John Carlson, who has caught 46 passes, is especially valuable on third downs and in the red zone.
While Notre Dame faced powerhouses USC and Michigan, which will meet each other in the Rose Bowl, LSU has the most ferocious defense the Irish will encounter all season. The Tigers are ranked second in the nation in total defense. They are agile, mobile and, in terms of on-the-field disposition, irritable.
The Notre Dame offensive line, which has allowed 30 sacks this season, will be counted on to neutralize LSU's relentless pass rush. The Tigers have registered at least one sack in 18 straight games.
All-American junior defensive tackle Glenn Dorsey gets most of the notoriety on the Tigers' defensive line, but sophomore defensive end Tyson Jackson, who has eight-and-a-half sacks, was the most consistent of the front four this season.
LSU defensive coordinator Bo Pelini will try to limit Darius Walker's running room early while unleashing the pass rushers on Quinn.
The Tigers feature an athletic group of linebackers led by junior Ali Highsmith. They also have one of the most experienced safety tandems in the country in seniors LaRon Landry and Jessie Daniels. Landry, a former Hahnville star, is widely regarded as the finest safety in the nation and a likely first-round pick in the upcoming NFL draft. His speed, strength, instincts and big-hit ability give the Tigers the consummate field general in the secondary.
Notre Dame's best chance to score quickly is to isolate its star receivers on LSU cornerbacks Chevis Jackson and Jonathan Zenon, who are susceptible to the big pass play. In single coverage, the rangy Samardzija has a clear advantage over either of the Tigers' cornerbacks.
LSU junior quarterback JaMarcus Russell commands the No. 1-ranked offense in the SEC. At 6-foot-6 and 252 pounds, the First-Team All-SEC selection is a mammoth presence in and out of the pocket. He has a howitzer for an arm and surprising mobility for a man of his stature.
When asked if he had seen another quarterback as big as Russell, Notre Dame safety Tom Zbikowski replied "only on TV -- [Miami Dolphins quarterback] Daunte Culpepper -- that's about it."
And the maestro has quite the orchestra to back him up.
Receivers Dwayne Bowe, Craig Davis and Early Doucet constitute, arguably, the most talented troika of pass catchers in the country. They combined for 163 catches, 2,355 yards and 23 touchdowns in 2006. The Tigers are the only SEC team to have three receivers with at least 50 receptions each.
LSU's running game dealt with something of a multiple-personality disorder this season. Les Miles shuffled tailbacks Alley Broussard, Justin Vincent, Keiland Williams and jack-of-all-trades Jacob Hester in and out of the rotation, looking for the right fit. Williams, a freshman who has the best burst of speed of the group, has emerged as the late season starter. But Miles is unafraid to mix it up as the situation dictates.
The Tigers' offensive line lacks the experience and NFL potential that it's had in recent years, but the group has only allowed 18 sacks and has rarely been a cause for concern.
Notre Dame's best pass rusher, defensive end Victor Abiamiri, has registered 10 sacks this season. He has the daunting task of trying to do what many have failed to: sack JaMarcus Russell. LSU's mammoth quarterback is a big target, but he's not easy to hit and even tougher to bring down.
To keep the Tiger's speedy skill position players in check, Charlie Weis will need a stellar performance from junior Maurice Crum, the Irish's leading tackler and the most experienced linebacker. He's racked up four sacks and 10 tackles for a loss this season.
Notre Dame's finest defensive player is Third-Team All-American safety Tom Zbikowski. The third leading tackler on the team, Zbikowski is a professional boxer with the toughness and tenacity to match. He also returns punts and, more recently, kickoffs.
Against the Irish, Les Miles will try to establish the run. As a Michigan man, the bruising run-first ethos of the Big Ten Conference is in Miles' blood. That said, the Tigers were the most efficient passing offense in the SEC this season, and Notre Dame's secondary is the most vulnerable part of its defense.
The conclusion is obvious: LSU has to air it out.
In their two losses this season, star receivers terrorized the Irish. Michgan's Mario Manningham caught four balls, including three touchdowns, for 137 yards, and USC's Dwayne Jarrett caught seven passes for 132 yards and three touchdowns.
Notre Dame better get ready for Dwayne Bowe. At 6-foot-3 and 217 pounds, Bowe is as physical and as tough as a $3 steak. LSU's career leader in receiving touchdowns, he is also JaMarcus Russell's favorite target -- the two have connected for 22 touchdowns.
Catastrophic special teams errors doomed LSU in its loss to Florida, but moving sure-handed receiver Craig Davis to punt returner has solidified that position.
The Tigers' situational secret weapon comes in the tiniest of packages. At 5-foot-5, and 159 pounds, freshman Trindon Holliday is the most diminutive player on either roster, but he's also the most electrifying. The return specialist, who's occasionally used on offense, has touched the ball 19 times this season. And he's averaging a jaw-dropping 17.3 yards every time he does. He also turned in what may be the most important play of LSU's entire season -- a 92-yard kickoff return for a touchdown in the fourth quarter against Arkansas.
The beginning of the game is important for both teams, but it's especially crucial for the Irish.
LSU has a spotless 8-0 record at Tiger Stadium this season. And because the Sugar Bowl will be a de facto home game for the Tigers, they will have most of the sold-out Superdome cheering in purple-and-gold solidarity. A quick score or defensive stop will keep the LSU faithful at their boisterous best and could plant a seed of doubt in the minds of Notre Dame players.
The Irish know everyone thinks they're outmatched. The Tigers want to drive home the point early.
"I think the most important thing is to not give up big plays," Irish coach Charlie Weis says. "I think that's the most important factor in this game. I think that when we've given up big plays, we've fallen behind and we've been fortunate a couple times to be able to rally and a couple times not. So I think it's important to make sure we make them have to be patient in what they do and not give up the big play."
Conversely, a strong start for Notre Dame will muffle the throaty majority and offer a stiff shot of confidence to the underdogs.
The Irish defense must be opportunistic. In LSU's 23-10 loss to Florida, the Tigers turned the ball over five times, including three JaMarcus Russell interceptions. Notre Dame will need defensive takeaways to keep LSU's offense off the field and give the Irish offense better field position.
Weis admits that there is a lot working against his team. LSU played a tougher schedule this season, has fared better against ranked opponents and boasts better talent on both sides of the ball. But the famously irascible Weis is defiant.
"If you think we're going down there just to get our butts beat, you're wrong," Weis says. "That's not our intent. But we know we have a formidable challenge. And we know that we're going to have to play good on special teams, on offense and on defense to have a chance to win the game. So we're not exactly throwing in the towel, in case you're wondering."
Quinn, the Golden Domers' Golden Boy, garnered his share of individual achievements while in South Bend, but he's still looking for that elusive taste of postseason success.
"We haven't gotten a bowl win since I've been here, so why not prove everyone else wrong who says we're not good enough to beat LSU right now," Quinn says.
While Notre Dame is battling for national respect, LSU is looking for some senior symmetry.
"I think it couldn't be better for us to come back to New Orleans and play, especially for the senior class," says LSU receiver Craig Davis, a former star at New Orleans' O. Perry Walker. "We came in as freshmen in 2003 and played in the Sugar Bowl, and it couldn't be better than to finish up there."
- Notre Dame Sports Information
- Notre Dame quarterback Brady Quinn, a finalist for the Heisman Trophy, prepares to hurl a pass against the Purdue Boilermakers. In 2006, his mighty arm yielded 3,278 yards and 35 touchdowns with only five interceptions.
- LSU/Steve Franz
- LSU junior quarterback and First-Team All-SEC selection JaMarcus Russell commands the No. 1-ranked offense in the SEC and is himself surprisingly mobile for a 6-foot-6, 252-pound player.
- LSU/Steve Franz
- In the two years he's been the Tigers' head coach, Les Miles has led the team to back-to-back 10-win seasons for the first time in school history and the Sugar Bowl game marks LSU's seventh consecutive bowl-game appearance.