Now that we’ve completed a halfway dramatic set of College Football Playoff semifinals, the matchup is set for what could be a great championship game. Five quick thoughts as we embark on the very long run-up to Clemson-LSU in New Orleans:
1. The QB matchup is truly historic. LSU’s Joe Burrow may be authoring the best college season we've ever seen. Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence may be authoring the best college career we've ever seen. Which one will finally taste defeat?
Even when it no longer seems possible, Burrow keeps outdoing himself. The landslide Heisman Trophy winner dropped season-highs in yards (493), touchdown passes (seven) and efficiency rating (239.77) on Oklahoma in the Peach Bowl, and there’s no telling how high the numbers would have gone if he played all game. He broke a number of playoff records in the process.
That performance has him on pace to break Tua Tagovailoa’s FBS record for single-season efficiency—he’s at 204.60, and Tua’s 2018 record is 199.44. He also could break Colt McCoy’s single-season accuracy record, having completed 77.6% of his throws compared to McCoy’s 76.7 in 2008. And he will take aim at Colt Brennan’s single-season touchdown mark of 58 as well—Burrow has 55 and counting.
But don’t forget about Clemson’s guy. Lawrence has never lost a college game, is now 25-0 as a starter and within 60 minutes of a repeat national championship. If Clemson wins and projects as the 2020 title favorite again, Lawrence could become the first FBS quarterback to lead three straight champions.
Lawrence showed the entire range of his gifts against Ohio State Saturday—arm, legs, mind, guts—and he needed them all to pull out the victory. After being maligned early in the season for throwing too many interceptions, he’s currently working on a streak of 201 consecutive passes without one.
2. Clemson is lucky there is an unusually long break between games. The Tigers (upstate version) are coming off a semifinal slugfest, while LSU is basically coming off a spa treatment.
The average amount of time between semifinals and final in the five years of the playoff has been 9.8 days. This year, it’s 16 (giving casual fans plenty of time to lock in on the NFL playoffs and forget college football is still happening). While that gap could affect either or both teams in terms of sharpness, there is no doubt that Clemson is advancing after a more taxing challenge, both physically and emotionally. The players’ bodies and minds will need time to recharge.
That said, the extended lag time also helps a couple Tigers (bayou version). Versatile LSU running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire had been slowed by a hamstring injury and played sparingly in the rout of Oklahoma, running the ball twice and catching no passes. And offensive coordinator Steve Ensminger will get some time to grieve the stunning death of his daughter-in-law, Carley McCord, in a plane crash the day of the Peach Bowl.
3. Ohio State exposed some defensive shortcomings in Clemson that nobody in the ACC could exploit. LSU could and probably will take advantage of some of those same issues.
Clemson surrendered season-highs Saturday across the board: points (23), total yards (516), rushing yards (196) and passing yards (320). The only salvation was stops in the red zone, and a couple of those were more attributable to Ohio State error than anything else. Coordinator Brent Venables eventually dialed up some things that created problems for the Buckeyes, but it was close to a rout early.
The issues start up front, where Ohio State gave quarterback Justin Fields plenty of time in the pocket against a young Clemson pass rush that is averaging its fewest sacks per game since 2013. The LSU offensive line won the Joe Moore Award as the best unit in the sport, and it has only allowed 30 sacks in a season with 518 pass attempts.
And while the Clemson back seven is both talented and experienced, it also lost its share of individual matchups against the Ohio State receivers. The problem now for the orange Tigers is that LSU’s receiving corps is even better.
4. LSU cannot sit around waiting for Clemson to beat itself, because the Tigers (upstate version) won't do it.
They've had just one turnover since Oct. 19, and that was an interception thrown by backup quarterback Chase Brice in a rout of Wake Forest. They're a plus-17 turnover margin over the last nine games, and haven’t had a negative turnover margin in a game since September.
As noted earlier, Lawrence hasn’t thrown a pick since the first quarter at Louisville. And Clemson hasn’t lost a fumble since Oct. 12. The orange Tigers also rank 21st nationally in fewest penalty yards, while LSU is 85th.
In their last three CFP games, Clemson is at plus-five turnovers and has just a single giveaway.
5. LSU has to stay grounded. Playing for the national championship is same-old, same-old for Clemson, which is appearing in the title game for the fourth time in the last five seasons. The Tigers (bayou version) have to handle the hoopla and the game being in their backyard.
The Louisiana location can certainly help in terms of expected home field advantage, but it will also add to the outside noise LSU players have to block out. Sometimes it’s good to get away from home.
Also, any potential overconfidence that came from beating the tar out of a truly inferior Oklahoma team would be dangerous. LSU staffers were privately saying the Sooners were the fifth-best team they’d faced in 2019; Clemson will be the best.