NEW ORLEANS — When it comes time to write the story of the 2019 college football season, we will not just start with Joe Burrow. We will ask Burrow to write it. He will be quick, he will be absurdly accurate, he will make sure a whole bunch of people get involved, he will explain what his coach actually said, and he will finish with a flourish.
LSU is your national champion, the best team playing its best football at the best time, thanks mostly to the nation’s best player. Burrow was great when his team wasn’t, then great when it was. He ended the night with 31 completions (in 49 attempts), 463 yards, five touchdowns and one fat, lit stogie dangling from his mouth. His coach, Ed Orgeron, warned him, “Take it easy on that see-gar, boy,” as though Burrow might drop it and burn his leg off or something. The guy just spent four months setting college football on fire. He can handle one cigar.
How good was Burrow? How good is LSU?
Well, college football history is dotted with champions that won with outrageous talent and champions that won because of a collective belief that they would never lose.
Once in a while, you find a team with both qualities.
A team like Clemson.
Clemson had won 29 games in a row, and Burrow just eviscerated that team. Having an exceptional receiving corps helped, of course. Consider: In LSU’s last outing, Justin Jefferson had 227 receiving yards. This time, Ja’Marr Chase had 221. And if LSU had to play again, receiver Terrace Marshall Jr. would probably hit the 200 mark.
“You can’t double-team all three of us,” Jefferson said. “Somebody’s gotta eat, and tonight was Ja’Marr’s night.”
It was, except really, it was Burrow’s night. One play tells that story. With LSU leading 35-25. Burrow feathered a pass into the hands of Chase, who dropped it. Chase had a wonderful night, so it feels wrong to say he should have caught it. But … he should have caught it. LSU had to settle for a field-goal attempt, which failed.
Burrow just did what he has done all season: Lead another touchdown drive, finishing with a—you’ll never believe this—perfect pass to Terrace Marshall Jr. LSU led by the final margin, 42-25, and LSU fans were ready to start partying in the streets of New Orleans, which they had conveniently begun doing like a week ago.
This is LSU’s championship, Ed Orgeron’s championship, all of their championship. But this will be Joe Burrow’s season, forever. Very few players in the sport’s 150-year history dominated from start to finish like Burrow did. He threw 48 touchdown passes in his team’s first 13 games, then got better. He threw 12 in two playoff games, including five in this one.
But this went beyond his stats. Burrow played like he knew he could complete every pass, avoid every blitz, run for any first down he needed. He took the entropy out of the game.
Clemson was the undefeated defending national champion with the best NFL prospect in the country (quarterback Trevor Lawrence), but there was no doubt, as midnight approached in the Crescent City, that LSU was the better team.
LSU gained 359 yards in the first half, which begged the question: What was wrong with LSU? We kid, sort of. But the Tigers started slow. They kept dropping passes. They punted four times. LSU’s offense was so good all year that when it stalls at all, you expect a CHECK ENGINE light to appear on the sideline.
The Tigers destroyed so many teams this year, including Oklahoma in the “semifinal” exhibition two weeks ago, that it was easy to wonder how they would respond when faced with an actual deficit. But if you have paid any attention to Burrow this year, you didn’t wonder. The presumptive No. 1 NFL draft pick is deadly serious, the adult in any room he enters.
Running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire explained that behind that stoic veneer a stoic core: “Everybody thinks Joe is always that calm guy. He is.” Marshall said, “The blood pressure never changes,” Jefferson said, “Joe doesn’t get bothered by the score at all.”
Burrow did not come all this way, from Athens, Ohio to Columbus to Baton Rouge and finally to New Orleans, just to let a few failed drives ruin his night. He kept throwing darts over the middle and delicately placed deep balls along the sideline and figured his excellent receivers would start catching them, which they did.
At halftime, LSU led 28-17, and LSU got the ball first in the second half, and it was easy to wonder if Clemson was going to get knocked out. But if you have paid any attention to Clemson under Dabo Swinney, you didn’t wonder. Dabo says sit, the Tigers sit. Dabo says fight, they fight. Dabo says roll over, they know he is kidding, because Clemson never rolls over.
Clemson fought, the way you would expect a team playing for its third title in four years to fight. Lawrence led a touchdown drive that ended with a two-point conversion. Even down 35-25, having lost starting linebacker James Skalski to a targeting ejection, Clemson fought. Clemson always fights. But this season, Joe Burrow and LSU always won.