It’s Tigers vs. Tigers in the National Championship Monday night in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Which offense has the advantage? Which players will play a key role in determining the winner of the college football final playoff? Here’s a breakdown of each side of the ball, and “X-factors” that could play a huge role in the outcome.
LSU offense vs Clemson defense
This is the prime matchup everyone is waiting to see. Can Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables slow down LSU’s passing attack? If you look at the numbers, they suggest it’s quite possible. Clemson comes in statistically with the best defensive secondary in college football, only allowing 151 yards per game. They’ve also only allowed 11.5 points per game all season, but that was mostly against an ACC schedule.
The Tigers of LSU, on the other hand, come in with the best offense in college football, averaging 48.9 points per game and 564.1 yards per game. Obviously, something has to give, and it may come down to who wins at the line of scrimmage.
Clemson no longer has that great defensive line they had last season. Clelin Ferrell, Christian Wilkins and Dexter Lawrence all went in the top-20 of the 2019 NFL Draft. Filling those shoes is star defensive lineman Tyler Davis. So what has Venables done to make up for the lack of a pass rush? He’s blitzed and blitzed a lot.
Led by the Butkus Award winner, Isaiah Simmons, Clemson has put pressure on QBs all season. Will it work on LSU QB Joe Burrow? Well, numbers suggest Burrow has excelled under pressure. Burrow not only leads the FBS in pass efficiency against the blitz (212.7 rating), but he completed over 74% of his passes for 1,556 yards and 19 touchdowns.
Another factor that will help LSU during this two-week span of preparation is the health of running back Clyde-Edwards Helaire. CEH didn’t see much of the field in the Peach Bowl, after injuring himself in bowl preparations. Now with an extra two weeks to get healthy, the Tigers should be at full strength on offense.
Head coach Ed Orgeron mentioned OL Damien Lewis and WR Terrace Marshall should both be healthy to play in this game, and I think that’s huge on both ends. All season we’ve seen Burrow pick and choose which wide receiver he wants to use to attack a defense. Now with Marshall back in the mix, Burrow has five options to find the open target.
Clemson will counter with their star linebacker Simmons, who cannot only stop the run, but as a former safety, he’s expected to follow the slot receiver over the middle. Safety Tanner Muse leads the Clemson Tigers with the most interceptions on the team.
While Clemson is a very talented team, their defensive numbers are inflated just a bit due to the competition in the ACC. We saw Ohio St QB Justin Field throw for over 300 yards on this defense. If not for a late interception, LSU could be battling the Buckeyes in New Orleans instead.
Overall, LSU has yet to be stopped offensively, and while there’s been chatter about how Alabama came into last year’s championship and was limited to 16 points...this Clemson team is a drop-off from last year’s team. I expect LSU to put up their points as usual.
Clemson offense vs LSU defense
While Joe Burrow is the talk of this game, Clemson QB Trevor Lawrence is being overshadowed. Lawrence is 25-0 in his career as a starter at Clemson and has yet to see his Tigers lose a game. Once at the top of the list of Heisman candidates, Lawrence fell off quickly due to his slow start. In his first seven games, Lawrence threw eight interceptions. Since then, Trevor Lawrence has an impressive streak of 22 touchdowns to zero interceptions.
Like LSU, Clemson has a juggernaut offense that averages 538.4 yards per game. We saw just how dangerous they can be in the semi-final, when Clemson came storming back to defeat Ohio State. Clemson also has a trio of elite wide receivers, which includes Tee Higgins, Justyn Ross and Amari Rodgers. This will likely be the second best group of WR’s LSU has faced behind Alabama’s Jerry Jeudy, DeVonta Smith and Henry Ruggs III. This season, Higgins & Ross have combined for 117 catches, 1,904 yards and 21 touchdowns.
Clemson’s WRs will likely face their biggest test, when they get matched up against LSU’s Kristian Fulton, Derek Stingley Jr., Grant Delpit and Kary Vincent Jr.. However, we did see in the Peach Bowl that Oklahoma exposed the Tigers defensively when they put Ceedee Lamb on linebacker Jacoby Stevens. I think Clemson will try to put one of their best wide receivers in the slot and hope to expose the nickel defensive back. LSU will need Kary Vincent Jr. or freshman Maurice Hampton to play their best game to eliminate the deep ball from Lawrence.
Another challenge the Clemson Tigers present to defenses is the explosiveness of running back Travis Etienne. The Louisiana native from Jennings is only seven yards away from breaking Clemson’s all-time rushing record. I expect Clemson to use Etienne to control the time of possession. There have been times, however, when Etienne was shut down, but he made up for it in the passing game. (See Ohio State.) In the three games where Etienne saw his lowest output rushing, he faced two SEC teams (USC & Texas A&M) and Ohio State.
The narrative for the second half of the season is that LSU’s defense isn’t “legit” or “elite,” after their performance against Ole Miss. Take into account LSU was dealing with injuries in the secondary and was up double digits for the majority of the game. Since then, the LSU defense has played like the Tiger defenses of old, dominating Texas A&M, Georgia and Oklahoma.
Another factor that LSU may benefit from is the return of LB Michael Divinity Jr. — the senior from New Orleans returns who left the team earlier this season. Trevor Lawrence has already mentioned Divinity’s number a few times during media sessions, so he’ll be someone to keep an eye on when the Tigers try to create pressure on the QB.
While I think the LSU defense should get to Lawrence, there’s a reason he’s already projected to be the No. 1 pick for the 2021 NFL Draft. I’ll give the Clemson Tigers the advantage here similar to what we saw from Tua Tagovailoa and Alabama earlier this season. The Tide was able to move the ball, but it’ll come down to stops and turnovers.
This is the area that I see LSU having the biggest gap in advantages. Derek Stingley Jr. has returned kicks all season for LSU and has almost broken a few big returns. Maybe that happens Monday night. But LSU also has a guy who hasn’t seen much of the field...that’s Zach Von Rosenberg. If for some reason this game turns into a field possession game, LSU has a 29-year-old punter, who can turn the field with just one kick.
Finally, the biggest advantage on special teams is kicker. Clemson’s B.T. Potter has been inconsistent all season going (12/20). LSU has a freshman kicker, who Orgeron claims will be one of the best kickers in college football before his time is over at LSU, Cade York. York is (21/26) in field goals and (4/5) in 50+ yard attempts. If this game comes down to a last second field goal, there will be some nervous fans on both sides, but LSU has to feel some comfort in York.
We’ve broken down most of the head to head matchups in this game, but it could come down to a few interesting factors. Outside of turnovers, the biggest reason Clemson advanced in the semi-final game was because of their red zone defense. Ohio State had multiple opportunities to go up big on the Tigers, yet the Buckeyes settled for field goals. The one game the LSU Tigers struggled in this season was against the Auburn Tigers. A big part of that game was LSU’s inability to get seven points instead of three.
Why is that worth mentioning? Clemson comes in with the second best red zone defense in college football, allowing a touchdown only 35.7% of the time. On the flip side, LSU’s offense is the No. 1 scoring red zone offense in the country scoring points 97.1% of the time, while converting touchdowns 78.6%.
I think if LSU goes down the field and can score when the field starts to shrink, the Tigers can jump on Clemson. Otherwise, keeping Trevor Lawrence in the game will only grow confidence on the Clemson sideline.
Finally, the last X-factor in this game also involves something we saw against Auburn. Red-zone scoring was key, but so was getting pressure on Burrow. Auburn was able to rush 3-4 men and drop the rest into the secondary and over the middle. We saw Oklahoma try this. The LSU offensive line ate their lunch, and Burrow picked them apart for seven touchdowns in the 1st half.
Expect Venables, who’s been blitzing with this team more than any other during his tenure at Clemson, to find ways to put pressure on Burrow, while also limiting the spaces for him to throw. Will he be able to accomplish this? We’ll see. But, giving Joe Burrow time with his options at WR, TE and RB has been a bad recipe for defenses all season.