PARADISE VALLEY, Ariz. – The matchup of LSU and Clemson pits this season’s most relentless juggernaut against this decade’s most unstoppable program. It’s a collision of LSU’s pinball offense and Clemson’s relentless 29-game winning streak.
No. 1 LSU has opened up as six-point favorites against No. 3 Clemson. That’s a massive compliment to LSU, considering that Clemson hasn’t lost a game since Jan. 1 of 2018. Here are five early factors to take into consideration while we endure the 16-day break between the semifinals and the national championship.
This will be a quarterback matchup of the two likely No. 1 picks in the next two NFL drafts. Joe Burrow is amid a season that could be considered the most dominant in the history of the sport. Just when it appeared all hyperbole was exhausted, he went out and threw seven first-half touchdown passes against Oklahoma in the College Football Playoff. He finished with 493 yards on 29-for-39 passes and ran for another touchdown in the 63-28 blowout. On the year, Burrow has thrown 55 touchdowns, just six interceptions and his 77.6 percent completion percentage has him poised to break Colt McCoy’s NCAA record (76.7 percent). Clemson’s chances begin and end with stopping Burrow.
Finding help for Trevor
Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence has been his own quarterbacking supernova. He’s 25-0 as a starter in his career, including a personal filleting of Alabama, 44-16, in last season’s College Football Playoff title game. It became apparent against Ohio State, Clemson’s lone worthy foil this season, that Lawrence had to overcome some weaknesses around him. With Clemson’s offensive line ineffective, Lawrence scrambled for a season-high 107 yards. He also flashed elite speed in breaking off a 67-yard touchdown run. LSU’s defensive line isn’t as menacing as past editions. But thanks to 346-pound anchor Tyler Shelvin, it’s massive enough to neutralize Clemson’s ability to run between the tackles. That means Lawrence may need his legs again.
Playing the lowly underdog
It didn’t go unnoticed that Aretha Franklin’s iconic soul anthem, “Respect,” was blaring in the Clemson locker room when the media entered later Saturday night. Clemson coach Dabo Swinney has awkwardly attempted to cast the Tigers as disrespected underdogs, and he’s finally actually got a chance to trot that trope out this week without his nose growing. Clemson came back from a 16-0 deficit against Ohio State that very well could have been 28-0. But the Tigers exploited Buckeye mistakes and found creative ways – Travis Etienne in the pass game, Lawrence’s legs – to hang around and win the game.
“It is just the DNA,” Dabo said. “It is our program. It's not just this season. That's just how we're built. One of the things I told them at the half, I thought we took their best punch. I don't think we could have played worse, but we took their best punch.”
Wide catch radius
Other than quarterback, the position grouping that stands out the most is the wide receivers. LSU’s trio of Terrace Marshall, Ja’Marr Chase and Justin Jefferson have been the most dynamic grouping in the sport this year, somehow outpacing Alabama’s dazzling collection. The Clemson trio of Tee Higgins, Justyn Ross and Amari Rodgers are also elite, but they struggled in spots getting open against Ohio State. (Clemson’s offense was out of balance when Higgins left the game with an injury in the first half.)
Both LSU and Clemson have strong secondaries, and the ability to somehow slow the opposing receivers will be one of the game’s biggest variables. Stopping the receivers comes down to pass rush, stopping the run and the secondary doing something creative to contain the receivers. NFL fans will enjoy this collection of receivers, as they’ll be flashing on that level for years to come.
There’s no question that Clemson will be playing a road game, as New Orleans is LSU’s most vibrant fan base outside Baton Rouge. Any talk about ticket distribution and corporate presence can be tossed aside. For Clemson, this is a four-day trip into a throbbing and angry hornet’s nest. Swinney said after the Fiesta Bowl that Clemson fans were outnumbered, and they best be used to it. If Clemson wins, it will be the most difficult path to a title in the brief history of the College Football Playoff.
“I think we're probably outnumbered three-to-one here tonight, but our fans were great,” Swinney said after beating Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl. “They hung in there with us and did not give up on us.”
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