How Joe Burrow authored the best season in college football history

NEW ORLEANS — We have become liberal with the use of GOAT in American sporting vernacular.

The acronym for Greatest of All Time is tossed around in emojis, used in reference to fast-food items and even inspired the naming of an actual farm animal.

In a sports era where many are considered prisoners of the moment, the GOAT should be locked away for safer keeping.

But on Monday at the Superdome, LSU senior quarterback Joe Burrow transcended the flippant hyperbole that’s accompanied the GOAT label. He completed the best singular season in the 150-year history of college football by annihilating No. 1 Clemson, 42-25, to secure LSU’s undefeated national title season. Burrow’s 2019 campaign is the GOAT, the season of sustained brilliance that all others will be measured by.

Burrow won the Heisman with the largest percentage of first-place votes, completed a 15-0 undefeated season with three postseason blowouts and finished with 60 passing touchdowns to set the single-season NCAA record. Perhaps the highest compliment to Burrow is that by completing “only” 31-of-49 passes, he actually had his worst passing game, percentage-wise, of the season.

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Yes, even Joe Burrow’s worst day is good enough for 463 yards, five touchdowns and the game’s most Outstanding Offensive Player. No. 1 LSU’s authoritative victory came against the nation’s No. 1 scoring defense, as Clemson entered the game yielding just 11.5 points per game.

“It’s going to mean the world,” Burrow said when asked what the title meant. “This is what I wanted to do from the time I was 5 years old, hoist this trophy.”

LSU head coach Ed Orgeron, left, and QB Joe Burrow, center, hold the trophy beside safety Grant Delpit after beating Clemson in the national championship game. (AP)
LSU head coach Ed Orgeron, left, and QB Joe Burrow, center, hold the trophy beside safety Grant Delpit after beating Clemson in the national championship game. (AP)

Callous your thumbs with the emoji button. Raid the farm for livestock to reinforce the point. Tell all the other incandescent stars we’ve seen in the sport the past century-and-a-half — Red Grange, Jim Brown and Cam Newton — to recalibrate their best single season’s place in line.

Joe Burrow bookended the most remarkable season in college football history with an ethereal performance that he somehow made his expectation. And he did it by slaying one of the greatest modern runs in modern college football history. LSU ended Clemson’s 29-game win streak and knocked off the defending national champions during their fourth title-game appearance in the past five seasons.

LSU didn’t just end Clemson’s streak, it curb-stomped it and then posed over the carnage. LSU took a knee inside the Clemson 10-yard line, as it easily could have finished the game with 49 points.

Look at the boldface lineup of blue-blood programs that Burrow slayed to seal LSU’s first national title since the Les Miles-led team in 2007. (The quarterback that season, Matt Flynn, was the anti-Burrow, a quintessential game manager.) This sun-kissed 2019 season, LSU beat Alabama, Florida, Auburn, Georgia, Texas and Oklahoma before toppling a Clemson program that’s been the most dominant in the sport the last five seasons. It savaged LSU’s reputation for tortured offense by turning into a college football ideal.

“Immortalized,” said LSU athletic director Scott Woodward when asked about Burrow’s legacy. “It’s one of these things — sun, moon and stars. He’s done it the right way. What he’s done on the field is just absolutely remarkable. Off the field, speaks for itself.”

At the time of those marquee victories, all of the programs were ranked in the top 10. In his three postseason games against Georgia, Oklahoma and Clemson, Burrow threw 16 touchdowns and zero interceptions. We could keep going here, but you get the point. After his fifth and final passing touchdown, Burrow left the field and pointed to his ring finger.

Where this LSU season gets ranked amid the best in college football history will certainly be bandied around Southern barstools for generation. But on Monday night, Burrow put forth a performance that tops any argument in resetting the standard for a single player’s individual season. He showed the moxie to avoid pressure when Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables found creative ways to apply pressure. He overcame a 10-point deficit. He chuckled at adversity and just kept chucking.

Anyone who projected the season’s most dynamic duo being Burrow and 30-year-old passing-game coordinator Joe Brady would have gotten fewer eye-rolls if they predicted a write-in candidate would win the 2020 presidential election. But that combination did some of its best work on Monday night after LSU’s first three drives ended with three punts and just 17 total yards. Burrow is off to be the likely No. 1 pick in the draft. Brady could be joining him at the next level, as he has to decide whether he wants to attempt to recapture collegiate lightening in a bottle or go call plays in the NFL.

LSU's Joe Burrow celebrates after defeating the Clemson Tigers 42-25 in the College Football Playoff National Championship Game on Monday. (Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
LSU's Joe Burrow celebrates after defeating the Clemson Tigers 42-25 in the College Football Playoff National Championship Game on Monday. (Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)

How did they slay the giant? LSU essentially began using formations to reveal the Clemson defense, as they’d split tailback Clyde Edwards-Helaire out wide and track who followed him. A linebacker meant man coverage, and Burrow would look back to the sideline for an audible call from Brady in the box. Many of those look-backs turned into passes to Ja’Marr Chase, who finished with 221 yards, two touchdowns and a performance that will forever haunt the dreams of Clemson defensive back A.J. Terrell.

What’s made Burrow’s ascendance especially enchanting has been the completely unexpected nature of it. Burrow barely registered on the field during three seasons at Ohio State, and his transfer to LSU in the summer of 2018 was only a big deal amongst those who live in the 225 area code or hold premium subscriptions.

Burrow did little last season to portend this rocket ride to new stratospheres of college football distinction. He developed a reputation as a pedestrian game manager, an upgrade from some of the forgettable duds that LSU has trotted under center in the past decade. But little about his workmanlike 57.8 percent completion percentage, 16 touchdown passes and 2,894 passing yards hinted at anything more than a capable SEC quarterback who could be a career NFL backup.

But the kid who couldn’t beat out J.T. Barrett or Dwayne Haskins at Ohio State and couldn’t lead LSU to a single point against Alabama in 2018 underwent the most complete career overhaul in college football history. He improved his passing percentage by as astonishing 20 percent, which would be the basketball equivalent of shooting like Chris Dudley and reincarnating the next season as Steph Curry. (Burrow would prefer Klay Thompson, as that’s who he compares his hoops game to.)

Burrow did finish just shy of Colt McCoy’s all-time NCAA completion percentage record in a season, as he dipped below McCoy’s 76.7 percent.

Burrow was shy this week to reflect on his chase for history. He’d already won nearly 91 percent of the Heisman Trophy first-place votes to break the all-time record and also broke the Heisman record for most ballots appeared on (95.5 percent). “I haven’t really reflected on it a lot,” Burrow said this week, “because I really want to win this game. But that might be a question for me after the game.”

After this historic win on home soil, Burrow nailed the postgame on-field interview. Just like he nailed the Heisman speech and ended up raising more than a half-million dollars for food banks near his hometown of Athens, Ohio. He thanked everyone from the trainers to dining hall workers for helping to build this title winner. “So many people,” he said, “put so much work into this.”

But from Shreveport to Ruston and Hammond to Haughton, everyone knows who really should be thanked. Joe Burrow took them on a historic ride, one that will reverberate through the sport’s next 150 years.

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