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Joe Burrow has shattered nearly every LSU passing record in 2019. His 55 passing TDs and counting are the most of any SEC quarterback in a single season. He became the first LSU player to win the Heisman in 60 years. He’s almost assuredly the No. 1 pick in the 2020 NFL draft.
But is he the best quarterback in Monday night’s National Championship Game?
In nearly any other season, a title game involving a record-breaking star set to be picked No. 1 in a few months would have a clear-cut answer to that question. Trevor Lawrence makes it incredibly tough to answer.
A former five-star recruit and the top player in the 2018 recruiting class, Lawrence has been earmarked for the top of the 2021 NFL draft ever since he set foot on Clemson’s campus. Clemson hasn’t lost a game Lawrence has played. At 6-foot-6 with a rocket arm, fantastic accuracy and a running ability he showed off in the Tigers’ win over Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl, Lawrence has every attribute a quarterback should have.
“You’ve got potentially the first two picks overall in the next two drafts going head-to-head,” ESPN analyst Kirk Herbstreit said. “I don’t know if we’ve ever had two quarterbacks in a championship game that you could say that about.”
In addition to wondering if the 2019 Heisman winner is the best QB playing in Monday night’s game, it’s also fair to ponder if the game is the best title game matchup of quarterbacks since the dawn of the BCS. Herbstreit’s right; no title game since 1998 has featured quarterbacks who each went No. 1 overall in an NFL draft. And the only game to feature two Heisman winners at the position came after the 2008 season, when Florida and Tim Tebow beat Oklahoma and Sam Bradford.
The Gators’ 24-14 victory in January of 2009 wasn’t exactly a display of quarterback prowess, either. Tebow and Bradford combined to average less than seven yards an attempt and each threw two touchdowns and two interceptions. Or three fewer combined TDs than Burrow had in the first half against Oklahoma in the Peach Bowl.
We’re probably going to see a much better QB performance Monday night than we saw 11 years ago.
Statistically, Burrow has Lawrence beaten in nearly every category in 2019. He’s completed a higher percentage of his throws (78 percent to 68 percent) than Lawrence has, is averaging more yards per attempt (10.9 to 9.3) and has thrown more touchdowns and fewer interceptions on a per-pass basis than Lawrence as well.
And in addition to throwing for over half a hundred touchdowns and 5,000 yards, Burrow’s QB efficiency rating of 204.6 is the highest single-season mark for any quarterback since the stat was first recorded in 1956.
“You've got to be creative in how you get to him, and then when you do get to him, he creates, and he's just got a great knack for escaping and avoiding the rush, and then he makes huge plays on the move,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said of Burrow. “I mean, some of their biggest plays come from him just scrambling, extending – kind of like us, kind of like our guy. They're really similar when it comes to all that stuff. These are two elite quarterbacks getting ready to duel it out, and really all the same across the board. You just change jerseys and helmets and they'd kind of all look the same. Just really, really talented, beautiful football players that are getting ready to compete against each other with a really small margin of victory.”
Burrow’s excellence is, as you likely know, due in part to LSU’s willingness to switch offensive systems in 2019. After a middling 2018 season where both Burrow and LSU’s offense wouldn’t have been described as great, the team remade its offense with the addition of passing game coordinator Joe Brady. Under the tutelage of Brady and offensive coordinator Steve Ensminger, Burrow has flourished and gone from a mid-round pick to the top quarterback available to NFL teams in April.
It’s a type of offensive excellence that college football hasn’t seen, either. Not only is Burrow on track to set the single-season record for completion percentage, the nearly 11 yards per attempt he’s averaging are second only to Oklahoma’s Jalen Hurts in 2019.
“I still think statistically it’s hard to really wrap your head around what he’s been able to do, which is truly remarkable,” ESPN analyst Greg McElroy told Yahoo Sports. “I think we’ll know more of how statistically impressive it is when he leaves and if [LSU backup] Myles Brennan can replicate the success, or whoever the quarterback is next year. If they can replicate the success then maybe we won’t hold it in such high regard. But if the production at quarterback drops off significantly, then I can see it certainly kind of being one of the best statistical seasons ever.”
Burrow is only clearly the top QB available in 2020 because Lawrence isn’t eligible for the draft (and Tua Tagovailoa is dealing with a hip injury). You’re going to hear a lot about “tanking for Trevor” — remember “Tank for Tua” ahead of the 2019 NFL season? — in 2020 as the countdown to Lawrence’s draft eligibility approaches. Remember, he’s been a can’t-miss talent since he was in high school. And if he was able to go to the NFL after Monday night’s game he’d probably get picked ahead of Burrow.
Who would McElroy choose?
“Lawrence,” he said, without hesitation. “I just think his upside is — he’s the most talented quarterback prospect I’ve seen since Andrew Luck. Just as far as sheer God-given ability. Accuracy, stature, size, physicality, being able to move in the pocket. Having a good head on his shoulders, being able to process information. Big arm. He checks every single box.”
Picking between Burrow and Lawrence to start a team is like choosing between a Ferrari and a Mercedes. They’re both fine options; McElroy made sure to point out Burrow’s attributes, too. Figuring out who’s best may simply come down to your own preferences more than any objective ones.
“You can make an argument for both of them,” former college coach and current CBS analyst Houston Nutt said. “I would probably take Joe Burrow though, I’d take him first.”
Crazily enough, quarterbacks who win the Heisman are just 3-4 in championship games in the same season since the start of the BCS. If LSU wins Monday night, Burrow would become the first QB to follow a Heisman Trophy with a College Football Playoff title.
Even if he doesn’t have an edge over Lawrence when it comes to being the best QB, does he have one over Lawrence Monday night because of his performance throughout the season? Herbstreit thinks so.
“I would give probably a slight edge to Joe Burrow just because of how consistent their offense has been this year,” Herbstreit said. “Auburn is about the only team that came up with a wrinkle with [defensive coordinator] Kevin Steele where he played a 3-1-7 for most of the game, three D-linemen, a linebacker and seven defensive backs, to create some doubt and to create a lot of different looks and disguising, and [Burrow] really feels that if you give him the same look or he knows what you’re in, you have no shot of slowing him down.”
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Nick Bromberg is a writer for Yahoo Sports.
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