Nothing speaks to the compelling tension and rare allure of Monday’s national title game more than a Clemson program riding a 29-game win streak entering as a 5.5-point underdog.
Clemson is the defending champion, the most dominant program in the sport and features a generational quarterback prospect. Yet, the Tigers are entering a College Football Playoff title game at the Superdome in New Orleans facing a road game against a top-seeded LSU program that boasts a quarterback that’s having perhaps the most dominant season in the history of the sport.
Last year, I picked Clemson to upset Alabama in the national title game. My belief came from speaking with a flurry of coaches who’d played both teams and believed that Clemson’s embarrassment of defensive line talent would carry them.
Having watched Clemson dominate the past two seasons, I wanted to find a reason to pick them again. They have moxie, toughness and an aura that showed up when they toppled a more talented Ohio State team in the semifinals of the College Football Playoff. Then I got on the phone and spoke to 10 coaches and assistants who’d played the teams this year. The idea of picking a Clemson upset in back-to-back years eventually passed.
Here’s what the coaches said to convince me that LSU wins the game, 41-38.
A blueprint emerges — let’s get physical
One ACC assistant coach came away impressed with the way that Ohio State’s corners played press coverage on Clemson’s wide receivers at the line of scrimmage in the College Football Playoff semifinals.
Clemson has one of the most talented duos in all of college football in sophomore Justyn Ross, who is 6-foot-4 and 205 pounds, and Tee Higgins, who is 6-foot-4 and 215 pounds. Both were held under 50 receiving yards in the Ohio Sate game.
“When I watched the Ohio State game, the corners really hammered the wide receivers at the line of scrimmage,” the coach said. “LSU has the talent and size to do the same, as it’s their M.O. to play press coverage on every play.” (He didn’t add the obvious — most ACC teams don’t.)
LSU has a pair of future NFL defense backs in Kristian Fulton (6-foot, 200) and resplendent true freshman Derek Stingley Jr. (6-foot-1, 190). They’ve seen the way that Ohio State’s gameplan put Clemson off-kilter, forcing the Tigers to rely on the screen game and quarterback run game to manufacture points.
LSU has the blueprint. Are their corners physical enough to follow it?
Not your average Joe
We’ve run out of hyperbole to explain the historic season that LSU’s Joe Burrow is having. He’s on track to break the NCAA completion percentage record, as he’s hit on 77.6 percent of his passes. He’s thrown 55 touchdowns and just six interceptions. (He even proved a prolific fundraiser for hunger issues in Southeast Ohio after his epic Heisman Trophy speech.)
New LSU pass game coordinator Joe Brady won the Broyles Award for the nation’s top assistant coach for essentially throwing the LSU offense into a time machine, taking a Flintstones offense and turning into a Jetsons operation.
“The beauty is in the simplicity,” said a head coach who faced LSU this year. “There’s not a whole lot of formations and plays. They have a really, really good offensive line and a really good tailback [Clyde Edwards-Helaire].
“But the quarterback is just silly.”
What could be overwhelming for Clemson is that the Tigers haven’t seen a group of wide receivers as talented as that of LSU. The synergy between Burrow and receivers Terrace Marshall (12 touchdowns), Justin Jefferson (18 touchdowns) and Ja’Marr Chase (18 touchdowns) is a sight to behold at field level. “Those guys are freakazoids,” a coach said. “They’re making plays left and right and turning 50-50 balls into 80-20 balls.”
Another coach has admired Burrow’s ability to throw those receivers open. “You’re watching and are like, ‘That kid is covered,’ ” the coach said. “Then he puts the ball right in there or on the back shoulder. And you’re just like, ‘Wow!’ He’s playing with such a high confidence and his receivers are playing with such a high confidence.”
Find the weak link
Clemson coach Dabo Swinney has lauded the team’s back seven as the best since he arrived at Clemson.
It’s had to be, as Clemson has played some three-down this season, a scheme pilfered from the defensive coaches at Iowa State. That’s allowed do-it-all hybrid linebacker/safety/defensive end Isaiah Simmons to cover the field for their weaknesses up front.
The chess match will be a fascinating one. Defensive coordinator Brent Venables has the biggest contract for any assistant in college football. And LSU’s Dave Aranda makes more annually. Brady is on the cusp of becoming the first $2 million offensive assistant in college football. Clemson OC Tony Elliott has been the top assistant on the market for at least three years.
Burrow and Brady have been the masters of exploiting matchups. Look for them to focus on Clemson safety Nolan Turner. He had the game-sealing interception against Ohio State, but also got beat for a touchdown earlier in the fourth quarter. Said one coach who faced Clemson earlier this season: “They’ll look for ways to get isolations on No. 24.”
Who can impose their will?
One coach said the trait that stood out about Trevor Lawrence in the wake of the Ohio State game was the amount of toughness that he showed. “That’s an underrated quality in quarterbacks,” he said. “Who can stand in, take a shot and make another play?”
LSU’s defensive front isn’t oppressive, but it’s massive. Anchored by the 6-foot-3, 346-pound Tyler Shelvin, the LSU front lacks in explosion but presents a problem in the form of sheer mass. Tempo has worked to neutralize and tire them (see Texas game), but is getting in a scoring contest wise?
“They’re big and physical, but not as dynamic up front as they’ve been,” said a coach familiar with LSU. “They play man-to-man on the outside. You’re going to get one-on one matchups.”
Clemson’s front isn’t dynamic, either. One coach wondered if teams will learn from what UNC did to Clemson and execute the so-called “Sugar Huddle” against them. That involves breaking the huddle and rushing up to the line of scrimmage and snapping the ball at the last second.
“Venables is going to call a defensive call after you call your offense,” the coach said. “They are really, really good when you get in your formation and get stationary. He’s going to call the perfect call. If you Sugar Huddle and rush to the line of scrimmage, it doesn’t give them a whole lot of time to line up to your formation.”
Can Burrow continue his Will Hunting act?
So much of Burrow’s success this season has been his ability to find answers to whatever coverages are thrown at him. What if he doesn’t know the questions?
Few are more diabolical and creative in college football than Venables, who has 16 days to prepare for Burrow and Brady. One opposing assistant coach said when they had a stretch of relative success against Burrow – i.e. a few possessions without scores – was when they were able to disguise their defenses pre-snap.
He explained it this way: “So much of Burrow is anticipating and identifying what [defense] you’re in. He goes to the line of scrimmage with A-B-C set up. If he sees this, he’s going to do this. Where’s the boundary safety? Is the corner pressing or is he off? The first- and second-down run plays have RPO tags on them.”
What can you do?
“If you are in split safety, try and drop a safety late into run support. They want to run into a light box. So can you hold your safety down and drop him later? If they are seeing one-high in the middle of the field, they’re going to want to go one-on-one to the backside with [Justin] Jefferson. The picture predicates so much.”
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