WHAT WE ARE HEARING: NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP PREVIEW AND PREDICTION FOR NO.3 CLEMSON vs. NO.1 LSU
- 2020-01-13 14:22:31
Welcome to the National Championship edition of What We Are Hearing!
Well, it’s finally come down to this. 29 straight wins, and the Tigers are here in New Orleans to defend their National Title. Whoever comes out on top, we will witness history in the Super Dome because it will be a 15-0 team for the second time in as many years but just the second time since the 1800’s. No top-ranked team has won the title in 5 previous College Football Playoffs, and no No.3 team has won either, so Monday night will be a first either way. Dabo, of course, won a national title as a player at Alabama in this very same venue, but his last trip here resulted in a playoff loss to Alabama in the Sugar Bowl. He told me on Saturday that he would still have flashbacks of the win as a player rather than the more recent memories of the Super Dome.
Then, of course, you have the hometown team, LSU, which has had a storybook season, going 14-0 for the first time ever with a Heisman Trophy winner in Joe Burrow, and fate has worked it out that they would get a home game for the National Championship. The governor of the state said that if LSU wins, it will be the single biggest win in the history of the state! All of that comes with enormous pressure, however, so we’ll see if the SEC Tigers can handle it while the ACC Tigers have been there and done that. This is Clemson’s fourth National Championship Game in my five years of covering the team, so Trevor Lawrence and company will feel very little pressure, if any.
This is arguably the most hyped championship ever, with two 14-0 teams colliding for the second year in a row and potentially the No.1 NFL Draft picks for the next two years going head-to-head. So without further ado, let’s get into the weeds of the epic showdown!
LSU leads the all-time series with Clemson 2-1. The last two meetings came down to last-second field goals. Clemson made it to win the last meeting in the 2012 Peach Bowl, but Clemson missed in the 1996 Peach Bowl…With the Tigers’ win over Ohio State, they are now 4-0 all-time against the Buckeyes. Clemson is the only program with a winning record against Ohio State, Oklahoma and Notre Dame with at least 3 meetings…. Clemson has won 39 of its last 42 games away from home and 25 of its last 26 true road games….Clemson has 12 wins all-time against teams with 10 or more wins entering the matchup….Clemson is 22-0 against undefeated teams since start of 2015 season….Clemson is now tied with Alabama for the most 14-win seasons ever (4)…..Clemson is the only team ever to win 8 straight games by 30 points or more, unless you count 1895 Penn….Clemson and Alabama are tied for the most consecutive weeks in the AP Top 10 at 76 straight weeks, although Alabama dropped to No.12 in the last CFP rankings. Georgia is 3rd at 45 straight weeks… Clemson has won its last 43 straight Saturday games, the longest streak in the nation….
Everyone knows about LSU’s historic offense from a statistic standpoint. I remember saying to people after LSU beat Miami in the first game of 2018 that they really hit the jackpot with getting the transfer quarterback Burrow from Ohio State. Not many knew who Burrow was back then, but I knew he was going to be a good one. Sure enough, he has flourished and really come into his own this season under Joe Brady, who came to LSU from the New Orleans Saints. Brady is officially the Passing Coordinator and QB Coach, but he is really the brain trust behind Offensive Coordinator Steve Ensminger’s offense and a big reason they have had so much success this year after a mediocre offense in 2018. Ensminger, incidentally, was the Clemson Offensive Coordinator back in 1997-98 under Tommy West, and he actually coached Brandon Streeter! I was an undergrad at Clemson back then, and it’s amazing to think about how far the program has come since those rough times. I remember watching Clemson versus LSU in the 1996 Peach Bowl with disgust as Tommy West attempted a field goal over 50 yards—with a kicker who had never made one from that far—instead of calling a running play on 4th and 3 with Raymond Priester, the all-time Clemson rush leader! Of course, the field goal was blocked and Clemson lost the game. The Tigers would get their revenge on LSU, of course, in the 2012 Peach Bowl classic thanks to Tajh Boyd to Nuk Hopkins on 4th and 16, but I digress! Back to the 2019 LSU Tigers, they obviously go as far as Heisman Joe Burrow takes them, and to this point he has appeared unstoppable. I don’t think I can recall ever seeing a college quarterback process things as quickly as he does and reading defenses at the level he is. He is absolutely in the zone and looks like Tom Brady playing against college teams. He is also insanely accurate, completing almost 80% of his passes, and these aren’t always wide-open receivers he’s throwing to. He’s able to routinely fit the ball into tight windows with regularity. He is also probably the best in the nation at the scramble drill—moving within and without the pocket to buy time and find an open receiver. The scramble play he made on the sideline against Oklahoma was one of the best plays I’ve seen all season, and that sort of thing has probably kept Brent Venables up nights. Incidentally, 5-star early enrollee QB D.J. Uiagalelei arrived on campus at Clemson last week, and he was simulating Joe Burrow for the scout team at practice. How’s that for an audition?
Like Clemson, Burrow has great weapons at his disposal. They have the Biletnikoff winner in Ja’Marr Chase and another star in the taller Justin Jefferson, each of whom have a whopping 18 TD catches this season. Terrace Marshall has 12 TD catches, which is just one fewer than the Clemson single-season record held by Tee Higgins, Sammy Watkins and Nuk Hopkins! Ohio State had a great group of receivers, but this will probably be an even bigger test for the Clemson secondary—especially because the are so adept at the scramble drill and working their way open for Burrow. Expect LSU to look for ways to exploit safeties Tanner Muse and Nolan Turner in the passing game as other teams have.
Another huge part of LSU’s offensive success has been RB Clyde Edwards-Helaire, who only had two carries in the Oklahoma game because of an injured hamstring, and they obviously didn’t need him because the game was over by halftime. I asked Clyde on Saturday if the hamstring was 100%, and he said it was. He told me it was rough for him to have to watch from the sideline, but he will be that much more ready to go on Monday night. As good as he is as a compact, explosive runner with 1,304 yards and 16 touchdowns on 6.6 yards per carry, Edwards-Helaire is even more valuable as a pass-catcher out of the backfield. When Venbales brings pressure, expect Burrow to look to dump the ball off to Edwards-Helaire for big gains. He has 50 catches for 399 yards and a touchdown this season, and you better not try to arm tackle him because he will break those and go the distance. They also have a couple of talented freshmen behind Edwards-Helaire in Chris Curry and Tyrion Davis-Price. Curry had 16 carries for 90 yards in the Oklahoma game, and Davis-Price has 6 touchdowns this season. Those backs are also running behind a great offensive line that won the Joe Moore Award this season.
Defensively, it has been an unusual year for LSU, which usually has one of the best defenses in the nation, and Dave Aranda is widely considered one of the best in the business—he is the highest paid coordinator in the nation, in fact, slightly higher than Brent Venables. Perhaps it’s because they have rested on their laurels for the most part this season, knowing that their offense will score over 40 points per game, but they have not looked like the unit that has carried the program for years when the offense couldn’t find a way to score. The defense has looked better in their last few games against Texas A&M, Georgia and Oklahoma, but they are No.28 in scoring, and No.29 in total defense. They are led defensively by All-American Grant Delpit, who had Clemson among his top few schools as a recruit. The Texas native told me the other day that he always kind of wished he took a visit to Clemson, but ultimately he thought it was a little too far from home, so he chose LSU. In talking to Delpit, I got a sense of the team’s lack of respect for the ACC as a conference, which isn’t surprising. He did say that they have the utmost respect for Clemson as a program, but he felt like the SEC is a much tougher conference. I think a lot of SEC players feel that way until they play an ACC team in a bowl and then realize that they have ballers too! Much like Clemson, which has 19 interceptions, LSU is also top-5 in the nation and has a bunch of ball hawks in the secondary. They have 16 interceptions this season, so it will be interesting to see if Trevor Lawrence can keep that streak of 22 TD’s with zero interceptions going! LSU is No.27 in sacks with 35 on the season.
My X-factor for LSU is TE Thaddeus Moss, son of legendary WR Randy Moss. The 6’3, 250-pound junior from Charlotte is a matchup problem for Clemson, and if there has been one kryptonite for Brent Venables over the years, it has been the athletic, pass-catching tight ends. We all remember Alabama’s O.J. Howard lighting up the Tigers two years in a row in national championship games, and Irv Smith did as well in the 2017 Sugar Bowl. The Pitt tight end also had a big game against the Tigers in that 2016 upset in Death Valley, the last time the Tigers lost at home. Moss has just 2 touchdowns this season, but he had 4 catches for 99 yards and a TD in the Oklahoma game. Watch out for him!
Finally, kicker Cade York has a strong leg and is 4-5 from over 50 yards, but he’s only 5-9 from 40-49 yards.
The Tigers have the confidence that all proven champions have. They have been here before, and this is all routine for them. I think they benefited much more than LSU from the two-week rest since the Semifinal because that Ohio State Fiesta Bowl was a 15-round fist fight, and Dabo told me the whole team was banged up and sore after that game. In particular, Justyn Ross hurt his shoulder, and Tee Higgins took a shot to the head, but they are both 100% now, and the whole team is ready to go. The Tigers did suffer a blow, though, as starting DT Nyles Pinckney injured his ankle. Dabo said on Sunday that he would be “limited,” which means Jordan Williams and Xavier Kelly will have to step up big-time in Pinckney’s absence. It’s very reminiscent of last year when Big Dex was suspended and missed the entire playoff. Albert Huggins answered the bell, and Tigers clearly didn’t miss Dex because they steamrolled Notre Dame and Alabama by 4 touchdowns each.
The Tigers had to move practice from Tulane’s outdoor stadium to the hotel ballroom at the Hilton on Saturday because of the weather, which has been rainy in New Orleans for days, but Dabo said the team had a great walk-through and minimized any disadvantage. LSU had practice at the Saints’ indoor facility, but Dabo said he was given the option to have practice there at a different time, and he declined the opportunity. Clearly, Dabo believes the hay is in the barn with his team, and they are ready to rock and roll!
Everyone has been buzzing about Trevor Lawrence’s running performance against Ohio State, but you know I have been writing and talking about his running ability all season. To me, that has been one of the main underlying storylines all season along with the defense exceeding preseason expectations. I’ve known for years that Trevor was underrated as a runner, but this season he has really perfected his craft and making decisions on when to tuck the ball and run. He had just one rushing touchdown all season last year, and he has 8 this season to go along with 514 yards, averaging 5.5 per carry. None of those touchdowns were bigger than the 70-yard run he had against the Buckeyes, igniting the team and the crowd just before halftime. That was a career-long run and the first time I’ve seen him make elusive jump-cuts in the open field and outrun defenders. That was a first, but he has been effectively using his legs to pick up first downs and extend drives all season long, and it has made the Tigers that much harder to stop.
Then there was Etienne putting his pass-catching ability on full display, going for more receiving yards than the entire receiving corps and scoring 3 touchdowns! That has been another storyline this season. Etienne was a dreadful pass-catcher as a freshman two years ago, but he has really worked on developing that part of his game, and it is paying dividends. The Tigers’ only Louisiana son told me last week that he really wanted to redeem himself for his poor performance here in the Super Dome two years ago as a freshman, and I believe he will do just that! It will likely be his final game in the Orange and White, and he needs just 7 yards to pass Raymond Priester for the Clemson career rushing yard record.
Speaking of records, it will also likely be Tee Higgins’s final game with the Tigers, and he needs just one TD to stand alone, passing Sammy Watkins and Nuk Hopkins for the most career TD receptions in Clemson history. Higgins, of course, was knocked out of the first half on the opening possession after making a 20-yard catch and didn’t return until the second half. He made a nice catch for a two-point conversion after Etienne’s game-winning touchdown, but you could tell he wasn’t right on a couple of his drops. I expect Higgins, Ross and Rodgers to play a much bigger role in this game than they did against Ohio State, which had a much better secondary and defense than LSU’s.
It will be interesting to see how much of a factor TE Braden Galloway is on Monday night. I asked Dabo to assess his performance against the Buckeyes, his first live game of the season, and Dabo was pleased. Galloway didn’t make an impact in the passing game, but he was down field blocking on that long Trevor Lawrence touchdown run. It’s always difficult to go from practice to live game action, but perhaps he plays more of a role on Monday night now that he has that first game under his belt.
Defensively, Butkus Award Winner Isaiah Simmons is the X-factor for Clemson. He'll have to do a great job spying Burrow on the scramble drill and getting to him before he can find an open receiver. He'll also have to tackle Edwards-Helaire in the open field when Burrow dumps it off to him in the screen game. LSU hasn't seen an athletic freak like Simmons all season, and that is an edge for Clemson.
Finally, keep an eye on B.T. Potter Monday night. He missed another field goal against Ohio State and has been inconsistent all season. Potter has all the talent in the world, and Dabo believes in him, but he’s just got to get past the mental part. Ironically, it’s the short field goals that have given him the most trouble. It will be very interesting to see what Dabo decides to do if they have an early drive stall at the 20-30 yard line, and it’s 4th and 3 or less. Will he go for it, or will he show confidence in Potter? My hunch is the latter because Dabo won’t want to send the wrong message to his kicker. If Potter misses a bad one early, though, all bets are off and it will make for some tough decisions for Dabo. In Potter’s defense, he has been a valuable asset on kickoffs all season, consistently getting touchbacks and no returns. That often gets overlooked, but it’s a huge advantage and luxury to have. The Tigers would have beaten Alabama for the 2015 national title if they had Potter because Alabama wouldn’t have had the 100-yard kick return for a touchdown!
This battle of the titans is all going to boil down to matchups and which team makes the most plays and least mistakes. There are star-studded matchups all over the field on both sides of the ball, and it’s going to be exciting to watch! The biggest matchup to watch will likely be the chess match between Brent Venables and Joe Burrow. If Venables can confuse Burrow with exotic looks and blitzes the way he did at times to Tua last year, Clemson will win the game. If Burrow continues to play like Tom Brady in his prime, it’s going to be a shootout. However, even if it’s a shootout, I like Clemson’s chances. Both offenses are explosive with play-makers all over the field. LSU is ranked No.1, but Clemson is right behind them at No.4. However, Clemson has a decided advantage when it comes to defense. Clemson has the No.1 scoring defense, while LSU is No.28. I believe Clemson will be able to come up with more stops than LSU over the course of the game. Clemson also leads the nation with the fewest explosive plays allowed over 20 yards, and LSU’s offense is No.1 in that department, so something’s got to give. Same thing with the red zone: Clemson is No.1 in red zone defense, allowing just 10 touchdowns all season, and LSU is No.1 in red zone offense. That was the key to the Ohio State win and really the Alabama win last year as well. The Tigers were able to hold the Buckeyes and Tide to field goals in the red zone. If they can do that to LSU as well, Clemson will win the game.
This game could all come down to turnovers like big games so often do. Both teams have taken care of the ball well all season. Clemson is No.5 in turnover margin at +16, and LSU is No.16 at +9. If the turnover bug bites one team or the other, that might make all the difference. The game could also come down to whichever kicker steps up to have a big game. Interestingly, LSU is favored by 6 points according to the gambling community, but Dabo and Clemson are an astounding 26-4 in one-score games, including their recent Fiesta Bowl win! That is a remarkable number. Of those 4 losses, one was to Alabama in a shootout that the Tigers should have won ,one was at Syracuse without their starting quarterback and kicker, another was a last-second field goal by Pitt and the last was an overtime loss to FSU in Tallahassee in 2014 that the Tigers should have easily won. Those are the only one-score losses the Tigers have had in their last 30 such games! Therefore, if the game is close, I have to go with Clemson and Trevor Lawrence, who is 29-0 in college and 77-2 including high school. Much has been made of the home location for LSU, but I’m not sure it will play that much of a role. Ohio State had about a 65-35 crowd advantage in Arizona, and that didn’t matter. Also, judging by what I’ve seen the past few days here in New Orleans, I think it might be about a 60-40 split in the Super Dome. A lot of the purple you see in the streets are just here for the party and won’t even attend the game, whereas all of the Orange—and there is a lot of it—will be in the dome. We’ll see tonight, but I don’t think it will be a significant advantage for LSU, and as I wrote earlier, it might even add to the pressure if they fall behind early.
I’ve predicted Clemson would win every game this season, and I’m not going to deviate from that now. The Defending Champs are 29-0 for a reason, and they say defense wins championships. I think Clemson gets a couple more stops than LSU and make history, becoming just the third program to win a third undisputed national title in four years! The Prowl toward a repeat and 4th national title concludes, and the countdown to 48 straight wins begins, as the Tigers roar into the 20’s as the undisputed kings of college football.
CLEMSON 45 LSU 35
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