Tonight, in mere hours, Clemson and LSU will meet in New Orleans to crown a champion for the 2019-2020 college football season.
On one side: a team who has risen the ranks of the country’s toughest division, winning six games against top-10 competition behind a Heisman winner that no one saw coming. On the other, the defending national champion, whose road back to the summit of college football’s mountaintop came with the same schedule and conference questions that marred their 2018 campaign with skepticism a year ago.
And yet while this is a national championship game few would have predicted when the year started, they are two teams that, for all their differences, create one of the most intriguing match-ups in recent championship history.
Here are the three things I’ll be watching for in tonight’s game…
Joe Burrow vs. Trevor Lawrence (duh)
We’ll start with the most obvious match-up first: these two quarterbacks.
If you’ve heard anything about this national championship game, you’ve heard about Joe Burrow vs. Trevor Lawrence, but we’re talking about it for a reason. After all, rarely do we get a national champion featuring far and away the two best passers in the country - let alone two quarterbacks who might be among the most talented quarterbacks we’ve ever seen in college football.
If that sounds hyperbolic to you, just dig into their 2019 numbers:
- Trevor Lawrence: 67.6% passing for 3,431 yards, 36 touchdowns, and eight interceptions (including 0 interceptions thrown since week 7)
- Joe Burrow: 77.6% passing for 5,208 yards, 55 touchdowns, and six interceptions (and your eventual Heisman winner)
And while their performances varied widely in the semifinals - each nonetheless showed that when it comes to the fates of their respective teams… it largely hinges on them.
Against Ohio State, Lawrence and his Tigers found themselves on the ropes early - falling behind 16-0 after generating just 86 yards and three first downs midway through the second quarter.
But as he showed time and time again throughout 2019, Lawrence can turn the tide. He led the Tigers on a 21-0 scoring run - including a 67 yard TD run past the entire Buckeyes defense - before capping it off with a game-winning touchdown drive to seal the deal in Glendale. All in all, Lawrence had 366 total yards and three touchdowns in a gutsy win over the country’s best defense. It’s the kind that only added to the legend that Lawrence will no doubt continue in Clemson next year, in what could be a Heisman campaign of his own.
But he was outshined two weeks ago by this year’s Heisman winner - who delivered us what could have been the greatest individual performance in CFP history: 29-39, 493 yards, and seven passing touchdowns en route to an absolutely dominant 63-28 victory. It doesn’t get much better than that.
More than their numbers, however, in a College Football Playoff defined by the QBs each team fielded… Lawrence and Burrow set up one of the most highly-anticipated individual match-ups in a national championship game since, perhaps, the 2006 Rose Bowl between Vince Young and the USC combination of Matt Leinhart and Reggie Bush.
LSU red zone offense vs. Clemson red zone defense
For as impressive as Lawrence’s comeback on the offensive side of the ball was, it was made possible by Clemson’s ability to hold Ohio State to two field goals in the red zone midway through the first half. If either of those points had been converted into a touchdown, the game is out of reach for the Tigers - period.
Mind you, it wasn’t a fluke: Clemson’s red zone defense has been amongst the best in the country all year long. They allow points on 74% of possessions in the red zone (14th in the country), including just a 35.71% touchdown rate.
But whereas Ohio State ranked 37th in red zone offense coming into last game, LSU will present Clemson with a much more formidable challenge - as they rank 4th, having converted a staggering 96.49% of their possessions in the red zone, 78.57% being touchdowns. Overall, red zone touchdowns have made up over two-thirds of their total scoring on the season, no small number for the country’s leading offense at nearly 50 points per game.
Clemson has the firepower offensively to stick with LSU - but if this game is going to devolve into a shootout, then it’s imperative that Clemson holds Burrow and this LSU offense to either no points or just field goals in the red zone on at least a few possessions throughout the game.
Clemson’s receivers vs. LSU’s cornerbacks
Much has been made of Trevor Lawrence this season, and for good reason - but he’d be the first to tell you that having Tee Higgins and Justyn Ross in the receiving corps has giving him a major advantage over the competition.
Higgins and Ross have recorded 1,115 yards and 789 yards, respectively, for 21 combined touchdowns. Their speed, size, and playmaking ability makes them arguably the most potent receiving tandem in the country.
But in LSU, they’ll be playing against one of the country’s best secondaries. The Tigers from the Bayou are holding opposing QBs to just a 111.4 passer rating (7th), have gotten 17 interceptions thus far (4th), and are first in the country in passes defended (93) in a season in which they’ve been pitted against some of the country’s top passers in the SEC and beyond. We’ll likely see Higgins and Ross lined up against any combination of CBs Derrick Stingley Jr (six interceptions, 15 passes defended), Kristian Fulton (one interception, 13 passes defended), and Kary Vincent Jr. (four interceptions, eight passes defended) - and the outcome of this battle in the secondary may very well determine who walks out of New Orleans with the championship.
So… what’s gonna happen?
One year ago, Clemson walked into the national championship game against Alabama - then considered potentially the greatest college football team of all time - and absolutely blew the doors off the place on their way to a shocking 44-16 romping of Nick Saban’s heralded team.
And yet even with that win, you get the sense that Dabo Swinney’s team is playing a similar role tonight: standing in the way of a runaway talent train from the SEC West, led by an all-world playmaker under center. The difference, however, is that LSU has a chip on their shoulder, as well.
After all, it was just a year ago that many, including myself, saw Burrow as simply a serviceable SEC quarterback - a guy who had left a QB battle in Columbus to chase playing time on a team that would, in all likelihood, finish third behind the Iron Bowl tandem of Alabama and Auburn.
At the moment, I’m giving the edge to LSU - if only because they’ve played more complete games against the country’s top competition throughout the year; there is, after all, something to be said for being battle-tested when the lights shine brightest.
But it’s easy to forget how short a year can feel, and this Clemson team has been here before. Even with a relatively weak slate in 2019, they’ll bring their experience into this game… and are, without a doubt in my mind, the best team LSU will have faced this season, even with all their top-10 wins already.
Anyone who tells you this game will be a blowout either way hasn’t seen the big picture. It’s going to be fast, it’s going to be hard-hitting… and it’s going to be one of the best national championship games of the last 10 years.
Hank’s Pick: 41-36, LSU
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