Better WRs: Clemson or LSU? Let's actually break it down and show why one has the edge
I know what you’re thinking.
You read that headline and thought, “wait a minute, are you serious? LSU has the best receivers in college football. Duh.”
I’m not here to argue against that. What I am here is to dig deeper into the subject so we can identify which group — both of whom are extremely talented with future NFL players galore — is better and why. Anyone can look up the fact that one group has better raw numbers in 2019, and therefore, this isn’t much of a discussion.
But there’s more to it than just that. Both groups can take over in the College Football Playoff National Championship. In all likelihood, we’ll see both sets of wideouts make incredible plays in traffic that remind us that we’re watching the best of the best.
That was the case last year when Alabama and Clemson faced off for a national title. Alabama native Justyn Ross poured salt in the Crimson Tide wound with monster catch after monster catch:
Justyn Ross is a DAWG 👀🔥 pic.twitter.com/rfzKOZArPE
— Footballism™ (@FootbaIIism) November 10, 2019
Ross and Tee Higgins combined for 224 yards and 2 touchdowns in that title game. In terms of experience, yeah, they’ve got that edge over LSU’s wideouts. Pro Football Focus had Ross and Higgins as the 2 highest-graded ACC receivers last year. This year, Higgins has actually been PFF’s highest-graded Power 5 receiver thanks to his 20.8 yards per catch.
Against Ohio State, however, Higgins was contained. With elite NFL cornerback prospect Jeffrey Okudah on him, Higgins was held to 4 catches for 33 yards. Ross, on the other hand, spent the latter half of the game dealing with an apparent shoulder injury and was held to 47 receiving yards. Will Ross, who also dealt with a late-season rib injury, be at 100% Monday night? Who knows, but surely he appreciated the extended layoff.
What we do know is that against another Top 25 passing defense in a Playoff semifinal, LSU’s wideouts were unstoppable. Justin Jefferson’s record-setting day of 14 catches for 227 yards and 4 touchdowns was the result of 2 things — he and Joe Burrow are extremely good and Ja’Marr Chase dealt with bracket coverage all game.
Ah, speaking of the Biletnikoff Award winner, yes, he gave way to Jefferson in the Peach Bowl. And with good reason. Burrow didn’t force-feed Chase targets. And while he didn’t grade out as high as Higgins this year, Pro Football Focus pointed out a pretty impressive mark:
Ja’Marr Chase: The only WR with 100+ targets to average 20.0 yards per reception. pic.twitter.com/4fKn7bCqhU
— PFF College (@PFF_College) January 6, 2020
Chase has a catch of 35-plus yards in 9 of 13 games this year while Jefferson has 10 games with a touchdown and oh, a healthy Terrace Marshall has 11 catches for 169 yards and 2 scores in LSU’s past 2 wins.
Combine the receiving yards of those 3 players (3,618) and that would rank No. 16 among Power 5 teams in terms of their total season passing yards. Combine the receiving touchdowns of those 3 players (48) and outside of LSU, only Washington State and Alabama had more passing touchdowns all season.
From a production standpoint, LSU has that argument. Clearly. Nobody has been able to slow down Joe Brady’s offense for 60 minutes, though Clemson has had at least 38 points in every post-UNC game. Well, except for Ohio State … when the Tigers finally saw an elite secondary.
The question is can LSU’s secondary — led by Grant Delpit, Derek Stingley and Kristian Fulton — match up better with Clemson’s wideouts than the inverse of that. If you just looked at Clemson’s top-ranked passing defense, one would assume that LSU has the tougher matchup ahead. After all, we’ve seen games in which the Bayou Bengals struggled to stop offenses like Ole Miss and Vanderbilt. On the flip side, we just saw Heisman Trophy finalist Justin Fields, who had 1 interception through 13 games, throw 2 interceptions against Clemson.
As Fields saw, what makes Clemson’s pass defense so good is that even a linebacker like Isaiah Simmons can cover extremely well and step in front of one:
This 6’4″ 230lbs athlete who ran 22.02 200m and long jumped 24’05” in HS just made an interception from the middle safety position. Isaiah Simmons is something else.pic.twitter.com/b8BuRPNqqj
— Brian Spilbeler (@CoachSpil) December 29, 2019
Granted, that was a missed read on Fields’ part, and the interception in the end zone was the product of a receiver running the wrong route. In other words, Clemson capitalized on mistakes. That’s what championship teams do. That’s what Clemson did last year, too, if you remember, picking off Tua Tagovailoa twice and returning the 1st for a TD.
Burrow, even though he’s thrown more interceptions than Fields, is still less likely to make a mistake. Part of that is because he and these LSU receivers have been so in sync all year. What makes them so difficult to contain is that there are times in which defenses should have momentum-shifting coverage sacks against LSU. But the combination of the nation’s top performing offensive line and Burrow’s pocket awareness/escapability always seems to allow for LSU’s receivers to get open and make a play downfield.
Clemson hasn’t faced an offense that can do all 3 of those things quite like LSU can.
Imagine being a defensive coordinator. You’ve got the best offense in the country in 3rd and 2. It’s a one score game. You’re in this game. Just need a stop.
You make the perfect call. Your guys execute it perfectly.
Then Joe Burrow does this.
How exasperating must that be? pic.twitter.com/EVcVGpV6FN
— Cody Worsham (@CodyWorsham) December 30, 2019
UGA needs to switch out of this 3-man rush ASAP
Can’t give Burrow and this WR core, TEN SECONDS in the pocket pic.twitter.com/ljUjhzRtw8
— Pick Six Previews (@PickSixPreviews) December 7, 2019
Jefferson is especially good at that. He might not be the physical freak that guys like Chase, Ross or Higgins are, but that ability to always be on the same page as Burrow when plays break down is what makes this LSU group so special.
And yes, Clemson’s group is special, too. They’re going to make at least a few plays on Monday night that just make LSU fans shrug their shoulders. Maybe it’s Higgins attacking a deep jump ball on the sidelines or Ross making a devastating cut in the open field for a walk-in touchdown. But there are a couple of things that make me wonder just how special they’ll be for 60 minutes against LSU.
One is that despite those aforementioned rough regular-season games, LSU’s secondary has actually been lights out since Ole Miss. In those 4 games, LSU allowed:
- 5.3 yards per attempt
- 43% passing
- 2-6 TD-INT ratio
And 3 of those games came against the likes of Kellen Mond, Jake Fromm and Jalen Hurts. Is Trevor Lawrence a superior passer than those guys? Absolutely.
But it’s worth noting that Ohio State was the first top 20 scoring defense that Lawrence and these Clemson receivers saw all year. It was Lawrence’s legs and Travis Etienne making catches out of the backfield that proved to be the difference. Why? A lack of separation from that elite Ohio State secondary held Higgins and Ross to a combined 10 catches for 80 yards, with 1 catch of 20-plus yards, which happened on Clemson’s first pass of the game.
LSU might not have a top 20 scoring defense, but it’s a group that allowed 16.3 points per game since Ole Miss. The Tigers also have 3 cornerbacks (No. 1 Stingley, No. 3 Cordale Flott and No. 5 Fulton) who rank in the top 5 in allowing the lowest percentage of targets on plays in which the receiver has a step-plus of separation (via PFF).
Meanwhile, the LSU receivers had 4 games against top 20 defenses. Chase and Jefferson combined in those games to average 13.8 catches for 202 yards and 1.3 touchdowns. Their worst output from a yardage standpoint was 156 yards — against UGA’s No. 2 scoring defense — which was still nearly double what Ross and Higgins combined for against the only top 20 defense they faced.
That, to me, is why LSU has the edge in this argument.
It’s not just scheme and it’s not just Burrow. These LSU receivers produce regardless of whom they’re against.
And to be fair, Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables will do everything in his power to make sure it’s a repeat of last year against Alabama. On that night, Clemson took away everything downfield after Jerry Jeudy’s early 62-yard touchdown. Venables confused Tagovailoa, who still had to learn when not to force the action downfield.
This year, however, I believe will be a different story for the dynamic SEC offense facing Clemson. Defending these LSU receivers for 60 minutes in that offense won’t prove to be as enjoyable of a task.
The title of “best receivers in America” is up for grabs, and I’m betting on LSU to go up and get it.