Final thoughts on the National Championship Game ... and a prediction
Sixteen days later, we’re finally here.
Goodness, that was far too long of a wait. The Peach Bowl might as well have been last season. Let’s never put 16 days between the semifinals and National Championship Games again, OK?
The good news is that we are indeed here. Clemson-LSU, LSU-Clemson is here. No more dumb jokes about “I bet the Tigers are gonna win.” No more Dabo Swinney complaining about little ol’ Clemson. Just elite team vs. elite team for 60 minutes.
Here are my final thoughts on that:
Dabo Swinney’s comment about playing in a road game is _________.
Context is important. In case you somehow missed the comment that the internet had a field day with, Swinney said that playing the national championship in New Orleans would be like if they played this game in Greenville. People there said that Swinney didn’t mean it as “complaining” or anything like that.
You can be the judge of that:
#Clemson HC Dabo Swinney on whether he considers the #NationalChampionship a home game: “Well I think we’re the only team that flew here… It’d be like us playing for the National Championship in Greenville.” @foxcarolinanews pic.twitter.com/gBFyClpMTr
— Aaron Cheslock (@AaronCheslock) January 11, 2020
Here’s the issue: Swinney has repeatedly banged the drum about his team’s lack of respect ever since winning last year’s national championship. It was easy for the general public to run with something like that and assume it’s more of Dabo being Dabo.
Did he mean to come off as someone who was complaining? Probably not. He was just stating a fact about how atypical the circumstances are surrounding this national championship compared to the other 3 that Clemson played in the past 5 seasons. He’s right in that regard. It’s not normal. It’s the elephant in the room if you’re Clemson.
But I think Swinney is a bit baffled by being the perceived “villain” that the average college football fan is already sick of. Based on his comments this year, I think it legitimately bothers him that the support will be so pro-LSU. Will he ever admit something like that? No chance. He’s got bigger fish to fry. But it is a fascinating dynamic surrounding his program heading into this showdown.
Let’s not use “distractions” as an excuse if either offense struggles
Here’s what I hate — if LSU’s offense is a atypically average, people will say “man, I bet all the attention on Joe Brady’s future really got to this team.” The 30-year-old has been asked as much about that as he has been about the game itself. It’s understandable given his almost unprecedented rise in the sport.
(And I’ve already spoken my piece about how Steve Ensminger dealing with tragedy isn’t a “distraction.” If anybody actually blames a loss on Ensminger or says that “his head clearly wasn’t in the right place,” take a hike.)
On the flip side, it’s been somewhat overlooked nationally that Clemson co-offensive coordinator Jeff Scott accepted the USF job after a decade-plus with Swinney. If the Tigers struggle offensively and lose, the blame game will go to 2 things — how Clemson’s schedule didn’t prepare it for anything like LSU and that Scott had the USF distraction.
Here’s what bothers me about that — when the game starts, that’s the last thing these offensive coaches are focused on. They still have a job to do, and having a clear head to call plays and make adjustments should be expected.
If these offenses struggle, it’ll in all likelihood be the product of these defenses playing lights out. LSU does come in having played stellar defensively since that disastrous defensive showing against Ole Miss. And Clemson, meanwhile, only has the nation’s No. 1 defense. It feels like we’d be discounting those 2 units to default to “well, coordinator X was clearly distracted.”
Nah, man. Either of these defenses will have earned every bit of praise if they can stop these offenses. Speaking of that …
These defenses are probably both beyond sick of talking about “containing” these offenses
“How do you contain these LSU receivers?”
“Is there any way to slow down Joe Burrow?”
“Has you ever faced a quarterback as talented as Trevor Lawrence?”
I imagine those questions have gotten old the past couple of weeks for both groups of defensive players. Lost in the shuffle of all the talk about these dominant offenses is the fact that between Isaiah Simmons, Derek Stingley, Grant Delpit and Kristian Fulton, there are All-American, future 1st-round picks lining up on the other side of the ball. Ask them about containing these offenses and they’d probably like to say “containing? We plan on pitching a shutout.”
I don’t blame them. They both have dominated plenty of quality offenses. LSU’s defense struggled at times, but the past 4 games, allowing 16 points, 5.3 yards per attempt and 43% accuracy suggests that this isn’t the same group that had bad lapses against the likes of Ole Miss and Vanderbilt.
There’s a whole lot of pride up for grabs, and it wouldn’t surprise me if these defenses come out with something to prove.
Clemson’s “strength of schedule” thing is now useless … except for this one thing I wonder about
I’ve been saying that after watching the Tigers rally back against Ohio State, we should squash this notion that their strength of schedule matters. Clemson rallied to beat one of the most historically dominant regular-season teams we’ve ever seen. It’s no longer about résumés. Throw all of that out the window. It’s about how each 14-0 team executes in a 60-minute stretch.
But the one thing I wonder about as it relates to this subject is these Clemson receivers getting separation against LSU’s corners.
If you recall, the Ohio State matchup was Clemson’s first against a top 20 defense. And as great as Tee Higgins and Justyn Ross have been the past 2 years, it’s hard to move past how much of a struggle it was for them to get separation against an elite OSU secondary. After the first play went to Higgins for 21 yards, neither receiver had a catch of more than 20 yards.
So does that mean I think LSU’s elite corners will dominate that matchup? That’s not what I’m saying. I think Ross — if he’s back to 100% — and Higgins will make some big plays on 50-50 balls. I’d be stunned if they didn’t. Like, they’re still capable of making plays like this:
JUSTYN ROSS IS A GROWN MAN pic.twitter.com/658c9uspno
— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) January 8, 2019
What I think could happen, though, is that those yards are tougher to come by. The idea of Lawrence relying on those 2 to consistently move the sticks might be too ambitious.
What could determine this game for Clemson is if they can sort of do what they did against Ohio State. That is, get Travis Etienne looks catching passes out of the backfield and see if Lawrence can pick up chunks of yards with his legs. LSU hasn’t defended a team who can do both of those things at an above average level. Clemson can. How much will that be a part of the game plan? Or will Lawrence try and live and die with testing LSU’s corners playing on an island, which they’ve shown they’re plenty comfortable doing.
Something tells me those adjustments will loom larger for Clemson than any “strength of schedule” discussion.
Just how foreign would LSU trailing be?
Remember Oct. 26 vs. Auburn? That was the last time the Tigers trailed in a game. That’s absurd when you consider that including Auburn, LSU took down 4 top 10 teams (and 3 top 4 teams) during that stretch. That’s historically dominant stuff.
Want more? Sure.
Here are all the times that LSU trailed this year:
- Oct. 26 vs. Auburn — 21:18
- Oct. 12 vs. Florida — 3:42
- Sept. 21 vs. Vanderbilt — 1:13
- Sept. 14 vs. Northwestern State — 2:38
- Sept. 7 vs. Texas — 2:59
A few things that stand out: That’s just 31 minutes and 40 seconds of trailing all year … for an LSU team that played 840 minutes of football (Clemson trailed more in the Ohio State game alone). That means 3.7% of the time that LSU played in a football game, it trailed. Mercy.
Also, that Auburn game was the only time all year in which LSU trailed for 4 minutes in a game. That game marked the latest that LSU trailed in a game this year. That was with basically 20 minutes left, which means no, LSU hasn’t trailed in a 4th quarter.
I say all of this because if the situation presents itself, it’s fair to wonder how LSU will handle a 4th-quarter deficit.
That’s not to say they haven’t had to make clutch plays late in a game. Who could forget the play that started it all late against Texas? Burrow’s third-down conversion to Justin Jefferson was what really led many (myself included) to believe that this LSU offense was different. Nothing about this group suggests that it’ll wilt if things get tight late. They play with as much confidence and focus as any college team I’ve ever seen.
But if LSU is indeed facing a deficit in the closing minutes, it’ll be uncharted territory.
The X-factor? Clyde Edwards-Helaire
My favorite player to watch in college football this year has been Edwards-Helaire. I say that as someone who admittedly bypassed him as a major weapon heading into the season. And while all of the attention is on the passing game, Edwards-Helaire is truly the guy who makes this offense nearly impossible to defend.
I think with extra time to rehab his hamstring injury, Edwards-Helaire truly will be 100% as LSU players and coaches have said. That’s a scary sight for Clemson because when he gets a head of steam going to the next level, he delivers punishment. Taking down Edwards-Helaire might seem like a 1-man job because he’s smaller than a typical 3-down back, but that couldn’t be further from the truth.
He plays like his status as LSU’s starter is on the line every play. Better yet, he plays like someone who is constantly playing against people who questioned his abilities because of his size … because he is.
In a game like this when you know Brent Venables is going to do everything in his power to try to take this passing game away, I believe it’s Edwards-Helaire who bails the LSU offense out of some tough situations. Whether that’s a 3rd-and-13 draw that he picks up by falling forward for that extra yard or picking up a weak-side blitzer to allow Burrow to step into a key throw downfield, Edwards-Helaire is going to come up clutch for this LSU team.
The guy has been doing it in the biggest games all year — go back to that Auburn game and tell me who the difference was — and I’d expect nothing less with a national title at stake.
And a prediction
I’ll take LSU to win 38-31, but I don’t think this game will follow the script that many expect.
I’ve been saying all week that I think Clemson comes out ready to roll. Swinney has his team clicking on all cylinders early after the “disrespect” of being an underdog against one of the most battle-tested teams in college football history. My guess is that LSU goes into the locker room trailing. Stunning, that would be for some.
But give me the LSU coaching staff to make the right tweaks to turn the game around. I picture Ed Orgeron walking into that halftime locker room and delivering the speech of a lifetime. If he doesn’t bust out the famous “worm” speech in the pregame, he should have that in his back pocket (or mouth) in case it’s needed to provide a 2nd-half jolt.
Regardless, the aforementioned Edwards-Helaire will be the difference-maker down the stretch. He’ll take over against Clemson’s dime coverages and LSU will sustain enough drives to pull away down the stretch. Clemson makes it a true 60-minute battle, and several times, LSU defenders will shake their heads in disbelief at throws that Lawrence makes to keep the Tigers alive.
In the end, though, it’s LSU that gets key conversions late and gets the victory formation of all victory formations.
Mardi Gras comes 6 weeks early this year.