Even at the beginning, in the dog days of September 2019 had the makings of a charmed season for LSU, one in which everything that could go right for the long-suffering Tigers finally would. And so it has: Undefeated regular season, SEC championship, top seed in the College Football Playoff, Heisman Trophy – the skins are on the wall, all of them feeling more or less inevitable by midseason. By the end, it was hard to remember there was ever any doubt.

At 13-0, they’ve already tied the LSU record for wins in a season. With a win over Alabama, they’ve already vanquished a decade’s worth of frustration and (at least temporarily) supplanted the Tide as the SEC’s standard-bearers in the process. At 48 points per game, they’ve already obliterated every existing notion of what an LSU offense looks like. In Joe Burrow, they boast a stone-cold veteran presence on the verge of perfection. The body of work to this point already puts this team on the short list of the best ever at LSU, if not at the top.

Given all that, it’s easy to chalk up Saturday’s semifinal date vs. Oklahoma as just another speed bump. Vegas has settled on the Tigers as 2-touchdown favorites, doubling the spread in their SEC Championship win over Georgia and rivaling the most lopsided spread in any Playoff game to date. Where LSU has thrived, rolling through a difficult schedule like a juggernaut, Oklahoma has barely survived: Since their only loss, a 48-41 decision at Kansas State, 4 of the Sooners’ past 5 wins have come by a touchdown or less, highlighted by a pair of razor-thin escapes against the only top 10 opponent they’ve faced, Baylor. On the same day LSU demolished Georgia for the SEC crown, Oklahoma was pushed to the brink (again) by an outfit comprised mainly of 3-star recruits.

As Playoff résumés go, that doesn’t bode well. Next to the high-octane OU teams that have been bounced from the semis in 3 of the past 4 seasons, this version hardly looks like the one that’s going to break the streak.

Still, with high expectations come even higher stakes, and in LSU’s case the setting is pressure enough all on its own. How long have Tigers fans been waiting for The Year? This is their first realistic title shot in almost a decade, since the 2011 team laid down and died vs. Bama in the BCS Championship Game; in the meantime, they’ve endured 8 essentially angst-ridden years waiting for the next real bite at the apple. With Burrow on his way out at season’s end, and first-year passing game coordinator Joe Brady in high demand, it’s impossible to assume another one will be coming along anytime soon.

So many stars had to align to make the opportunity in front of the Tigers a reality, beginning with Burrow himself, his decision to transfer from Ohio State, and his unprecedented leap forward as a senior under Brady — a highly improbable star in his own right. The combination has unlocked LSU’s potential beyond anyone’s wildest dreams, probably including their own. But the days of wondering if it’s too good to be true, or too good to last, didn’t last long. At this point, all that matters is that it’s too good to let slip away without a national championship to show for it.

When Oklahoma has the ball

This marks Oklahoma’s 2nd Playoff bid in 3 years under wunderkind head coach Lincoln Riley, and although many of the most important faces have changed, the 2019 team follows the same basic equation as the previous 2: Hyper-efficient quarterback plus extreme balance equals one of the most consistently productive offenses in the nation.

It really is a machine at this point. Again, the Sooners lead the nation at 8.2 yards per play, making them the only FBS outfit to crack 8.0 ypp for the 3rd year in a row. Again, they rank among the top 5 in almost everything else — scoring offense, total offense, pass efficiency, 3rd-down conversions, Offensive SP+, Offensive FPI, etc. Again, they lead the Big 12 in rushing, averaging more than 250 yards per game on more than 6 yards per carry. Again, they’re one of just a handful of attacks nationally to eclipse 3,000 yards by both ground and air. On Riley’s watch, OU has scored at least 28 points in 51 consecutive games dating to September 2016.

In most respects, the key personnel is more or less interchangeable with previous editions, as well. Jalen Hurts was the runner-up for the Heisman, the 5th consecutive season Oklahoma’s starting QB has finished in the top 5 in Heisman voting. Electric wideout CeeDee Lamb is OU’s 2nd Biletnikoff Award finalist and 4th All-American receiver in the same span. The secondary targets (Charleston Rambo, Lee Morris, Nick Basquine, and 5-star freshman Jadon Haselwood) have combined for 1,583 yards on 16.8 per catch. RB Kennedy Brooks is just 24 yards shy of joining Hurts as the only Power 5 duo over 1,000 yards rushing apiece. The starting offensive line, anchored by Rimington Award finalist Creed Humphrey at center, averages 323 pounds per man. All par for the course.

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Still, it is true that watching the Sooners eke out a series of uninspiring wins down the stretch has not yielded quite the same sense of perpetual doom for opposing defenses that it has in the past. For one thing, there haven’t been any of the wild, 100-point shootouts that defined previous seasons. (A testament to the improved defense; see below.) For another, the overall production is distorted by huge early-season outings against the likes of Houston, South Dakota, UCLA and Texas Tech, all of which wound up with losing records. Season-ending injuries to RB Trey Sermon and TE Grant Calcaterra have significantly affected depth. In the meantime, the output against the top half of the schedule is clearly down compared to the past 2 years:

OU vs. winning teams

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That’s all relative, of course: 36 points on nearly 500 yards per game against opponents that finished .500 or better still puts OU’s offense among the best in the nation on both counts. But when the bar has been set by 2 of the most prolific attacks of the decade, the difference between “very good” and “historically good” is hard to overlook.

On paper, Hurts’ production is a substantial leap over his first 2 seasons at Alabama and puts him solidly in line with the Heisman-winning totals Baker Mayfield and Kyler Murray put up the past 2 years. The top-line numbers are almost identical. In 2017, Mayfield averaged 352.7 total yards per game with a 198.9 passer rating, breaking his own efficiency record from the previous year. In 2018, Murray averaged 383.0 yards per game with an efficiency rating of 199.2. In 2019? Hurts has accounted for 376.1 yards per game with a rating of 200.3.

On the field, Hurts is very much the same quarterback SEC fans will remember from his days at Bama, with the same set of strengths and liabilities.

His biggest strength is obvious enough: Dude can run, and at 6-2, 220 pounds, he is more than capable of serving as a de facto running back with a full complement of counters, powers, and off-tackle runs in his wheelhouse. His 1,255 rushing yards (including sacks) ranks 2nd in the Big 12 and leads all non-service academy QBs nationally. And that arguably understates his emergence as a true workhorse as the season has worn on: In close games over the second half of the year, Hurts carried the load – 19 carries at Kansas State (Oklahoma’s only loss), 22 carries vs. Iowa State, 27 in the come-from-behind win at Baylor in November, 28 in a close call vs. TCU, 23 in the rematch with Baylor in the Big 12 Championship Game, most of them coming on designed runs between the tackles.

Before the Bedlam game, Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy called the Sooners “a triple-option team disguised as a spread,” which is not strictly true; even with an athlete like Hurts behind center, Riley’s system remains much more invested in run-pass options than the traditional variety. But it is a sentiment anyone who watched Hurts at Alabama can appreciate.

As a passer, his growth is harder to assess. Statistically, Hurts is in elite company across the board: First nationally in yards per attempt (11.8), 3rd in overall efficiency, 5th in completion percentage (71.8) and gains of 30+ yards (30). His poise and decision-making in the pocket has improved as an upperclassman, and while he’s not an elite pro prospect he has boosted his draft stock to the point that he could be a darkhorse candidate to come off the board late in the 1st round.

But he’s struggled at times, too, most notably against TCU, in a 28-24 win that was in doubt until the closing seconds. He’s been more turnover-prone than in his extremely sure-handed sophomore season in Tuscaloosa. Fumbles have been a recurring issue. And his stat line has to be taken in context with 1) a screen-heavy system that has consistently cranked out big numbers while tending to level off vs. Playoff-caliber opponents, and 2) Lamb’s phenomenal run-after-catch ability, which has turned routine throws into big gainers on a near-weekly basis. The same questions about Hurts’ downfield arm strength against blue-chip competition that led to his fateful benching at Bama remain relevant until proven otherwise.

Talent-wise, LSU’s defense is about as blue-chip as they come: Nearly every player on the two-deep arrived as a 4- or 5-star recruit, and with a couple of exceptions (DL Glen Logan, LB Patrick Queen) the entire starting lineup consists of players who were in the top 100 overall prospects in their respective classes, per 247Sports’ composite rating. It’s a potentially elite group that will populate NFL rosters for years to come.

The key word there is potential. At their best, the Tigers have lived up to the advance hype, especially in their season-ending romps over Texas A&M and Georgia — arguably the 2 best single-game performances by any SEC defense all year, coming at exactly the right time to instill confidence that Dave Aranda’s unit has turned the corner. But the highs haven’t completely erased the lows. As recently as mid-November, the defense was still viewed as a potential liability on the heels of back-to-back shootouts against Alabama (understandable) and Ole Miss (not so much). Add to the list a couple of rough outings for the secondary against Texas in Week 2 and Florida in Week 7, opposite a reliably explosive Oklahoma offense, and there are legitimate doubts about which version of the LSU D is going to show up.

Key matchup: Oklahoma WR CeeDee Lamb vs. LSU CB Derek Stingley Jr.

Lamb had a breakout game in last year’s Orange Bowl loss to Alabama, repeatedly working over the Crimson Tide’s Patrick Surtain II en route to a 109-yard performance that established him as the next in a long line of A-plus Oklahoma wideouts.

He’s fulfilled that promise as a junior, emerging as a perennial big-play threat, a consensus All-American, and a potential top 10 pick in the 2020 NFL Draft. And while Stingley and his counterpart, junior Kristian Fulton, also have 1st-round ambitions, both have struggled at times across from top receivers — Stingley in particular was memorably roasted by Alabama’s DeVonta Smith for multiple big plays in November, the only real red-flag game in an otherwise stellar freshman campaign that ended with Stingley notching 2 interceptions off Jake Fromm in the SEC Championship Game and being voted a consensus All-American in his own right. (Although, inexplicably, not as the SEC Freshman of the Year according to league coaches.) Lamb is one of the few receivers in America who rivals Smith as a man-to-man test; how well Stingley and Fulton hold up against him will be one of the deciding factors in whether Oklahoma can manage to score enough to keep pace.

When LSU has the ball

The next defense to keep the Tigers in check will be the first, and if Oklahoma’s defense is the one to pull it off it will be one of the most shocking developments in the brief history of the Playoff.

To the Sooners’ credit, the situation on that side of the ball has improved significantly compared to the unit I profiled at this time last year. Then again, it could hardly have gotten any worse. The 2018 defense was a disaster, starting bad and devolving into one of the worst in the country (101st in scoring defense, 112th in total D) after longtime coordinator Mike Stoops was thrown overboard at midseason. To restore some semblance of sanity, Riley brought in up-and-coming DC Alex Grinch from Ohio State in the offseason. The results have been… well, sane:

In their biggest games the Sooners held Texas to 310 total yards, Oklahoma State to 335, and Baylor to 307 and 265, respectively — season lows for all of the above. Along with (ironically) the Ohio State defense that Grinch left, it’s on the short list of the most improved units in the country on either side of the ball.

At the heart of that turnaround is junior LB Kenneth Murray, a rangy, heat-seeking type who led the team in total tackles (95) and tackles for loss (16.0) with half of those TFLs coming in the last four games alone. Murray’s sideline-to-sideline speed and closing burst are rare for a player listed at 240+ pounds; he’s equally comfortable taking on blockers and dropping into coverage, and he’s specialized this season in detonating screen passes, in particular. He’s as much of a difference-maker as OU has had on defense in years, and if he’s not the best linebacker in the country he is more than capable of looking like it on any given snap.

Although it’s no longer an automatic liability, it would still be going a little overboard to suggest this is a good defense, at least by Playoff standards. Of the four teams in this year’s bracket, Oklahoma’s D ranks well behind the other three according to both SP+ (36th) and FPI (34th), which relatively speaking makes it the weakest link in the field. For comparison, even LSU’s defense, which has looked awfully vulnerable at times, still landed in the top 20 in each of those measures.

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Part of that is the simple fact that, as a group, Big 12 quarterbacks and Big 12 offenses in general weren’t up to the league’s usual high-flying standards. Two games, a 48-41 loss at Kansas State and a 42-41 win over Iowa State 2 weeks later, stand out as red-flag performances against a couple of meh attacks. But even when it was going well the Sooners were never out of the woods.

Take the Big 12 title game, where the defense thoroughly dominated the first 3 quarters en route to staking out a 23-13 lead over Baylor early in the 4th. (Ten of the Bears’ 13 points to that point came courtesy of short fields following a pair of OU turnovers; the offense did next to nothing. To be fair, losing their starting QB with an apparent concussion in the first half didn’t help the cause.) Without warning, the secondary suddenly combusted, allowing a true freshman in the first significant action of his career to connect on back-to-back strikes covering 81 and 78 yards, respectively, to force overtime in a game that had appeared to be in the bag.

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The late lapses vs. Baylor were reminiscent of the Iowa State game, when the best opposing passer the Sooners faced, ISU’s Brock Purdy, rallied the Cyclones from a 21-point deficit at the start of the fourth quarter to within a failed 2-point conversion of pulling the upset in Norman. Joe Burrow has tended to stress the weak spots much more quickly.

Key matchup: LSU OT Saahdiq Charles vs. Oklahoma DE Marcus Stripling

LSU’s starting lineup has been remarkably stable, with one glaring exception: Left tackle. Four starters have taken a crack at the job, which, between Charles, senior Badara Traore, and redshirt freshman Dare Rosenthal, has remained essentially up for grabs on a weekly basis. (Left guard Adrian Magee has also filled in at tackle against Ole Miss and Arkansas.) Charles was the default starter at LT in 2018, and appeared to regain the title at the end of the regular season after spending much of it in the coaches’ doghouse. His 3rd consecutive start on the blindside Saturday will mark the longest streak of the year by the same player.

Regardless of who gets the nod, his job got significantly easier last week with the suspension of Oklahoma’s best pass rusher, sophomore Ronnie Perkins, due to an apparent failed drug test. Other than Hurts, Perkins may be the player OU could have least afforded to lose; in his place, the Sooners will likely turn the edge role over to Stripling, a true freshman who has appeared in every game this season but recorded just 1 sack, or to little-used sophomore Isaiah Thomas, who has 2. Only one opposing defense this season — Auburn’s — has managed to make Burrow uncomfortable with its base pass rush, and even at full strength the Sooners don’t have anywhere near the pocket-collapsing juice of Auburn’s front four. If Grinch is forced to choose between playing it safe on the back end and bringing extra rushers in an attempt to heat Burrow up, it’s going to be a long night.

Special teams, injuries and other vagaries

For a couple of freshman kickers, Oklahoma’s Gabe Brkic and LSU’s Cade York qualify as known commodities.

Brkic has yet to miss as a Sooner, finishing 17-for-17 on field goals — the first perfect season by an FBS kicker with more than a dozen attempts since 2013 — and 48-for-48 on extra points since taking over the primary place-kicking role in late September. York has been less consistent, missing on 4 of his 25 field-goal attempts as well as 4 PATs but has earned considerably more trust from long range, connecting on 9 tries from 40+ yards out to Brkic’s 4. York is tied for the FBS lead with 4 50-yarders on the season, all of them coming in the past 4 games. In a dome, he could conceivably be good from 60.

The return game offers less intrigue than you’d expect from teams that feature CeeDee Lamb and Derek Stingley Jr. as their top punt returners; neither has taken one to the house this season, and these offenses are so rarely forced to punt themselves that neither Zach Von Rosenberg nor Reeves Mundschau has enough attempts to qualify for the NCAA’s official statistics. Both sides combined have faced just 12 punt returns all year — although for what it’s worth, LSU did memorably allow one of those to go back for a 77-yard touchdown via Alabama’s Jaylen Waddle.

Injury-wise, the biggest X-factor is the status of LSU’s All-SEC running back, Clyde Edwards-Helaire, which remains uncertain after the resident workhorse tweaked a hamstring in practice last week. It’s “a day-to-day deal,” according to Orgeron, who said flatly on Monday, “I don’t know if he’s going to play.” Hamstrings being hamstrings, the outlook for a healthy, productive Edwards-Helaire with access to his usual power and explosiveness in the open field is not encouraging. The next man up is true freshman Tyrion Davis-Price, who flashed some big-play pop on a 33-yard touchdown run against Florida…

… but otherwise has been unremarkable. If Edwards-Helaire is less than 100 percent, Saturday could be a chance for Davis Price or fellow freshman John Emery Jr. to break out in a big way.

Aside from Ronnie Perkins on the edge, Oklahoma will also be without its second-leading tackler, sophomore safety Delarrin Turner-Yell, who started all 13 games but suffered a broken collarbone in practice. His replacement: TBD. Sophomore Justin Broiles is the only candidate who has seen relevant action, but a couple of true freshmen, Jeremiah Criddell and Woodi Washington, will likely also be in the mix.

Bottom line

What could possibly be left to say about Joe Burrow, except don’t bet against him? Through 13 games he’s left all historical comparisons in the dust, culminating in his record-breaking margin in the Heisman vote. He’s 2 wins from staking his claim to the best season any college quarterback has ever had.

Barring a freak twist or two, it’s hard to come up with a way that Oklahoma isn’t going to go down as one of those wins. The Sooners will score, as always. Jalen Hurts will be his usual, hyper-efficient self. CeeDee Lamb will make plays. LSU will miss Edwards-Helaire at full speed, even more so in the passing game than between the tackles. But the broader narrative will play out as expected: The Tigers have too much firepower for OU’s defense to hold in check for long, and OU’s offense (Lamb notwithstanding) doesn’t have quite enough to hold serve.

Ironically, this could be the first game in ages in which Oklahoma might actually find a time-consuming, ball-control mentality works to its advantage. As long as he’s taking care of the ball — not a given lately — Hurts is a born grinder with a proven track record against better LSU defenses than the one he’ll see on Saturday. Opposite virtually anyone else, that and his 40-3 record as a college starter would go a long way. Opposite Burrow, the Sooners will need the game of Hurts’ life and then some just to keep it respectable.

LSU 44, Oklahoma 27