LSU vs. Clemson: A week out, 10 storylines that will dominate championship week buildup
One. More. Week.
It’s almost here. The 16-day buildup between the semifinal matchups and the College Football Playoff is in the home stretch. That’s the good news.
Over the course of the next week as each of these teams arrive in New Orleans and the media blitz picks up steam, I thought it’d be fitting to look at some of the storylines that’ll dominate the buildup to this matchup.
Here are 10 things you’re sure to hear about a lot this week:
1. Joe Burrow’s all-time great season
In case you haven’t heard, the LSU quarterback is doing some pretty special things. Like, win the Heisman Trophy by a record margin, break virtually every SEC and LSU single-season passing record, etc. Burrow is also 3 touchdown passes from tying Colt Brennan’s single-season FBS record. I asked Tim Tebow about this last week, and he said if Burrow caps this season with a national title, it has to be right up there with the best individual seasons of all time.
This obviously has been at the forefront of LSU’s story all year, but with 1 game left, this conversation now seems more relevant than ever. Will it be better than Cam Newton in 2010? Or even Jameis Winston in 2013? All of that will be discussed this week.
2. Trevor Lawrence’s quest for perfection
Somewhat lost in the shuffle of Burrow’s dominance is the fact that Trevor Lawrence has yet to lose a start. The highest-rated quarterback recruit of all-time is searching for his 2nd national title in his first 2 seasons. It would be an unprecedented feat that surely will be broken down at length. Lawrence, in my eyes, is already ahead of someone like Matt Leinart in terms of college football hierarchy. Like Burrow, the résumé comparisons will be there all week. There have and will be all sorts of coverage on Lawrence’s perfect college career so far.
3. The Clemson disrespect card
I can’t wait for Dabo Swinney to tell us about how the ACC didn’t get enough respect all year and how poor, old Clemson has been the underdog all year. Clemson is the underdog having won 29 consecutive games for the simple fact that LSU is more proven. It has been more battle-tested. That’s not something that Swinney can deny, no matter how much he tries to convince us that Virginia and Alabama are on the same level (don’t be surprised when he makes some sort of comp like that). LSU is a 5.5-point favorite, but there will be plenty of talking heads picking Clemson to repeat.
But get ready for another press conference like this:
Dabo is coming out swinging this morning, man.
— Ross Dellenger (@RossDellenger) December 3, 2019
4. Can Clemson’s DBs stick with LSU’s receivers?
I feel like I’ve already been asked this question at least a half dozen times. I usually answer that question with a simple answer — no. No, I don’t believe Clemson, which has earned the No. 1 scoring defense and passing defense in America, has seen anything like LSU’s receivers. Why? They haven’t faced LSU’s receivers. The route-running is already next level for the likes of Ja’Marr Chase, Justin Jefferson and Terrace Marshall.
But it’s the combination of the protection that LSU gets up front with Burrow’s ability to use his legs and keep his eyes downfield when plays break down. What makes LSU essentially impossible to defend is that LSU’s receivers don’t stop moving. They have an uncanny ability to turn what should be coverage sacks into long gains. It’s the ultimate back-breaker. LSU is going to get theirs. The question is if Clemson can make those 1 or 2 key plays to somewhat slow LSU down.
5. The health of Clyde Edwards-Helaire
This was a bigger storyline heading into the Peach Bowl because Edwards-Helaire suffered the hamstring injury in practice, and his status was all over the place. But was we found out, the 1st-team All-SEC back was essentially an emergency back. Nothing about that Peach Bowl was an emergency. He said afterwards that it was amazing that he was even able to be back to that level after the injury he suffered, and also that he’d be good to go for the title game. Consider that the beauty of having 16 days between games.
6. Travis Etienne’s not-so-friendly homecoming
It’s already been a big topic of conversation, and frankly, not a good one. The Clemson star is a Louisiana native who spurned the in-state Tigers for the out-of-state Tigers. According to the Greenville News, Etienne’s mom said that the family received threats from LSU fans. Yikes. Etienne was a 4-star recruit out of Jennings, La., in 2017. He’s been one of the top backs in America since the start of 2018, and clearly, he’ll be at the top of LSU’s scouting report.
Let’s just say that the Mercedes-Benz Superdome crowd will have some mixed feelings on the All-American tailback.
7. LSU’s home-field advantage
Speaking of Mercedes-Benz Superdome, I can’t wait until we get those stats about how pro-LSU of a crowd it’ll be. My guess is something like 75-25 in the projections. Clemson is certainly drivable (8.5 hours to New Orleans), but obviously being an hour and change from Baton Rouge is a touch different. Plus, LSU fans have obviously been waiting 8 years for this compared to 12 months for Clemson fans. I’m not sure how much that’ll matter. I tend to think that for as well as Clemson travels, this game would still have an LSU-heavy crowd if it were played in San Francisco.
But, it’s not. Instead, we’ll have to remind ourselves that this is indeed a neutral-site game.
8. Joe Brady’s future
Ed Orgeron already said that the plan to keep Brady in LSU is “just about wrapped up.” I don’t want to say that won’t happen because if I’m betting today, Brady will be at LSU in Week 1 in 2020. But is there still some speculation that the 30-year old budding offensive mind will get swayed by the NFL coaching carousel? I believe so. Otherwise, I believe this deal would’ve been official by now.
Some will continue to speculate that another school could come in and poach Brady. By now, he’s a household name and everyone knows the story of how his meteoric rise revolutionized the LSU offense. But by the end of the week, I’m sure he’ll be sick of hearing people wonder about his future.
9. Steve Ensminger dealing with tragedy
To be clear, I hope that this actually isn’t much of a storyline and he can grieve in peace without fielding questions galore about this. I’m guessing that Ensminger’s media availability will be either non-existent or limited at best. Any sort of think-piece about “where his head will be” is somewhat inappropriate, in my opinion. The tragic death of his daughter-in-law, Carley McCord, will certainly be recognized in the stadium. I hope coverage on Ensminger’s family is treated with caution and we don’t see people debating about whether it’ll be a distraction. It’s not a “distraction.” Football was how Ensminger chose to cope with his grief the day that it happened, and for all we know, it’ll continue to be a safe place for him and his family.
10. The all-time great team debate
This has already been a storyline. I asked this question immediately when we had the matchup in place because I think with a pair of undefeated teams like this who have been so dominant, it needs to be discussed. LSU’s case is obvious. The Tigers are going for what would be their sixth win against teams who are currently ranked in the top 9 of the Associated Press poll. That would be insane for a 15-0 team. That 2001 Miami team had 3 wins against teams in the final top 15 of the AP Poll, which was the same as 2004 USC, 2018 Clemson and 1971 Nebraska. The 1995 Nebraska team had 4 such wins.
As for Clemson, yes, the regular season was rough in terms of quality wins. But to beat an Ohio State team that put together one of the most dominant regular seasons ever and to beat 14-0 LSU in New Orleans, yeah, that’s worthy of being among the best teams ever. Clemson still won games by an average of 33.8 points, which is actually a shade better than 2001 Miami’s 32.9 points per game.
No matter who wins on Monday night, the G.O.A.T. debate is far from over.