In the battle of Death Valley Tigers in Monday night’s national championship game, it is one team that has reinvented itself over the last two years against another that knows who it is and has owned it for years. Clemson versus LSU for the 2019 season national championship. Which team has an edge? Any edge? In this piece, we will take a look at the game from the LSU Sidelines.
Rejuvenation Or Revolution?
This is not your father’s LSU team. Heck, it’s not even your older brother’s LSU team. Fair or not, LSU has never been thought of nationally as a team that lights up the scoreboard. Their 2007 BCS championship team averaged 38 points per game, but that was pretty much the peak during the Les Miles era. Just a couple of years later they were down to 29 points per game. They made it back to the BCS championship game in 2011. But that season was more remembered for a 9-6 overtime yawner of a win against Alabama during the regular season. That was followed by a 21-0 loss to the Tide in the rematch in the title game.
The point being that while they averaged from the mid ‘20’s to the mid ‘30’s in points per game during the Miles era, they were never thought of as a team that was going to pile up the points. In Ed Orgeron’s first full season in 2017, the Bayou Bengals averaged 27 points per game while going 9-4.
The road from Columbus, Ohio to Baton Rouge, Louisiana changed everything, at least for a couple of years. The Tigers got a lightly used transfer quarterback from Ohio State named Joe Burrow. He had thrown 39 passes total during his time in Columbus. What he would bring to the team was a complete hypothetical at the time. Steve Ensminger also took over as offensive coordinator. Burrow had a decent, if not eye-popping, first season. He threw for just under 3,000 yards, with 16 touchdowns and five interceptions. He completed 58% of his passes. There was nothing that would lead one to foresee the mind-blowing season he would have in 2019.
Joe Brady was added to the offensive coaching staff. The passing game was opened up even more. Burrow responded with 5,208 passing yards, 55 touchdowns and only six interceptions. He had a mind-numbing 77.6% completion rate. He is now the all-time NCAA leader in that category. And make no mistake, this is not a dink and dunk offense. Burrow is going downfield with regularity. There was little question as to why he was the runaway winner for the Heisman.
Past Performance Is No Guarantee Of Future Results
In the 84-year history of the Heisman trophy, only 15 winners have won the national championship in the same year as they garnered the award. That would seem to stack the odds against Burrow and LSU Monday night.
To add to the challenge, they are facing the number two defense in the entire country in yards given up per game. Clemson was up against it in the other semi-final against Ohio State. But revered defensive coordinator Brent Venables made the needed halftime adjustments as Clemson came from behind for the win and their chance at back-to-back national championships. Clemson is also the best defense in the country in terms of points allowed per game at just over 11.
That would seem to paint a picture of Burrow in the role of Sysiphus pushing the boulder up the hill. Could the task be too big for the LSU offense Monday night? Don’t take the bait.
A Complete Attack
There is a reason LSU leads the nation in total offense, (564 yards per game), and points per game, (48), and it is not all Burrow. LSU was awarded the 2019 Joe Moore Award for the best offensive line in the country. The unit showed exceptional pass blocking skills in “empty protection,” (no tight end or running back blocking help). There were games all season where they were maintaining their blocks for seven to eight seconds which allowed Burrow tons of time to work his way through his progressions downfield.
They also have one of the better all-purpose players in the country in Clyde Edwards-Helaire. He has 1,700 yards of total offense, as a running back, receiver and part-time kick returner. Add in Biletnikoff Award winning receiver Ja’Marr Chase and it is easy to see how LSU has revolutionized its offense in the last 12 months.
They will face a defense that is averaging the least amount of sacks per game for a Clemson team since 2013. It figures that Burrow is going to get his numbers in the championship game.
The Other Side Of The Ball
Lest you think LSU only plays offense, while it is the dominant part of their season story line, they do have a good defense. They will be going against a high-powered Clemson offense engineered by quarterback Trevor Lawrence. His stats were even better in his sophomore year than they were last season when he was one of the best freshmen in the country.
The real challenge comes with Clemson’s receivers going up against Grant Delpit, (the Thorpe Award winner as best defensive back in the country), and freshman star defensive back Derek Stingley, Jr. There is a reason LSU has been dubbed “DBU,” (defensive back university). They turn out the elite at the position year after year.
While the LSU defense doesn’t have anything close to the overpowering national stats that Clemson does, the quality of defensive backfield can change the passing attack for Dabo Swinney’s offense.
Much is being made of LSU getting to play the national championship game at the Superdome in New Orleans. It is likely to have a home game feel for the Bayou Bengals. For some teams that becomes more of a distraction than a blessing. For this game, it really plays into the hands of Clemson. Swinney spent much of the season weaving the narrative that it his Clemson team against the world; that no one wants them to succeed outside of their own fan base. The players and the fan base have spent the year repeating it as if it were true. In this case, in this game, in New Orleans, there may be some validity to the claim.
While the odds makers have made Clemson a slight underdog, much to Swinney’s glee, the Tigers from the state of South Carolina have something that the Tigers from Louisiana do not. They have been there and done that. With a shot at their third national title in four years, nothing is going to catch Clemson off guard. Can Burrow and LSU rise to that level on one night for quarters on the biggest stage of them all?
Up Next: We look at the championship game from the Clemson sidelines