2020 National Championship Preview and Prediction: LSU vs. Clemson

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LSU Tigers vs. Clemson Tigers

January 13th, 2020 8:00 P.M ET

Mercedes-Benz Superdome

Line: LSU -5.5, O/U 69.5

It’s the moment college football fans have been waiting nearly two weeks for. The LSU Tigers from Death Valley West meet with the defending National Champions from Death Valley East in New Orleans for the first time since the 2012 Chic-Fil-A Peach Bowl. On that night, Dabo Swinney’s Tigers topped LSU by a point in a thrilling contest that went down to the wire. Many Clemson fans and football historians will point to that day as the turning point for Swinney’s program, setting Clemson up to be a national powerhouse for years to come.

But the past will mean very little in this one. Outside of that 2012 contest, LSU and Clemson have only met twice before – in the 1959 and 1996 Sugar Bowls. The combined score in those two games was 17-7 LSU, as the Bayou Bengals won each of them by one score. I feel safe in saying, Monday’s matchup is going to have a totally different feel to it.

While there are a million intriguing aspects to this matchup and multiple potential X-Factors, the game is going to come down to the two superstars – Joe Burrow and Trevor Lawrence – both of whom are expected to be the #1 overall picks in their respective draft classes.

Burrow has put together arguably the best passing season in college football history, and it came out of nowhere. The former Ohio State Buckeye has thrown for over 5,000 yards, 55 TDs compared to just six interceptions, all while setting the NCAA record for completion percentage with a ridiculous 77.6% mark. He’s also no slouch with his feet either, racking up 310 yards rushing and four more touchdowns on the ground. However, when he starts to get going outside of the pocket, he’s usually looking downfield to make a big play, not scramble for a couple of extra yards.

Being frank, Burrow is probably the best passer the NCAA has ever seen. His accuracy is second to none, especially on deep balls, his IQ is as high as you’ll ever see at this level, his ability to maneuver the pocket is a work of art, and he posesses the competitive fire and clutch gene to top it all off. But you can say a lot of those same things about his counterpart.

Last year, Lawrence stepped on the National stage as a freshman and left pro scouts drooling. Had he been eligible to come out after his National Championship throttling of the Crimson Tide, there is very little doubt he would have been the #1 pick. Because of that, he came into the season with a lot of Heisman hype, but it took him about eight weeks to get his feet back under him – call it a College Football Playoff hangover if you will. But over the last seven contests, he’s been as good as anyone in football, recording 25 total touchdowns and no turnovers.

Physically, it’s difficult to argue Lawrence might be the best prospect we have ever seen come out of college. He stands at 6’6″ and 220 pounds with a cannon for an arm, and he even showed us against Ohio State just how much of a threat he can be with his legs as well. But if Clemson wants to compete with LSU come Monday, they are going to need Lawrence to be perfect with his arm, and he has the weapons to make that happen.

Travis Etienne, the Lousianna native, has turned into one of the most explosive backs in the country over his three years at Clemson. He’s just as deadly in the receiving game as he is as a runner, which he showcased against Ohio State, turning two short passes into long touchdowns, including the game-winner. But the matchup to watch will be LSU’s defensive backs, led by Jim Thorpe award winner Grant Delpit, versus these star receivers from Clemson.

Justyn Ross and Tee Higgins create matchup nightmares across the board, but if there’s a secondary that might be able to slow them down, it’s the Tigers from LSU. Freshman DB Derek Singletary might already be the best cornerback in football, and Kristian Fulton could be a first-round pick in the upcoming draft. It’s going to be best against best on Monday night, but while Clemson surrounds Lawrence with one of the most potent groups of weapons in the country, there is a reason Joe Burrow has put together the best passing season in NCAA history.

On the outside, LSU has a trio of wide receivers that might be the best in the country. Ja’Marr Chase took home this year’s Biletnikoff award – given to the best wide receiver in the country – after catching 75 balls for nearly 1,600 yards and 18 touchdowns. Justin Jefferson, a former two-star recruit, didn’t finish too far behind him either, finishing the season with 102 catches for 1,434 yards and 18 scores as well. And Terrace Marshall, often LSU’s third option in the passing game, racked 625 yards and 12 TDs on the season.

If that wasn’t enough, LSU also has one of the most versatile running backs in the country. Clyde Edwards-Helaire ran the ball 199 times this season for 1,304 yards and 16 touchdowns. He also caught 50 passes for 399 yards and a score and is an elite pass blocker, something that will be useful against a Brent Venables defense that loves to bring unique pressures. And just when you think you have all your bases covered, Thaddeus Moss has emerged as a fantastic receiving threat as well from the tight end position, recording 45 receiving yards or more in six of his last seven contests. This LSU offense belongs in the Louvre, but if there is a defense that can slow them down, it’s the Clemson Tigers.

Brent Venables defense is first in the league in opponents points per game, allowing just over 11 per contest. They are second in opponents yards per game, first in opponents yards per pass, and first in interception rate. All of those traits will have to be on full display if they want to have a chance at stopping Joe Burrow. You know Venables is going to dial up pressure, but they must get there. Because if you give Burrow more than a second while leaving his weapons in man coverage, it will result in big play after big play.

While there is often a debate about whether the two teams that meet in the National Championship are indeed the most deserving, those conversations are not happening this year. Clemson solidified their journey with a thrilling victory over an elite Ohio State group, and LSU has dominated everyone in their path, including Oklahoma, who they led by 35 at the half just over a week ago. This has all the making of an epic conclusion to one of the best seasons in the CFP era, and I have do doubt Burrow and Lawrence will give college football fans everything, plus a bit more come Monday.

Prediction

Coming into this matchup, everyone is going to have the last time Clemson faced an SEC champion in the back of their minds. However, Dabo Swinney’s Tigers showed against Ohio State they are a much different team than the one that won it all a year ago, and it starts with their depleted defensive line. Clemson still has athletes upfront, but they haven’t been able to get consistent pressure with just four rushers all year like they did last season, which should come as no surprise. Brent Venables lost his entire defensive line to the NFL draft, and while Clemson doesn’t rebuild – they reload – it would have been impossible to replicate that unit’s success last season. They were one of the most dominant positional groups in college football history, and that would be really useful against this LSU offense.

Venables will dial up some looks, but I don’t think anything will confuse Joe Burrow, who is simply one of the smartest college football quarterbacks we have ever seen. And if he knows where you’re coming from, you don’t have a shot. Clemson’s secondary is disciplined, but they don’t have the athletes to match up with LSU. If there is one thing I can guarantee about this matchup, it’s that LSU will put up points. Throw Clemson’s #1 defense out the window; that means very little when playing the awful offenses in the ACC. Ohio State racked up over 500 yards against Clemson, and they do not compare to what LSU will bring offensively. The Bayou Bengals will score at least 30 in this one, like they have all year, and probably more like 40+.

That means Lawrence is going to have to be perfect, which he has been over his Clemson career. In 25 collegiate games, Lawrence has not lost, always doing what needs to be done to win the game, whether it’s with his arm, legs, or as a leader. That is going to matter on Monday, and I’m positive he is well aware of the fact that his team is going to need to score 40 to win this ball game. He has the weapons to make that happen and will make this game a shootout, but at the end of the day, LSU’s defense has come on strong at the end of the year, and they have the better athletes in the secondary to match up with Clemson. I think that’s the difference in the game. Eventually, LSU will come up with a stop or two in a row, which will open the door for Joe Burrow to take the lead, and he will not look back.

LSU 44, Clemson 37

 

 

 

 

 

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