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National Championship Preview: #3 Clemson Takes on #1 LSU

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THERE CAN ONLY BE ONE!

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: DEC 28 CFP Semifinal at the Fiesta Bowl - Clemson v Ohio State Photo by Brian Rothmuller/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Greetings STS! The Clemson football magic carpet ride continues after a thrilling come from behind win against a very, very good Ohio State team. That game was every bit the heavyweight battle I anticipated, though a little lower scoring. Clemson’s outstanding red zone defense, then the heroics of Trevor Lawrence and Travis Etienne, ultimately saved the day. I’m thankful that J.K. Dobbins is in the rear view mirror. I can’t remember fearing an opposing running back more since Dalvin Cook was in Tallahassee.

Meanwhile, Lawrence and Etienne further demonstrated how ridiculous their snubs on the national award scene really were. While the longer break between the semifinals and championship game has been a little hard to take, the team surely benefited from the extra rest after a physically demanding game where most Clemson starters played a season high in snaps. LSU, meanwhile, had things on cruise control as they predictably dismantled Oklahoma’s porous defense.

Now another huge challenge faces this magical team. For you older folks, I relate this to having to face and defeat Goro, then Shang Tsung in the original Mortal Kombat game. LSU enters this game with the best college passing attack I’ve ever seen in my lifetime of being a college football fan (spanning 3 decades now). The Bayou Bengals are also getting to play this game in their own backyard as well as experiencing the incredible highs of reaching this game for the first time since 2012. The atmosphere will be electric, which makes this all the more fun to look forward to after a season of mismatches on Clemson’s schedule. Win or lose, the Clemson Tigers continue to prove they are the elite program in college football right now. Securing the 30th win in a row in the very building the last loss occurred would not only be poetic, but unprecedented considering it would have seen Clemson knock off four undefeated teams in its last four playoff games.

Clemson offense vs. LSU defense: I thought the Clemson offense would have to carry the load a lot more vs. Ohio State than it has had to do this year. That ended up only being partially true, as 29 points proved to be sufficient to get the job done. Holding that Ohio State offense to just 23 points was an amazing accomplishment by Brent Venables’ unit. Trevor Lawrence showcased his wheels in ways not yet seen, especially that 67 yard TD run where he not only outran an elite Buckeye back seven, but juked a guy out of his shoes in the open field in the process. Lawrence is a cyborg whose weaknesses now are so minuscule it is hard to mention any. Injuries and great coverage rendered Tee Higgins and Justyn Ross nearly invisible, yet Lawrence still found a way to deliver when the game was on the line. Clemson’s offensive line did a masterful job of limiting Chase Young and the Buckeye front, which was easily the best the Tigers have faced in the last two seasons.

Travis Etienne is fully weaponized now that he has added the pass catching game to his repertoire. He is so electric in the open field that having to account for him in the screen and check down areas presents a stress I’m not sure defensive coordinators have adjusted to yet. We all know that if Clemson gets Etienne’s standard rush game rolling that the LSU defense is toast, but it is refreshing to know that Clemson can still function against a high level defense even when that is not the case.

Hopefully Justyn Ross and Tee Higgins will be closer to 100% for this game. Their roles will be increasingly important if the Tigers are forced into a shootout by Burrow and the LSU offense. Amari Rodgers came up with a huge play late in the Fiesta Bowl, and while Braden Galloway wasn’t a factor as a receiver, his plus athleticism was big on blocks that helped spring some of the biggest plays of the night. LSU is going to try to hold up in man coverage on the perimeter, so those 1-on-1 matchups the Tigers crave will be there. We all know Ross and Higgins made the big time plays in last year’s title run when given those 1-on-1’s. Clemson will likely need an encore on Monday night.

LSU isn’t as formidable up front as Ohio State on defense. They rely a lot more on blitz pressures and stress their back seven in coverage a lot more than Ohio State. The Buckeyes had the ability to force underneath throws and the dudes to make tackles in space (except where Etienne was concerned, further cementing how good he really is). While LSU is probably more apt to make a wow play on defense, they are also more susceptible to giving up explosives and missing tackles. This Clemson OL is, in my humble opinion, the best in school history. There hasn’t been that much talk about this group in the shadow of Lawrence and the skill guys, but it is a rare thing to see the top group get whipped in a one-on-one situation. That means Dave Arranda will need to be more exotic and hope he can disrupt or confuse Lawrence before Lawrence identifies things and punishes them. Clemson’s ball security has been the best it has ever been since the Louisville game’s first quarter, and it is hard to see this team losing if it takes care of the ball. Turnover margin was critical last game and will be again this time.

Clemson defense vs. LSU offense: Last year’s test against a ridiculous Alabama offense was daunting enough, but Clemson had a very high performance ceiling thanks to an all-time great DL to go with two NFL corners on the outside and the emerging freakazoid Isaiah Simmons. This LSU offense, as noted earlier, boasts the best passing game I have witnessed at the college level. Alabama was scary because their RPO game was so dangerous because guys were taking slants to the house routinely. LSU is scarier to me because of all the plays they make against what appears to be good coverage or off a Burrow scramble. The LSU skill has made contested plays consistently all year long and Burrow is brimming with the confidence to put the ball into very tight situations as a result. That means the Tiger defensive backs will need to make plays on the ball even when their coverage would ordinarily deter a throw. Ohio State had a couple of these great plays in the Fiesta Bowl, but ultimately not enough in the end.

The good news is Clemson is as equipped as any team in the country to combat LSU’s attack. The versatility and range that Simmons brings is the ultimate X factor for what Venables has done with this unit. Last year, Venables (for what had to be one of the only times in his career) actually encouraged Alabama to run the ball between the 20’s before clamping down tight in the red zone where there wasn’t as much space to cover. Is LSU willing to commit to the running game against what likely will be lighter numbers in the box? How much will the inverted cover 2 looks employed against Ohio State be used? Pass rush against any great passer is important, but Burrow is perhaps most dangerous when he is extending plays. The Tigers were mostly effective at minimizing Justin Fields’ running, but Fields (though a very good player) isn’t as dangerous on the move as Burrow has been this season. Now, Burrow is a gunslinger who has been on a hot streak. He will take chances and trust his wideouts and the Tigers MUST not miss when they have a shot at a pick. Clemson really should have had four interceptions with two possible pick 6’s against Ohio State instead of the two they got. We all know how important the Terrell pick 6 was in setting the tone in last year’s title game and a similar play would do the same this time.

I think the Tigers must look to disrupt the LSU WR’s on the outside with press coverage and force Burrow to execute tough fades and back shoulder throws. Clemson’s DB’s have had the chance to defend perhaps the best back shoulder and go route WR’s in the country in practice. If Ja’Marr Chase and Justin Jefferson can consistently win on the outside against Kendrick and Terrell, you just have to tip your cap to them. What you don’t want to see is those guys getting easy catches in space and allowing Burrow to rack up the insane completion percentages he is used to putting up.

Clyde Edwards-Helaire was afforded extra time off thanks to the overall mismatch the Peach Bowl presented. He is a good runner, but his pass catching ability is a dangerous factor to account for in this game. Ohio State nearly got Clemson on that throw to Dobbins in the endzone that was thankfully not secured. LSU will look for ways to get Edwards-Helaire against Chad Smith or James Skalksi. LSU makes you account for their WR’s, TE, and RB in the passing game in a way few teams can.

I think Venables will employ a true third corner the dime packages for this game more than the last one. The presence of Dobbins and Fields together in the run game dictated having an extra safety, in this case Nolan Turner, on the field against Ohio State. Turner got burned in slot coverage for a TD (though he did secure the game with a pick in a similar situation, as we know). I’ll be interested to see if Venables goes more to Mario Goodrich as an extra DB for this game. Goodrich would offer more speed and quickness either on the outside allowing Kendrick or Terrell to move inside, or as the true nickel himself.

In the end, this is about as elite as it gets. Brent Venables against Joe Brady/Steve Ensminger; Isaiah Simmons vs. Joe Burrow; elite skill vs. elite skill. Buckle up and enjoy the show.

Special Teams: I’ll start with a tip of the cap to the often maligned Will Spiers. He came through with the best performance of his career when Clemson needed it most vs. Ohio State, helping to keep the Buckeyes in poor field position most of the night. Getting a punt off vs. a heavy rush AND drawing a roughing penalty was another highlight moment. Unfortunately B.T. Potter missed his only FG attempt and questions linger about how clutch he can be should it come down to it. Believe me, I was thinking hard about that miss as Ohio State mounted its final drive of the game down 6 instead of 9. As usual, this phase is an X factor that is perhaps the hardest to predict. We all know that any big play (good or bad) will probably be a major deciding factor in who wins this game. I certainly hope we see LSU kicker Cade York trying field goals a lot more than extra points.

Overall: The Ohio State game was so much fun. It is easy to say that having come out on top, but knowing you are dealing with a worthy opponent and the uncertainty while you watch a game play out is what makes sports fandom the best. This is another one of those games. While LSU isn’t as complete a team as Ohio State, in my opinion, the level Burrow and that offense have been on might make that a moot point. Which defense can get stops or force turnovers? Will this finally be a moment too big for the relatively new kid on the block playing in their home state? Will Clemson finally feel the absence of the Power Rangers? Ultimately I have to fall back on my faith in Brent Venables, Tony Elliot, and Jeff Scott’s coaching; Trevor Lawrence’s supreme talent; and the master of it all: Dabo Swinney.

Clemson 42-LSU 35