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National Championship Game Preview: Clemson vs. LSU - Depth Chart Talent & Statistical Analysis

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NCAA Football: College Football Playoff Semifinal-Oklahoma vs Louisiana State Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

Here we are, again. The Tigers are in their fourth National Championship game in five years. It’s hard to believe. Some of us remember when winning the Atlantic Division was a lofty goal we couldn’t quite get past Matt Ryan to achieve. Now we’re a hated dynasty with writers from the Atlantic and New York Magazine dropping tweets calling Coach Swinney evil and articles calling him a villain. Clemson fatigue is setting in, and it makes people say the darndest things.

The haters though, are relieved that Clemson will have to face their toughest opponent since... last year when they beat the media’s proclaimed “the greatest team of all time” by 28 points.

While Clemson has played and beat teams of LSU’s ilk, it’s not going to be easy. In the semifinals, Macaulay Culkin Joe Burrow led LSU to a total drubbing of the “had to include a 4th team” Sooners. LSU broke practically all the offensive records for a College Football Playoff game. Although the Sooners had several defensive players suspended and another thrown out for a dirty hit, LSU’s 63-point explosion would have been impressive even against NC State. LSU looked unstoppable.

Meanwhile, Clemson was in a war with an excellent and outrageously physical Buckeyes team. The Tigers needed an epic 16-point comeback and an interception in the end zone with 43 seconds remaining to advance to the National Championship game, but they made it. Clemson is 14-0. The season is already resounding success. The Tigers have a chance for 30-straight wins though, so let’s dive into the analysis and see what they’ll have to overcome for win #30. LSU is known for their offense so we’ll begin there:

Note: Traditional statistics (e.g., Scoring Offense Rank) are through games on 12/28 while the SP+ rankings are as of the start of bowl season.

National Championship - Offense Comparison

Statistic LSU Clemson
Statistic LSU Clemson
Scoring Offense Rank 1 4
Scoring Offense 48.9 45.3
Rushing YPG Rank 61 12
Rushing YPG 167.0 246.1
YPC 4.86 6.41
Passing YPG Rank 2 20
Passing YPG 397.2 292.2
YPA 10.74 8.67
SP+ Offense Rank 1 6

Behind only Mike Leach’s air raid offense, LSU ranks #2 in passing yards per game. On a per attempt basis, they are averaging a silly 10.7 yards per pass attempt. They’ve faced solid defenses too, namely Florida, Auburn, and Georgia.

Joe Burrow’s accuracy is ultra elite. He is completing 77.6% of his passes this season. For reference, that’s 10 percentage-points higher than Trevor Lawrence and 6.2 percentage-points better than Tua Tagovailoa. Joe Burrow doesn’t have the career numbers of some of the all-time great college QBs, but if he can finish off this season with a strong performance in a national championship victory, there would be a real argument that this was the best single-season by a college QB ever. Here’s a quick look at how he can slip it into tight windows:

Ohio State came into the Fiesta Bowl with a 37%/63% pass attempt/rush attempt split. LSU, conversely is 52% pass. This proportion is even higher in non-blowout situations. Looking at their last six games before the Peach Bowl (which I’ve excluded because their starting RB was out), LSU running backs averaged nearly six fewer rush attempts than Clemson’s running backs (24.7 vs. 30.5). While stopping JK Dobbins and the Ohio State rushing attack was mission #1 in the Fiesta Bowl, stopping Burrow and LSU’s passing attack will be mission #1 in this one. As such, we’ll likely see a lot more of the 3-3-5 we saw against Texas A&M than the four-man front we started with against Ohio State.

To delve deeper, let’s take a look at the recruited talent in each team’s two-deep depth chart. While there’s little doubt that Clemson has the better defense and LSU the better offense, that isn’t a product of the recruited talent. In fact, it’s despite that!

Methodology: The starters at QB and on the O-line as well as the two-deep at all other positions (excluding specialists like kickers, long snappers, punt returners, etc.) are included in the calculation for the bar charts below. All players are weighted equally for the offensive and defensive scores. The overall score is a simple average of the offense and defense bars.

Surprisingly, LSU has less recruited talent in their offensive two-deep than Clemson, but more in their defensive two deep (per 247). Clemson has more highly touted recruits across the entire offense. QB Trevor Lawrence was more highly-rated than Joe Burrow, RB Travis Etienne was more highly-rated than Clyde Edwards-Helaire, and WRs Tee Higgins and Justyn Ross were rated above LSU stars Ja’Marr Chase and Justin Jefferson - the latter of which was a local 3-star prospect.

Conversely, on defense, Clemson’s is a shade behind at all three levels. Where it is most notable though is at safety. Clemson isn’t stocked with 5-stars at the safety positions. Starters Tanner Muse and K’Von Wallace were three-star recruits. Backup Safety Denzel Johnson was a 247 3-star (Rivals 2-star) and Nolan Turner was not graded by 247. They have a lot of experience and football IQ there, but LSU will stress them with an Heisman-winning QB attacking them deep with elite WRs.

Clemson’s pass defense is #1 nationally. They intercepted Ohio State QB Justin Fields twice despite him coming into the game with a 40-1 TD-INT ratio. Burrow and his receivers are a clear notch above Fields and his receivers though. One of the biggest questions in the game will therefore be how well Clemson’s safeties hold up against LSU’s inevitable aerial assault.

For some reason, all the pundits wants to pile on Tanner Muse for two poor plays against Virginia, but they forget he had 4 INTs. He is blazing fast, as we saw when he ran down JK Dobbins and make a shoe string tackle. He is a fifth year player and this game will be a fantastic opportunity to prove the media wrong.

While LSU’s offense is scary good, their defense has been just decent:

National Championship - Defense Comparison

Statistic LSU Clemson
Statistic LSU Clemson
Scoring Defense Rank 28 1
Scoring Defense 21.6 11.5
Rushing YPC Allowed Rank 26 10
Rushing YPC Allowed 3.60 3.12
Passing YPA Allowed Rank 22 1
Passing YPA Allowed 6.42 5.52
TFL Rank T-46 9
TFL 6.3 7.9
Sack Rank T-40 18
Team Sacks 2.50 2.93
SP+ Defense Rank 19 3

LSU has faced some great defenses and with the exception of a low-scoring game against Auburn, they torched them. LSU has faced three of the top 17 scoring offenses in the country: #2 Alabama, #6 Oklahoma, and #17 Texas. They allowed 41, 28, and 38 points in those contests, respectively.

LSU’s defense has looked much improved over their last three games. They held Texas A&M to 7 points on Rivalry Week and then UGA to 10 points in the SEC Championship game. Georgia’s offense is garbage right now, and LSU’s defense did what they should against them - dominate. They allowed 28 points to Oklahoma in the Peach Bowl, but that’s an elite offense and most of the points were in garbage time. Holding them to 28 is rather impressive. The biggest question for LSU is this: has their defense improved as much as it appears?

They’ve certainly some improved since their early season game against Texas. They have a very highly-respected defensive coordinator in Dave Aranda, and as we saw in the recruited talent charts, plenty of defensive talent. It is intuitive that it would eventually come around.

They definitely aren’t as good as Ohio State’s defense though. Ohio State boasted the best defensive line in the country and Clemson couldn’t find any running lanes for Travis Etienne against them. Clemson was forced to adjust and use Etienne more in the passing game while running with QB Trevor Lawrence. They made the adjustment just in time. In this contest, LSU won’t present quite the D-line Ohio State had and Etienne will be the best running back on the field. He has 232 more rushing yards and averaged 1.4 YPC more than Clyde Edwards-Helaire. If Clemson can establish the run, it could be just the advantage they need to keep up with LSU’s offense.

Final Comments

A few weeks ago, we were wishing Clemson would play LSU instead of Ohio State. After LSU’s performance, both offensively and defensively, against OU, they suddenly look much scarier.

Here are the keys to the game:

Can Clemson’s safeties hold up against the best passing attack in the country? LSU will take shots and attack Clemson’s safeties. Clemson’s safeties have been very good, but they don’t ooze with the insane raw talent that Clemson boasts at other positions. Can they hold up? I have no illusions Clemson safeties will pick off Burrow twice to help hold them under 24 points like they did Ohio State. They’ll probably get burned once or twice, but I don’t see them getting consistently picked on all night.

Can Clemson establish the run with Travis Etienne? Clemson’s offense will be relieved to not see the Buckeye’s D-line across from them. They couldn’t establish the run with Etienne and had to get creative to make the rushing attack work against OSU. Can they attack with a more traditional running game against LSU?

Finally, we have to wonder just how improved LSU’s defense really is. They have the talent and they have a great defensive coordinator. They’ve looked very good for three games in a row, but does that override their first 11 games and make us change our opinion on them completely? I’m honestly not sure. Higgins and Ross weren’t their dominant selves against Ohio State. They probably have to be in this one if Clemson is going to win. Clemson will have to win more one-on-one matchups and get more time in the pocket to attack them. 29 points may not cut it in this one.

Prediction

Clemson is a 5.5 point underdog in a virtual road game in New Orleans. They can ill-afford to fall behind by 16-points against this offense as they did in the Fiesta Bowl. Hopefully, the punch to the chops they got against Ohio State was just the introduction to facing top level competition they needed after a season of crushing mediocre ACC and SEC teams.

I’ve wavered on this prediction, but in end, it seems fairly clear that Clemson offense is only a shade behind LSU’s while their defense is clearly better. Although playing in Louisiana is a real disadvantage, Clemson sold out their allotment of tickets and I imagine the Tigers will occupy at least 13 of the stadium.

I’ve said for weeks that Ohio State and Clemson are the two best teams and one will win the championship. While LSU’s performance against the Sooners is persuasive enough to make me waver, I’m not going to let one game decide my pick:

42-38 Clemson