Seventh Day Adventure
Football Outsiders' weekly preview for people who like their football played on Saturdays

Seventh Day Adventure: National Championship Preview

LSU Tigers QB Joe Burrow
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

The 2019 college football season concludes with Clemson vs. LSU, which isn't shocking but certainly wasn't a consensus even before the semifinals started. Ultimately, while Clemson and LSU are both deep teams with a lot of talent across the roster, the most important fact is that these are the two schools with the best quarterback play in the country. Both managed to eke out some tough wins over the course of the season due to the play of Trevor Lawrence and Heisman-winner Joe Burrow.

In the semifinals, Burrow absolutely torched Oklahoma for 493 passing yards and seven touchdowns, four to star slot receiver Justin Jefferson. That game was over almost as soon as it began as the Tigers predictably took apart Oklahoma's secondary after picking up the Sooners' pressures. Defensively, LSU clamped down on the Oklahoma receivers in man coverage while loading the box and daring Jalen Hurts to beat them with his arm. Despite an illustrious career, Hurts came up empty in most every playoff game he competed in either at Alabama or Oklahoma.

On the other side of the bracket, Clemson got down early against J.K. Dobbins before changing up their defensive scheme to a 3-2-6 dime package they used to flummox the Buckeyes' pre-snap reads and eliminate big plays. With injuries to star receivers Justyn Ross and Tee Higgins, Lawrence carried the Tigers with 107 rushing yards and hit running back Travis Etienne with three passes that produced 98 yards and two touchdowns, plus an option pitch that went for 8 yards and another score. Between that gritty effort by Lawrence and defensive coordinator Brent Venable's adjustments, Clemson climbed out of a 16-0 deficit to win late 29-23.

Now it's an all-Tigers final with some interesting ramifications for either program. A win and 15-0 season by LSU would be a defining, all-time achievement that would mark Burrow and head coach Ed Orgeron as legends forever. Meanwhile, going 15-0 with back-to-back national championships would be a similarly amazing mark for Lawrence and Clemson with (at least) one more year left for the quarterback. Either way, someone is writing their legacy in stone on Monday night.

All times are listed as Eastern.

College Football Playoff National Championship Presented by AT&T

New Orleans, Louisiana

Clemson vs. LSU (-6) -- January 13, 8 p.m. (ESPN)

Overall Clemson (14-0) LSU (14-0)
F/+ 4 2
FEI 2 3
When Clemson has the ball Offense Defense
FEI 5 14
SP+ 5 18
IsoPPP+ 5 83
Rushing SP+ 1 15
Passing SP+ 10 17
When LSU has the ball Defense Offense
FEI 1 2
SP+ 3 1
IsoPPP+ 1 7
Rushing SP+ 6 3
Passing SP+ 1 3

LSU has really come on strong down the stretch this season. They started the year very well with a road win in Austin against Texas and then some midseason challenges from SEC West rivals before closing out by obliterating Texas A&M, Georgia, and Oklahoma. The defense has looked healthier and improved in the last few games, and they add their best inside linebacker Michael Divinity for this game after a long absence during the season.

Clemson has seemed to pace themselves each of the last two seasons, feeling their way through the early part of the season before turning it on late and reaching for an extra gear in the playoff. Last year the extra gear involved Ross, while this season it came after giving Lawrence 16 carries against Ohio State to give them a needed numbers advantage against the talented Buckeyes defensive front.

Both teams have serious question marks at massively important skill positions. For Clemson, their two main receivers, Higgins and Ross, both finished the Ohio State game, but neither looked fully healthy. LSU's star running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire played only sparingly against Oklahoma with a hamstring injury. They've all had two weeks to get healthier for this game, and the degree to which each of those players is able to heal in that time could have a massive impact on this game.

If Clemson can get closer to last year's form, that would open up more pathways to victory for them. Both Ohio State and LSU have much better and more challenging secondaries to attack than the 2018 Fighting Irish or Crimson Tide, the teams that Clemson dispatched with relative ease a year ago. If Lawrence, Higgins, and Ross are all on form, then that's the most dangerous dimension of the Clemson offense. LSU's defensive system is most effective when safeties Grant Delpit (Thorpe Award winner) and Jacoby Stevens can lock down the middle of the field and get involved blitzing or playing the run. The LSU pass rush hits another level when they can mix overload blitzes on the edge in which outside linebacker K'Lavon Chaisson (6.5 sacks) twists inside with Stevens (five sacks) comes off his hip, with inside blitzes by a linebacker such as Divinity (three sacks in five games). They are particularly effective when utilizing a bear front with Divinity lined up over the center, a pair of 3-technique defensive tackles, and Chaisson and another pass-rusher on either edge.

None of that has the same effectiveness if Lawrence can quickly find Ross or Higgins in man coverage and beat LSU's defensive backs with his accuracy and timing. To that end, Clemson will likely move one of Ross or Higgins inside to the slot regularly to try and avoid LSU cornerbacks Kristian Fulton and Derek Stingley in favor of attacking nickel Kary Vincent Jr. Whichever receiver that is will perhaps be whichever is healthier between the two.

Ohio State also leaned on man coverage to beat Clemson and trusted more in Chase Young and the base pass-rush over the blitz, although they mixed those in as well. They weren't able to pressure Lawrence well enough to win, and their emphasis on man coverage left them vulnerable to some big runs by Lawrence, including the 67-yard score, and to the option game on the perimeter to Travis Etienne. If Clemson's star receivers can't beat LSU's defensive backs, then head coach Dabo Swinney does have the fallback option of turning to their extensive quarterback run game and option schemes to attack LSU's man coverage. The bear front pressure package in particular could be vulnerable to option pitches that get Etienne the ball outside of contain.

If Clemson has to lean on Lawrence running the ball again, though, that eliminates their chances of winning this game in a high-scoring shootout and will necessitate a strong defensive effort against Burrow. This is perhaps the most intriguing matchup of this game, between the Clemson defense and LSU offense. How will wunderkind offensive coach Joe Brady of LSU match up against longtime postseason veteran Brent Venables of Clemson? Who wins the battle between Burrow's mastery of the LSU passing game and Clemson linebacker/safety hybrid Isaiah Simmons' unpredictable shifts and unbelievable range?

When Clemson made an adjustment that thwarted Ohio State's offense, it was by subbing out a defensive tackle in favor of extra safety Nolan Turner. They then played Simmons as a fourth safety in between Turner and fellow starter Tanner Muse, using a lot of Cover-3 schemes in which Simmons dropped deep while Turner and Muse dropped down like linebackers and strong safety K'Von Wallace matched up on the slot. That could prove crucial in matching up against LSU's lethal spread passing game by keeping their cornerbacks, Wallace, and Simmons responsible for defending the deep field while using Muse and Turner to stop the run and cover tight ends and running backs rather than NFL receivers like Justin Jefferson. Oklahoma ran out of good defensive backs in their matchup with LSU and watched their third- and fourth-best coverage defenders get repeatedly destroyed by Jefferson for four touchdown catches and over 200 receiving yards.

Venables may also pull out one more unplayed card in this game. He lifted the 3-2-6 dime scheme from Iowa State this summer after meeting with their coaching staff in the offseason, but he has yet to utilize the Cyclones' base "inverted Tampa-2" coverage. That could prove a useful change-up in this game that accomplishes the goal that led to Clemson victories against Ohio State and Alabama. In both of those victories, Clemson was able to keep the offense in front of them, play bend-don't-break, and force red zone stops. Both the Buckeyes and the Tide settled for field goals that proved to be too little to win. Clemson will need to force LSU to kick field goals as well, and the inverted Tampa-2 could be a useful way to protect themselves from the LSU quick-strike ability and give themselves a chance to win the game in the red zone. It also affords Clemson the ability to bring a lot of disguise and pressure that could lead to turnovers that make the difference in this game.

Statistically, Clemson has the better and more complete resume over the course of the season. They have a versatile and effective defense that can lean on a lot of savvy veterans at linebacker and safety, while their offense has shown that it can burn teams with the pass or lean on their quarterback to make things happen with his feet. LSU has the most dynamic force in this game, though, in their spread passing attack with Burrow throwing to Jefferson and J'Marr Chase, while their defense could be operating at its peak for this game with the safeties healthy, young cornerback Derek Stingley improving every week, and Divinity back on the field.

If the Clemson is going to win this game, it'll need to be with a total team effort and the superior game plan that takes advantage of having been in this game three times before.

Watch for:

  • Which teams' skill players are healthy and ready to go? Will Clemson get peak play from receivers Justyn Ross and Tee Higgins? How is LSU running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire's hamstring?
  • Will Clemson be able to throw the ball and keep pace with LSU, or will they need to run Trevor Lawrence and play defense like they did against Ohio State?
  • How will LSU quarterback Joe Burrow and offensive coordinator Joe Brady handle Brent Venables and his inverted Tampa-2 dime package that flummoxed Ohio State?
  • Clemson keeps winning championships with turnovers and red zone defense -- LSU can avoid that Tiger trap if they can score on long plays and protect the ball.

FEI Outright Pick: Clemson by 1.6

FEI Pick against the spread: Clemson

Ian's Pick against the spread: Clemson

FEI's Picks against the spread in the season: 46-40

FEI's Picks against the spread in the bowl games: 18-20

Ian's picks against the spread in the season: 43-43

Ian's Picks against the spread in the bowl games: 23-15

Comments

26 comments, Last at 14 Jan 2020, 11:48am

1 Despite an illustrious…

Despite an illustrious career, Hurts came up empty in most every playoff game he competed in either at Alabama or Oklahoma.

It's weird how the storylines around Tua and Hurts are so different, when the context of their successes and failures are essentially identical.

8 How are they identical?

They each have one championship ring and they have it because Hurts was benched for Tua.

Tua made better use of Alabama's stacked WR talent, Hurts squandered WR talent at Alabama and OU and that's why he never had a big playoff game.

9 My point was that Tua's…

My point was that Tua's legacy was based on replacing a Hurts who was stinking up the joint against Georgia. What is less remarked upon was Hurts coming in under identical circumstances to save Tua against the same Georgia team the next time they played.

They won the same number of CFP games as starters.

19 Probably not. 0-2 against…

Probably not. 0-2 against LSU and Clemson, the last two national champs. Love Jalen, would be overjoyed to have him as a son-in-law, but he's not fit to stand in Tua's shadow as a QB. It's painfully apparent to anyone who's watched the two play at length, and it's painfully apparent to the NFL GM's who will make their selections in a few months.

2 On the other side of the…

On the other side of the bracket, Clemson got down early against J.K. Dobbins before [strikethrough]changing up their defensive scheme to a 3-2-6 dime package they used to flummox the Buckeyes' pre-snap reads and eliminate big plays[/strikethrough] Dobbins got hurt.

4 Dobbins was non-effective as…

Dobbins was non-effective as a RB after the drive where he tweaked his leg, up 16-7. It was 21-16 before he was able to play hurt. He was marginal as a runner after that, although still better than Teague. But even as mostly a decoy, he had 31 receiving yards on the final drive. Clemson was never able to stop Dobbins when he was even marginally healthy, and was arguably unable to reasonably slow him.

Basically, Clemson was +14 when he was hurt, +1 when he was gimpy, and -9 when he was full-strength. They were also +22 when OSU was down to one healthy CB. Like it or not, the entire game swung heavily based on intra-game availability of a handful of starters.

5 Dobbins had two big runs

His success rate was bad even before getting hurt. 

OSU also gets no sympathy for losing a CB that made a filthy hit. Day made a decision to push limits on dirty hits and it cost him.

Meanwhile Clemson had injured players too. Best WR was out for a half after another dirty OSU play.

 

7 I think tOSU caught a really bad break losing Wade

Although after a tough start, his replacements showed out pretty well ultimately. I bet those guys are studs next year.

I don't think it was a dirty hit, it was pretty common, but it's the sort of hit that defenders need to be more careful about. Keep your head up and aim for the legs and you won't have to worry.

14 Clemson was down 28-25 when…

Clemson was down 28-25 when they lost Sacalski to the same penalty.

They would go on to be outscored 14-0 for the rest of the game, with LSU kneeling it out from the Clemson 5.

I get the safety argument, but both CFP games swung hugely based on one penalty on bang-bang plays. That's too large of an effect.

6 We should note then

That Tee Higgins missed the first half and Justyn Ross was dinged up for the entire game.

But it's interesting that a common narrative is that Clemson's Dime D worked only against Teague but not Dobbins.

10 That was part of it, too…

That was part of it, too. Clemson got Higgins back around when Wade left, and the dynamics changed considerably. I've not seen a game swing so much so often based on injuries and recoveries by so many players.

But the argument that a Clemson realignment on defense stopped OSU is in contradiction to the observed game. Clemson stopped Teague. They could not stop even a severely-limited Dobbins.

15 Yes and no.I get the…

Yes and no.

I get the argument that calling it just on the receiver was a bad call. But when the WR throws the DB to the ground with the ball in the air, you need to call something, even if only offsetting penalties.

22 Looked like an obvious flop…

Looked like an obvious flop to me. Frankly, I'd make the job easier for the refs, by telling dbs that if they grab a receiver, the receiver is allowed to push off as much as he likes.

25 I knew you were going to do…

I knew you were going to do that, you cruel bastard. I was about 200 feet away from where Pearson pushed off, but what really made me mad was the Vikings left dt getting tackled, otherwise Staubach never gets the ball there!