This year's two playoff semifinals were billed as the "strongest semifinals yet," and at least one of those games lived up to that hype.
LSU vs. Oklahoma had shootout potential from arguably the two most dynamic offenses in the country; the Tigers and Sooners were second and third in average expected points added (EPA) in the country during the regular season. But the Tigers' defense had steadily improved throughout the year, with garbage-time scores dragging down the perception of what has proved to be an immensely talented unit. The end result of that underestimation was a 63-28 demolition that was 49-14 at halftime.
Joe Burrow played like the Heisman winner he is, recording an average passing EPA of 0.72, which would have been in the top 6% of all single-game performances during the regular season (and it was the best passing performance by far during the postseason). Burrow averaged over 12 yards per attempt and threw for nearly 500 yards without an interception, displaying an almost preternatural sense of when his receiver (usually Justin Jefferson this week) would be able to shake off man coverage at the last second for a catch.
LSU's overall average EPA was 0.49, again the highest in the postseason and within the top 3% of games from the regular season. I can't think of a player or an offense that has achieved such a rapid turnaround as Burrow has at LSU with passing game coordinator Joe Brady; Burrow completed less than 58% of his passes last year for only 7.6 yards per attempt, and now he's on the verge of winning a national championship to go along with his Heisman Trophy and setting the record for single season completion percentage.
But Tigers defensive performance is really the thing that should be concerning for Clemson fans heading into the National Championship Game. Much like Clemson was weighed down by a slow start in September (that included a near-loss to North Carolina), LSU's defense has steadily improved throughout the year, with young cornerbacks like Derek Stingley Jr. growing into their roles as the season went on. During the regular season, Oklahoma's worst offensive performance was against Baylor, where they averaged 0.01 EPA. But in every other game the Sooners offense was in the 68th percentile or better, and they were in the 98th percentile for the season as a whole. The Tigers held the Sooners to their first negative average EPA of the season (-0.0005) and just a 27% EPA success rate.
Moving on to the other Tigers, Clemson's 29-23 comeback win over Ohio State was billed as an "instant classic" that ended in the final seconds with an Ohio State end zone interception. The Fiesta Bowl was as close as the Vegas odds (Clemson -1.5) suggested they would be, with Clemson averaging 0.04 EPA to Ohio State's 0.03.
The Buckeyes looked like they might jump to a dominant win after a 16-0 start that included a 68-yard run from J.K. Dobbins. But the Buckeyes had a critical flaw in each half that ultimately propelled the Tigers ahead.
In the first half the issue was red zone efficiency. The Buckeyes were ultimately held to three field goal attempts in the first half (they averaged -0.8 EPA in the red zone!), including two drives that got within the Clemson 5-yard line. It looked like the Tigers might have an advantage in red zone efficiency on defense heading into the game (one of the few statistical advantages either team seemed to have over the other), and that proved to be one of the keys to Clemson's win. In addition to the Buckeyes' red zone inefficiency, the first half was also defined by two big runs: Dobbins' 68-yarder (part of his insane 141 first-quarter rushing yards!) and Trevor Lawrence's 67-yard touchdown run.
The Buckeyes' critical flaw in the second half was turnovers -- both lost and overturned. Up 21-16 with just under five minutes left in the third quarter, Clemson's Justyn Ross appeared to catch a pass, which was then stripped by Jeffrey Okudah and then returned by safety Jordan Fuller for an Ohio State touchdown. However, replay overturned the fumble and ruled the play an incompletion. Clemson punted, and Buckeyes quarterback Justin Fields would throw his first interception on the next drive.
Then in the final two minutes, just after Clemson had gone 94 yards for a go-ahead touchdown in four plays, Ohio State appeared capable of returning the punch. The Buckeyes had driven 52 yards and were sitting on the edge of the red zone with 37 seconds left when an apparent route miscommunication led to Fields' second interception -- this time in the end zone to end the game.
It was a devastating end for the Buckeyes, but a fitting end for one of the best playoff games we've had since the College Football Playoff started in 2014. Ultimately Clemson-Ohio State was a coin flip, just as expected, and LSU-Oklahoma was a blowout, as was certainly on the table. But it's fitting that the three best teams throughout the full season would play down to the wire, with an all-Tigers championship game looming to decide the best of the three.
- This drive has the potential to get lost amid the Fiesta Bowl's end-game, but Clemson's first touchdown drive of the second half was incredibly consequential. The Tigers were pinned at their 1-yard line to start the drive and had punted from their own 14. But a roughing the kicker call gave the Tigers the ball at the Clemson 30. Two plays later Lawrence would throw short pass to Travis Etienne, who took it 53 yards for the Tigers' first go-ahead touchdown.
- LSU had eight possessions in the first half. They scored touchdowns on seven and went three-and-out on the other. But the second half of the Peach Bowl was basically played on fast-forward. The two teams combined for seven total possessions, with four going for touchdowns and the first five killing roughly 26 minutes of game time. Essentially, LSU put the game away so efficiently in the first half that both teams could just sim ahead to the end of the game.
- Travis Etienne, RB, Clemson. Travis Etienne only had a long run of 8 yards and ten total carries on the ground, but he made his biggest impact through the air. With three catches for 98 yards he was the Tigers' leading receiver, including a 53-yard touchdown catch and Clemson's final go-ahead touchdown for 34 yards. When Clemson really needed a play in the second half, Trevor Lawrence was able to connect with Etienne for two key go-ahead scores.
- Justin Jefferson, WR, LSU. We can't include Joe Burrow here because Burrow would otherwise headline the Honor Roll every week. Justin Jefferson was the receiver who stepped up this week, with 14 catches for 227 yards, often coming down with the ball despite mostly tight coverage from Sooners defenders.
- Nolan Turner, DB, Clemson. For almost the entire game, Nolan Turner's name didn't show up on the stat sheet for the Tigers. But on the Buckeyes' final play, Turner stepped in front of Fields' pass in the end zone for an interception, sealing Clemson's win and trip to the championship game.