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The College Football Playoff National Championship: What to Watch For

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Tigers versus Tigers for a chance at immortality.

College Football Playoff Semifinal at the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl - LSU v Oklahoma

Football season ends on Monday night.

We’ll spend the next eight months waiting for it to return, just like we did last year. Wherever the expectations start, they’ll ramp up to the fever pitch by July. And then the season roller-coaster starts, and we go up and we go down and up and down and then it’s all over and we start the cycle again.

But this season hasn’t had the down part, has it? Just up and up and higher and higher. Beat a top-10 Texas team on the road. Shattering records in blowouts. Florida and Auburn at home. Breaking the streak against Alabama, in one of the wildest games of the year. And then it kept going. Domination of Arkansas and A&M, and blowouts in the SEC Championship and round one of the playoffs that were basically over at halftime.

LSU hasn’t just had a great season. It’s had one of its greatest ever. A record for top-10 wins, an SEC title and the most dominant win in the short history of the college football playoff. A quarterback — an LSU quarterback — not only won the Heisman trophy but shattered every school record and may still break the national record for touchdown passes in a single season.

This season has soared beyond the event horizon of reasonable expectations for any of us coming in. But one game remains. A finale that could crown this season as one of, if not the greatest in the history of the game. In the same building the program’s Golden Age began in, eighteen years ago. In the same building where it also suffered it’s greatest disappointment, eight years ago.

To finish the drill, LSU has to go through the Clemson Tigers. The defending national champions, a program that has won 29 games in a row, played for three of the last four titles and won two. One reaching for their own immortality, as a third title would put Dabo Swinney’s Tigers on par with Nick Saban’s Alabama teams earlier in the decade.

Two Tigers, stalking the same prey.

What to Watch For On Monday Night


Reflection

LSU and Clemson share more than just a mascot.

Both programs promoted a high-energy position coach that took over the job on an interim basis, based on what people think of as the “CEO” model of coach. A manager that will surround himself with outstanding assistants, recruit great players and win big games. Both coaches have been the subject of some ridicule at times, and have had their bumps in the road early in their tenures.

Swinney’s fortunes took a big turn when he brought in Chad Morris to run his offense, and more so with defensive coordinator Brent Venables, who is still with the program after eight seasons. Ed Orgeron has been able to hold on to Dave Aranda to run his defenses, and took his program to a new level this year with the addition of passing game coordinator Joe Brady.

Both programs come into this match-up with top-shelf offenses averaging 40-plus points per game, led by play-making quarterbacks and skill talent across the board.

To date, Swinney’s program has seen a steady, and linear progression. Clemson started winning double-digits and making big-name bowls. First they got rocked by West Virginia in the Orange Bowl, then two years later they were back on that stage beating Ohio State. From making the College Football Playoff Final and losing a heart-breaker to Alabama, to overcoming the Tide the next year and then dominating them in 2018.

Orgeron’s LSU has made that progression a little faster, with 10 wins and a New Year’s Six win in year two. But can they beat the timeline to that championship?

Conditioned

It’s easy to joke about Trevor Lawrence’s hair — seriously, look at that glorious flow — but the kid’s one hell of a player. His high school tape is up there with some of the best I’ve ever seen, and he’s played up to that standard through two years at the college level. He can make every throw with incredible touch and accuracy, with outstanding athleticism out of the pocket as well, a skill he showed in the semi-final win over Ohio State.

And around him, he has a senior-laden offensive line, a dynamic running back and a loaded group of receivers. This offense averages 45 points per game and 7.4 per play, ranks fourth in offensive SP+ and second on FEI. The offensive line leads the country in line yards and opportunity rate, meaning they are the best in the country at creating space in the running game, as well as fourth in sack rate.

This group has all the talent and experience that you can ask for. And they’re a group that aren’t going to blink. They didn’t when Ohio State had a 16-point lead, and they won’t if LSU jumps out in front the way they have in other games, even with a crowd that’s likely going to be mostly local fans.

Offensive coordinators Jeff Scott (set to become head coach of South Florida) and Tony Elliot were internal promotions following Morris’ departure, and they’ve largely kept Morris’ attack in place and built out of it some. The running game uses a ton of power and counter and some zone, with a fairly high RPO rate — 27 percent versus the difficult portions of their schedule, per SEC Statcat. Mostly slants and quick bubbles. For the outside receivers, they mostly revolve around vertical or hitch/hook routes to let their fast, big-bodied receivers take advantage. Tee Higgins and Justyn Ross are a different match-up for LSU’s corners compared to the other stud receivers they’ve seen. Less reliant on quickness and sharp cuts and more willing to post-up defensive backs in close quarters.

Don’t be surprised if slot receiver Amari Rogers gets some targets early on those screens and some shallow crossing routes. He’s short, but stocky and built more like a running back. If Clemson can use him to stay in standard-down situations, that will help create better situations to hand the ball to Travis Etienne, and play-action opportunities for Lawrence to hit Higgins and Ross.

Etienne is almost certainly the X-factor here. He’s the kind of back a defense can stop on nine out of 10 carries, with No. 10 still going a long way for a touchdown. And this defense has been vulnerable to long runs at times, usually as a result of poor tackling. That’s not something LSU can afford in this.

Overall, LSU’s plan isn’t likely to be radically different from other games. They’ll let Kristian Fulton and Derek Stingley Jr. man up on Higgins and Ross and roll the safeties down to help with the run and congest the intermediate passing lanes. If they can get Clemson into obvious passing downs, look for Aranda to try and get creative with some pressure packages to try and confuse Clemson’s protections and get after Lawrence. K’Lavon Chaisson will obviously play a large role, but look for LSU to try and involve the pass-rush group with Marcel Brooks and the returning Michael Divinity. Lawrence has struggled at times under pressure, but much like with Burrow, that pressure has to get him on the turf.

And as usual, LSU’s offense needs to do it’s thing, and take the pressure off.

Cracked Rear View

The defensive coordinators in this game share status as two of the game’s premier minds, and two of its highest-paid assistant coaches. Venables has spent nearly a decade at Clemson, and is clearly not interested in leaving short of the perfect head coaching job. Likewise, Aranda has the ability to call his shot for his next gig. Both are empowered by their head coaches to run their phase of the team on their own terms, with the players they choose.

But in practice, they operate like odd reflections of each other. Similar, but different. Both love to bring pressure and rushers from different angles to confuse quarterbacks and offensive lines. But Venables is intense and loud — the type that has his own dedicated get-back coach, to make sure he’s not out on the field. Aranda is reserved and calm, regardless of circumstance. Venables, traditionally, has been a 40-front guy with four down linemen; particularly last year when he had an all-timer of a unit. He asks a lot of his linebackers in terms of run fits and coverage responsibilities and will try to disguise coverages with lots of zone. Aranda prefers a 30-front line with linebackers he can move around to help create better rush lanes and match-ups, and mostly keeps his secondary in man-to-man (because, natch, he always has the corners for it).

Both coaches have probably spent their share of sleepless nights preparing for the match-up against the opposing offense.

Venables may not have the same fearsome defensive line, but he has the most versatile player on the field in linebacker Isaiah Simmons. The 6-4, 230-pound linebacker will line up all over the field: each linebacker position, nickel corner, safety and even outside corner at times, and it shows up in his statline on the year with 95 tackles, a team-high seven sacks and three interceptions. Simmons’ ability to play both near the line and deep in coverage gives Venables the flexibility to play a change-up to the classic Tampa-2 style of defense that long-time football analyst Ian Boyd dubs Inverted Tampa-2:

Classic Tampa-2 features two deep safeties covering from the hashmarks-out, while the middle linebacker covers down the middle of the field. It sacrifices numbers in the running game for taking away the offense’s ability to push the ball down the field. This “inverted” version (I’m not sure inverted is really the right term, but that’s semantics) allows for the defense to maintain the deep leverage, but still keep numbers by sacrificing a lineman for an extra safety. Teams also play it by changing up the players that have the deep halves. And Simmons has the ability to play the middle or strong safety positions, or the nickel, based on the match-up. From which he can cover, fit against the run, or blitz.

Nobody’s been able to stop this LSU offense to date, and I don’t see Clemson really doing that either. They just do too many things well. But Venables might be able to use this modified two-deep look to try and slow it down. Prevent the big play, and give the defense chances to increase variance in the red zone. Similar to Auburn. Of course, LSU still had a ton of success moving the ball in that game — more than 500 yards of offense and more than 5.5 yards per play — but Auburn was able to make a handful of plays in the redzone that kept scoring down. I don’t know if that strategy is ideally replicable (the defense’s margin for error is small in this scenario as well), but it might be Clemson’s only shot. If they can close quickly and limit first and second down, they can be creative on third-down pressures.

If they do try and keep their safeties off, look for LSU to maybe feature the run more early on, especially with a healthy Clyde Edwards-Helaire. Force Clemson to commit extra players, and safeties Tanner Muse and K’Von Wallace can be exploited some in the passing game. Clemson did look somewhat vulnerable to the running game against Ohio State, but closer inspection shows that for J.K. Dobbins’ success breaking long runs, he only had a 33-percent success rate.

Burrow’s operated this attack perfectly, whether it’s meant taking the short throw or pushing it down the field, and if he has a running game working just as well there’s not going to be anything Clemson can do, really.

That last statement still feels weird to say now because of how comfortable and matter-of-fact it really is. LSU just needs to play to its capabilities. Tackle on defense, and protect Burrow on offense. If they do those things, there’s no real way to stop this offense. It does too many things too well. Run the ball, throw short, throw long, it can attack a defense every which way.


Football season ends on Monday night. My one wish for all of us, is to enjoy it, regardless of the outcome. I’d be very surprised if this isn’t a close game, with both offenses having success. LSU has too many ways to attack Clemson, and the way the Tigers thrive on man coverage, a passing game with the talent of Lawrence, Higgins and Ross are going to make some plays. This one may come down to the team that makes the fewest mistakes, or special teams (LSU has a major edge here).

Take every second of this weekend, and of Monday, in. Watch this game with your loved ones. Savor those memories, even before kickoff is here. Once foot meets leather, all this immortality talk, none of that stuff matters. Then it’s just a football game.

Geaux out and play it.