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Playing Nice: Shakin the Southland

Ryan Kantor of Shakin the Southland previews the National Championship Game

College Football Playoff Semifinal at the PlayStation Fiesta Bowl Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

The Tigers are one win away from capping off the greatest season in school history. On Monday evening, LSU will play what will surely be a pseudo home game inside the Superdome for its fourth national championship. Fourteen challengers have faced LSU, and all of them have lost. Now everything comes down to one final game.

To end this unforgettable season the right way, LSU will need to knock out the defending champion Clemson Tigers, winners of 29 straight and two of the last three titles. Will they? That’s what assistant editor of Shakin the Southland Ryan Kantor and I discuss.

1. It’s LSU and lil ole defending national champion Clemson, winners of 29 in a row. Yeah LSU’s got the No. 1 attached to its name and the game’s being played in it’s backyard, but come on. With all the winning it’s done lately Clemson can’t really believe they’re the underdog right?

LSU is favored by 5.5 points, so it is definitely true that we are literally the underdogs, but I don’t think everybody is counting us out, which I think is what you’re really getting at. We’ve been very well-liked nationally as we opposed a hated dynasty in the playoff each of the last four years – Alabama. This year, Alabama has been overtaken in the SEC West by LSU and now we’re getting the vitriol thrown our way.

It’s odd. Alabama always got the benefit of the doubt. They were favored over us in each meeting and jumped us in the polls early this season. It seems we don’t get that benefit because we’re in a weak conference, but we still get the vitriol. Biased media members writing for the Atlantic and New York Magazine have called Coach Swinney “evil” and “a villain.” That’s the context that prompted the whole “us vs. the world” and “nobody believes in us” mentality you are probably picking up on. To be honest though, I’m enjoying the villain role just a little bit.

2. Trevor Lawrence is probably the best quarterback LSU has faced this year. A hobbled Tua Tagovailoa lit up the Tiger secondary for 418 yards and four touchdowns, but the LSU defense has been playing its best ball in recent weeks. What do you think is a fair expectation for Lawrence and the Clemson offense?

As you said, LSU’s defense has looked a lot better in their past three games. They certainly have the talent and DC Dave Aranda is extremely well-respected. So have they put it together or did they just play two bad offenses (A&M and UGA) and then catch OU on a bad day? If LSU has really taken strides, maybe Clemson can only do a bit more than what they did against Ohio State. If, however they can establish the running game with Travis Etienne, LSU may need 45+ to win, which isn’t totally unfathomable.

3. Travis Etienne! He’s from Louisiana. Have you seen this, have you heard about this? LSU infamously didn’t get in on recruiting him until it was much too late and Etienne has been an absolute force for Clemson. What kind of night will Etienne have?

Travis Etienne is a big fan favorite. As you allude to, his recruitment was interesting. LSU slow played him while trying to get RB Zamir White from North Carolina (who landed at UGA). Meanwhile, Clemson lost the commitment of RB Cordarian Richardson who ended up committing to Maryland, then going to UCF, and then transferring to Texas A&M. The Tigers found him and were extremely fortunately to get his buy-in before LSU really went all in for him. Etienne wasn’t really a huge prospect, and his pass blocking was pretty poor at the start, but he was incredibly explosive from day one. Now he’s added muscle and improved in pass protection.

Ohio State was able to shut down Etienne in the running game and really control the contest until Clemson adjusted and started using Etienne in the passing game and QB Trevor Lawrence in the running game. Ohio State though had the best run defense in the country, allowing just 2.8 YPC. LSU’s isn’t bad, but at 3.6, it’s not comparable to what the Buckeyes had with the best D-line in the country.

There’s little doubt Etienne will make some game changing plays, just as he did against OSU, but a big factor will be whether Clemson has to get creative (speed option, fake QB run jump pass, etc.) to make it happen, or if they can truly establish the run with Travis “Runbalaya” Etienne.

4. Forgive me if I sound arrogant, but Clemson’s probably not stopping Joe Burrow and the LSU offense. Nobody has. But Brent Venables is arguably the best defensive coordinator in the country and his Tigers are third in SP+. So if Clemson can finally crack the code and slow down the LSU offense, how will they pull it off?

You’re right. LSU is too good to be “stopped.” With Clemson’s offense, they just need to be slowed down though. To do that, Clemson must continue to get excellent CB play. Clemson’s safeties have been, in my opinion, unfairly maligned by the media. The Tigers depth chart is littered with four and five star talented, but at safety, there are a bunch of two and three star veterans. Despite that, they’ve played well enough to help the Tigers earn #1 pass defense in the country. Isaiah Simmons, who may be the best defensive player in the country, but was also a three-star recruit, will likely shift to safety in some 3-3-5 looks against LSU. There will be some chunk plays, no doubt, but they’ll have to limit busts (we’re still haunted by all the busts in our 2015 National Championship loss to Alabama).

Expect an aggressive scheme with some exotic blitzes from Clemson. The Tigers cannot do what the Georgia Bulldogs did and sit back and let Burrow pick them apart. He is just too good.

5. I’m really excited to see the Tee Higgins and Justyn Ross vs. Derek Stingley and Kristian Fulton matchup. When LSU played Alabama, Devonta Smith lit up Stingley in particular for 213 yards and two scores; but when the Tigers played Oklahoma, the LSU DBs did a pretty good job shutting down Ceedee Lamb aside from one instance. Stingley and Fulton have allowed quarterbacks to complete about 40 percent of passes thrown their way. How confident are you in Higgins and Ross winning their battles?

That WR duo has been burning defenders all year… until we faced Ohio State. Neither surpassed 50 yards. Both were banged up and out for portions of the game. Ohio State CB Jeffrey Okudah was one of the best I’ve ever seen. The Tigers need more from them in this contest. I truly don’t’ know what to expect after LSU’s performance against Oklahoma. Prior to that game, I would have pretty confident, as the other two good offenses LSU faced (Alabama and Texas) threw all over LSU. One of the biggest questions to me is just how much has this LSU defense improved.

6. Does the game being played in New Orleans make Clemson fans doubt their chances?

For sure! On the one hand, I’m glad it’s in a fun city and a drivable distance for most Clemson fans. On the other hand, I’ve heard all sorts of stories about LSU fans from Auburn and Alabama fans that live in our neck of the woods. Will I be offered free gumbo or be bludgeoned to death? Who’s to say? [PodKATT: Likely both]

Clemson sold out their allotment of tickets so it should be at least one-third Clemson fans in the Superdome. We were fairly outnumbered in the 2017 Sugar Bowl against Alabama, which may have played a small factor in that one. This will likely be a little worse. Hopefully Clemson fans travel well. In the end, it will be no excuse. Alabama won a championship there against LSU. It can be done.

7. Finish these sentences. “If Clemson wins, it’s because of...” and “if LSU knocks out the champs it’ll be because of...”

If Clemson wins, it’s because LSU’s defense isn’t as improved as we think and Travis Etienne was able to gain some traction on the ground while Trevor Lawrence and Higgins/Ross did their thing. Meanwhile the defense avoided too many busts and got some pressure on Burrow.

If LSU knocks out the champs, it’s because Aranda finally got the defense to gel at the right time and Joe Burrow is unstoppable. A few big plays and an improved defense lead them to pull it out.