National Championship Prediction and Preview: Clemson vs. LSU

Clemson and LSU meet to decide the national championship on Monday night

College football’s 2019-20 season is down to its final game, as Clemson and LSU meet on Monday night in New Orleans for the national championship. The Bayou Bengals are looking for their first national title since 2007, while Clemson is hoping to become the first program since Alabama in 2011-12 to go back-to-back.

 

Clemson’s path back to the national championship was relatively smooth this season. Coach Dabo Swinney’s team entered 2019 having to reload on defense after the departure of a handful of key players, including the trenches where Christian Wilkins and Dexter Lawrence finished their eligibility. While new faces had to emerge, there wasn’t much in the way of concern for this group, especially with coordinator Brent Venables leading the way. Additionally, Clemson’s offense was loaded with firepower with quarterback Trevor Lawrence primed to build off a standout freshman campaign. Lawrence had an up-and-down start to the season but eventually found his rhythm and propelled the program to a 14-0 mark. The Tigers won 12 out of their 13 regular season matchups by 14 or more points and rallied from a 16-0 deficit to beat Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl on Dec. 28. Swinney’s team also has 29 victories in a row and has not lost since the matchup against Alabama in the Sugar Bowl for the 2017 season.

  

Similar to Clemson’s hire of Dabo Swinney, LSU’s decision to promote Ed Orgeron to head coach was met with plenty of skepticism. After all, Orgeron went 10-25 at Ole Miss in his first stint in the SEC. However, Orgeron has pushed all of the right buttons in Baton Rouge. Landing Joe Burrow as a graduate transfer solidified the quarterback position last year, and the decision to hire Joe Brady from the NFL to help the team move to the spread has paid big-time dividends. LSU’s offense emerged as the nation’s best behind Burrow’s performance and Brady’s play-calling. The Tigers went on the road to beat Texas in Week 2 and finished unbeaten through a tough SEC slate by defeating Florida, Auburn, Alabama, Texas A&M and Georgia. LSU dominated Oklahoma 63-28 in the Peach Bowl to clinch a trip to the national championship. Of LSU’s 11 victories, only three were decided by seven points or less.  

 

LSU holds a 2-1 series edge over Clemson. These two teams have never met in a regular season matchup, as all three games took place in the postseason.

 

National Championship: Clemson vs. LSU

 

Kickoff: Monday, Jan. 13 at 8 p.m. ET

Where: Mercedes Benz Superdome (New Orleans, La.)

TV: ESPN

Spread: LSU -6

 

When Clemson Has the Ball

 

While most of the attention leading up to this game is focused on LSU’s high-powered offense, don’t forget about the firepower Clemson is bringing to New Orleans on Monday night. The Bayou Bengals are averaging 48.9 a contest, compared to 46.9 to Clemson. Additionally, Swinney’s offense averages 7.5 yards per snap and is tied for third nationally in plays of 50 yards or more (16).

 

Quarterback Trevor Lawrence has yet to lose a start in his two-year run as Clemson’s starter and certainly won’t be intimidated by the spotlight on Monday night after a terrific performance versus Alabama in last season’s title game. After an up-and-down start to the 2019 season, Lawrence has been a different player in the second half. The sophomore has not tossed an interception since Oct. 19 and passed for 3,431 yards and 36 touchdowns over 14 games. Lawrence connected on 67.6 percent of his throws and has five completions of 60 yards or more.

 

An x-factor in this game could be Lawrence’s mobility. The sophomore is utilizing his legs more this season, including a 16-carry performance against Ohio State that netted 107 yards. Most of the damage in that game came on one carry (a 67-yard touchdown run), and while he may not hit 100 yards again, just making a couple of plays on the ground or avoiding the rush to scramble for a first down or throw downfield could help create a few big scoring opportunities for Clemson. 

 

Receivers Tee Higgins and Justyn Ross came up big in last year’s CFB Playoff and combined for 21 touchdown receptions and nearly 2,000 receiving yards this season. The battle between Higgins and Ross with LSU cornerbacks Kristian Fulton and Derek Stingley will be a must-see matchup. With Fulton and Stingley likely to lock down Higgins and Ross, Amari Rodgers (28 receptions), Diondre Overton (22), Joseph Ngata (17) or Frank Ladson (nine) could play a bigger role for Lawrence.

 

Running back Travis Etienne is often overlooked because of the attention devoted to Lawrence. However, the Louisiana native is entrenched as one of the nation’s top running backs. Etienne ran for 1,536 yards and 18 touchdowns on just 192 attempts this year. The junior averaged a whopping eight yards per carry and posted six runs of 40 or more yards. LSU is only giving up just 3.6 yards per rush but did allow 11 runs of 30 yards or more.

 

Question marks surrounded LSU’s defense after a sluggish performance against Ole Miss. The Tigers were gashed for 402 rushing yards by the Rebels and surrendered nearly 10 yards a run (9.14). However, the defense changed course after that matchup and played much better over the next three contests. A healthy Grant Delpit at safety certainly helped this unit improve, but the overall improvement in performance helped LSU secure the No. 1 overall seed for the CFB Playoff. This unit may not be a vintage (or elite) defense, but coordinator Dave Aranda’s group is still only giving up 21.7 points a game and 5.1 yards a play. LSU allows only 3.6 yards per carry and ranks ninth nationally in third-down defense. This unit will have a little extra help for Monday night, as linebacker Michael Divinity is back from suspension. His return will bolster a pass rush that already features K’Lavon Chaisson (6.5 sacks).

 

When LSU Has the Ball

 

With Burrow’s development and fit within the offense designed and called by Brady and Ensminger, LSU owns the nation’s top attack going into the national championship. The Tigers average 48.9 points a game and rank second nationally by recording 7.91 yards a snap. Only one team (Auburn) managed to hold this group under 30 points and to less than six yards a snap.

 

If Burrow delivers another big-time performance against Clemson, a strong case could be made the senior had the best year by a quarterback in college football history. Entering Monday night’s game, Burrow has connected on 77.6 percent of his throws for 5,208 yards and 55 scores to six picks. The senior has completed at least 70 percent of his throws in every game and has connected on eight passes of 60 or more yards. Burrow has excelled at sliding around or moving in the pocket to keep plays alive and continues to make quality throws even when pressured. The delay between the regular season and Peach Bowl did nothing to stop Burrow’s historic season. The senior simply connected 29 of 39 throws for 493 yards and seven scores. Even though Dec. 28 was the last time LSU played, don’t expect any rust from the Heisman winner on Monday night.

 

Stopping LSU’s offense isn’t just about containing Burrow. With big-time targets on the outside like Ja’Marr Chase (75 catches) and Justin Jefferson (102), Clemson’s standout secondary will be tested. In addition to Chase and Jefferson, Terrace Marshall (43) and tight end Thaddeus Moss (42) should see plenty of action on Monday night. Not only does Brady and Ensminger find plays to get the receivers open, but Burrow excels at fitting the ball into tight windows downfield against good coverage.

 

The biggest beneficiary of the delay between Peach Bowl and national championship might be LSU running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire. Due to a leg injury suffered in practice prior to the Peach Bowl, Edwards-Helaire was limited to just two carries against the Sooners. While Chris Curry stepped up in Edwards-Helaire’s absence, the junior’s return adds another dimension to the offense as the best all-around weapon in the backfield. Through 14 games in 2019, Edwards-Helaire accounted for 1,304 rushing yards and 16 rushing scores and 50 receptions for 399 yards. An underrated cog in LSU’s offensive explosion this year was the play of the line. This unit won the Joe Moore Award as the nation’s best and should have guard Damien Lewis in the lineup after he suffered an injury against Oklahoma in the Peach Bowl.

 

It’s no secret Clemson’s defense consistently ranks near the top of the nation with Brent Venables at the controls. Despite some personnel losses from last year’s group, Clemson ranks No. 1 in the nation in scoring defense (11.5 ppg) and is giving up just 4.2 yards a play. However, outside of Ohio State, this group hasn’t played an offense with the depth and talent in the skill positions or the type of high-level quarterback play Burrow is bringing to New Orleans. Clemson’s defense is faced with a task that no team has really solved this year: How do you slow down LSU’s offense? Perhaps there’s a hint in the way Auburn defended this group by using a 3-1-7 alignment. Clemson doesn’t have the quite the same level of standouts in the trenches as last year’s unit possessed, but the defense has accumulated 42 sacks and can utilize the all-around talent of linebacker Isaiah Simmons. The versatile junior is the wild card piece on Venables’ scheme with his ability to drop to the line and rush or play coverage.

 

Clemson’s secondary enters Monday night’s game ranked No. 1 in the nation in pass efficiency defense, and this unit held Ohio State to 320 yards in the Fiesta Bowl. The Buckeyes did not have a completion longer than 24 yards and had two passes intercepted. That stat could shadow a necessary strategy for Clemson: Bend but don’t break. In the win over Ohio State, Clemson allowed only one touchdown on five red zone trips. For the season, this unit allowed touchdowns on only 75 percent of trips in the red zone. If LSU is kicking field goals instead of touchdowns, that’s a big win for Venables’ group.

 

Final Analysis

 

The final game of the 2019-20 college football season certainly doesn’t lack intrigue. The matchup features the potential No. 1 picks (Burrow and Lawrence) in the next two drafts, a bevy of talented skill players and two talented defenses that figure to have their hands full. With the offensive firepower, small areas like timely stops on third down and inside the red zone could be critical. Additionally, with a close game anticipated, any mistakes or turnovers will be magnified. Is this LSU’s year, as Orgeron’s team caps 2019 with a win on home turf in New Orleans? Or is Clemson primed to repeat?   

 

Predictions for the National Championship from Athlon's Editors and Contributors

  Prediction MVP
Steven Lassan

 38

 34

Joe Burrow, QB
Mark Ross

 34

 31

Joe Burrow, QB
Rob Doster

 34

 31

Travis Etienne, RB
Rich McVey

 42

 31

Joe Burrow, QB
Ben Weinrib

 40

 30

Joe Burrow, QB
Nicholas Ian Allen

 35

 31

Trevor Lawrence, QB
Brandon Cavanaugh

 38

 34

Joe Burrow, QB
John Coon

 38

 34

Joe Burrow, QB
Allen Kenney

 41

 35

Joe Burrow, QB
Kyle Kensing

 38

 24

Joe Burrow, QB
Jon Kinne

 41

 31

Joe Burrow, QB
John La Fleur

 41

 27

Joe Burrow, QB
Kevin McGuire

 41

 38

Joe Burrow, QB
Rob McVey

 38

 31

Joe Burrow, QB
Chip Minnich

 35

 31

Joe Burrow, QB
Juan Jose Rodriguez

 38

 34

Travis Etienne, RB
Gabe Salgado

 35

 32

Joe Burrow, QB
J.P. Scott

 41

 37

Travis Etienne, RB
Eric Sorenson

 41

 38

Trevor Lawrence, QB
Antwan Staley

 37

 24

Joe Burrow, QB
Aaron Tallent

 45

 21

Joe Burrow, QB
Josh Webb

 45

 41

Travis Etienne, RB

 

Event Sport: 
College Football
Event Date: 
Monday, January 13, 2020 - 20:00
Event Location: 
Mercedes Benz Superdome, 1500 Sugar Bowl Dr, New Orleans, LA 70112
Include in Acu Data Feed: 
Exclude from Acu-data Feed

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