The College Football Playoff for the 2019 season officially gets underway on Saturday afternoon with a showdown between LSU and Oklahoma in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl. The Tigers are making their first appearance in the CFB Playoff, while this game marks the Sooners’ fourth trip in five years. The winner of this matchup will advance to play either Ohio State or Clemson in the national championship on Jan. 13 in New Orleans.
LSU earned the No. 1 overall ranking in the College Football Playoff after a perfect 13-0 regular season. Since taking over as the full-time coach prior to the 2017 season, Ed Orgeron has pushed all of the right buttons with staff hires and accumulation of talent on the recruiting trail. Thanks to the arrival of assistant Joe Brady and development of quarterback Joe Brady, the Tigers transformed their offense into one of the best in college football. That offensive development helped LSU unseat Alabama from the top spot in the SEC. Behind Burrow and a talented trio of receivers, LSU averaged 47.8 points a game and a whopping 7.8 yards a snap. And as usual, the Tigers were solid on defense once again. Under the direction of coordinator Dave Aranda, LSU is holding teams to just 21.2 points a game. LSU picked up a huge road win in Week 2 at Texas and picked up crucial victories in SEC play against Florida, Auburn, Alabama and Georgia to mark the program’s best season under coach Ed Orgeron.
Oklahoma claimed the No. 4 spot in the CFB Playoff after defeating Baylor 30-23 in the Big 12 Championship. The Sooners jumped out to a 7-0 start behind quarterback Jalen Hurts and an improved defense, but coach Lincoln Riley’s team stumbled 48-41 in a road loss at Kansas State. Oklahoma had to dodge a few close calls against Iowa State and TCU and staged a massive second-half rally to win at Baylor on Nov. 16, but Riley’s squad won its final five matchups to reach 12-1. The Sooners are doing things a little different on offense this season, but this unit still ranks among the best in the nation. Additionally, the arrival of Alex Grinch as play-caller has brought improvement to the defense, which was also instrumental in the 12-win year.
Oklahoma and LSU have played two times on the gridiron with both teams winning one matchup. The Sooners won 35-0 in the 1950 Sugar Bowl, with the Tigers winning 21-14 in the Sugar Bowl for the 2003 national championship.
Peach Bowl: Oklahoma vs. LSU
Kickoff: Saturday, Dec. 28 at 4 p.m. ET
Spread: LSU -13.5
When Oklahoma Has the Ball
Another year, another dynamic offense at Oklahoma. The Sooners have ranked inside of the top six in scoring offense every year since Riley arrived in Norman. Oklahoma’s offense enters the Peach Bowl averaging 43.2 points a game and first nationally in yards per play (8.2).
For Oklahoma to pull off the upset, quarterback Jalen Hurts has to deliver a monster performance. And as the senior has showcased during his career at Alabama and in Norman, the moment won’t be too big for him. Hurts guided the Crimson Tide to two playoff appearances as the starter from 2016-17 and was an instrumental piece of Alabama’s run to the championship game as the backup to Tua Tagovailoa in 2018. Hurts isn’t quite on the same level as Kyler Murray or Baker Mayfield in terms of his passing ability, but the senior is having an outstanding year. He’s completed 71.8 percent of his throws for 3,634 yards and 32 touchdowns to just seven picks. Additionally, Hurts ranks sixth nationally in completions of 30 yards or more (30). LSU’s defense will likely aim to keep Hurts in the pocket and not allow the senior to make plays off the edge or on the move.
While Hurts will have to make plays in the passing game for Oklahoma to win, the senior’s best asset on Saturday is likely to be his mobility. Hurts accumulated 1,255 rushing yards and 18 touchdowns over 219 attempts this year. After the loss at Kansas State, Riley leaned on Hurts a little more in the ground game. The senior had four games of 20 or more carries, with all coming after the loss in Manhattan. Considering the firepower on LSU’s sideline, the Sooners need their offense to limit the possessions by Burrow for this team to have a shot at the victory. In addition to Hurts, running back Kennedy Brooks (976 yards) will be asked to carry a heavy workload. Depth is an issue at running back, as Rhamondre Stevenson is suspended, and Trey Sermon was lost for the year due to injury.
Dynamic receiver CeeDee Lamb (58 receptions for 1,208 yards) is the unquestioned go-to target for Hurts. The junior capped the regular season by torching Baylor for 173 yards in the Big 12 title game, which marked his sixth 100-yard game of the season. While Hurts has to get the ball to Lamb downfield, LSU can counter with standout freshman Derek Stingley or Kristian Fulton at cornerback. With the focus on Lamb, secondary targets like Charleston Rambo, Lee Morris, Jadon Haselwood and Nick Basquine have to step up.
LSU’s defense was a big reason why this team landed the No. 1 seed in the playoff. This unit had a few uneven performances during the year but closed by holding Texas A&M to seven points and gave up just 10 against Georgia in the SEC title game. Also, the Tigers generated nine sacks over their final two contests. The Tigers rank fourth in the SEC against the run, second in sacks (33) and are holding teams to just 5.04 yards a play. Safety Grant Delpit was banged up in late October but seemed to get back to full strength late in the season and should benefit from the time off. His recovery in November certainly helped this group finish strong.
Turnovers will be the x-factor to watch. Oklahoma finished the regular season at minus-seven in margin, with LSU at plus-eight. The formula for a Sooners victory starts with a flawless performance in the turnover department, no mistakes and a huge performance out of Hurts and Brooks on the ground. Riley should be able to scheme up a couple of new looks to throw at the Tigers. Can Oklahoma consistently churn out long drives with its ground game to keep LSU’s offense on the sidelines?
When LSU Has the Ball
LSU’s offense has been the driving force behind the team’s 13-0 record and SEC Championship. Shifting the offense to more of a spread approach was a priority for Orgeron and he found the right formula this offseason. Brady’s arrival as an offensive assistant to team with Steve Ensminger finally transformed the Tigers into a spread attack. LSU ranks third nationally in yards per play (7.8) and third in scoring (47.8).
Joe Burrow ended 2018 by playing arguably his best ball of the season (UCF and Texas A&M), but the senior elevated his play even more this fall. Brady and Ensminger built the perfect offense for Burrow to thrive in, as the senior claimed the Heisman Trophy after throwing for 4,715 yards and 48 touchdowns to just six interceptions. Burrow connected on 77.9 percent of his throws and torched some of college football’s best defenses (Florida, Auburn, Alabama and Georgia) en route to leading the Tigers to the Peach Bowl. He’s also added 289 yards and three scores on the ground.
Burrow doesn’t lack for options on the outside. LSU’s receiving corps is one of the best in college football, with Ja’Marr Chase (73 catches and 18 TDs), Justin Jefferson (88) and Terrace Marshall (37) leading the way. Additionally, tight end Thaddeus Moss (38 grabs) has emerged as another weapon throughout the course of the season. The talented receiving corps is a huge problem for an Oklahoma secondary that isn’t particularly deep at cornerback and safety. This group is also slated to be without Delarrin Turner-Yell (75 tackles) due to a collarbone injury.
Running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire has been an underrated cog in LSU’s offense this season, but the junior is questionable to play due to a hamstring injury suffered in practice. Not only is Edwards-Helaire one of the best SEC running backs on the ground (1,290 yards), he’s also a key weapon out of the backfield (50 grabs) as a safety value for Burrow. If Edwards-Helaire is unable to play, Tyrion Davis-Price, John Emery and Chris Curry will handle the workload in the backfield. While none of the running backs have as much experience or production as Edwards-Helaire, all three are talented and will be running behind an offensive line that won the Joe Moore Award as the best in college football.
As mentioned above, the arrival of Alex Grinch has brought improvement to Oklahoma’s defense. After giving up 33.3 points a game and 6.1 yards per play last season, the Sooners have lowered those totals to 24.5 a contest and 5.3 a snap. Linebacker Kenneth Murray (95 tackles) leads a run defense that ranks first in the Big 12 (132.1 ypg allowed). However, in addition to Turner-Yell’s absence in the secondary, the trenches will be without Ronnie Perkins (six sacks) due to a suspension. With the depth issues and absence of Perkins and Turner-Yell, stopping LSU only gets tougher for Oklahoma’s defense. This unit has excelled at getting off the field on third downs (second in the Big 12) but ranks ninth in the conference in red zone defense. In order to win, the Sooners will have to trade some yards for stops in key situations (third downs and red zone).
Despite this matchup being a national semifinal, it’s no surprise LSU is one of the biggest favorites of the bowl season. Behind Burrow and a lethal group of receivers, the Tigers have aced every test so far against some of the top competition in the SEC. Oklahoma’s defense was certainly improved this season, but the injury and suspension concerns only add to the difficulty of stopping the LSU attack. The Sooners will need every break possible to win this matchup. The offense has to eliminate the turnover problem that hindered this group at times and get Brooks and Hurts going on the ground. And when Oklahoma is up against LSU’s offense, tackling in space and limiting the big plays will be crucial. The Sooners will battle, but the Tigers simply have too much firepower and pull away in the second half to advance to the national title game.