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College football championship -- LSU-Clemson analysis, prediction and more

UniqueThis 2 Jan 12
Jan 12, 2020

Only in college football could a national title game pitting two teams that have each won two titles in this century feel fresh and exciting, but here we are. After three Alabama-Clemson title games in the past four years, with an Alabama-Clemson semifinal in 2017, we now get a battle of Tigers. Dabo Swinney's Clemson is here once more, but this time Ed Orgeron's Bama- (and Georgia- and Oklahoma-) conquering LSU Tigers, champs in 2003 and 2007, await.

In a season that featured three true title-caliber standouts (these two teams and Ohio State), it's fitting that the College Football Playoff National Championship in New Orleans will pit two of them. LSU and Clemson are a combined 28-0, and they each field thrilling, modern offenses and elite pass defenses. On paper, this is a classic matchup. Let's dive into what separates them and what doesn't. LSU may be a 5.5- to 6-point favorite, but the numbers suggest something far closer to a toss-up.

No matter whom you lean toward in this one (8 p.m. ET Monday on ESPN and the ESPN App), you got all the ammunition you needed to back up your pick the last time they played.

LSU just keeps getting better

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Brad Edwards crunches the numbers on LSU's offense ahead of the national championship game against Clemson.

The Tigers have been good all season. Obviously. We were already gushing about their resurgent offense two weeks into the season, and despite a growing number of defensive injuries, they survived a stiflingly hot 45-38 shootout at Texas in Week 2 and beat four other, weaker, teams by an average of 57-15. And as the schedule got stiffer, so did their resolve. They survived tough home tests against Florida and Auburn, then went to Tuscaloosa and beat Alabama for the first time in eight years.

What's scary, however, is that as the defense has grown healthier, LSU has just gotten stronger and stronger.

Average SP+ percentile performance (a single-game measure of key SP+ factors): 89% in the first five games, 88% in the next six, 97% in the past three.

Average performance vs. SP+ projection (points per game): +3.3 in the first five, +1.7 in the next six, +27.3 in the past three.

SP+ had a pretty strong read on Orgeron's squad through 11 games, but the Tigers overachieved projections by 28.6 points against Texas A&M, 24.4 against Georgia and 29 against Oklahoma. Safety Grant Delpit and others got healthy, freshman cornerback Derek Stingley Jr. found another gear, and suddenly LSU's defense is nearly as scary as its offense.

If this wasn't evident while the Tigers held Texas A&M and Georgia to a combined 17 points, it was surely evident in their semifinal matchup against Oklahoma.

Success rate is basically an on-base percentage for football -- a play that gains 50% of necessary yardage on first down, 70% on second or 100% on third/fourth is deemed successful. While OU's offensive production undoubtedly dropped a bit over the second half of the season, the Sooners were still relentlessly efficient: fourth in overall success rate, sixth in rushing success rate, fourth in passing success rate.

Filtering out garbage time, OU hadn't produced a success rate worse than 39% in any game all season and had been held under 50% just twice. The Sooners were at 31% against LSU, their worst output since 2013. Their passing success rate was 53% for the season ... and 15% against LSU, their worst since 2005.

This is what LSU's lesser unit is doing. I haven't even mentioned the seven touchdown passes Joe Burrow threw in the first half. Yikes.

Clemson has so, so many options

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Brad Edwards takes a look at Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence's performance over the course of the season.

An initial glance at the stats from Clemson's win over Ohio State might be confusing. Passes to star receivers Justyn Ross and Tee Higgins were just 10-for-19 for 80 yards (4.2 per target) and a 32% success rate. Not good. Star running back Travis Etienne carried 10 times for just 36 yards. Also not good. The Tigers went scoreless on their first four drives (one missed field goal, three punts) because Ohio State had deftly accounted for what amounted to Clemson's Plan A. Worse, Higgins got hurt early on, and it looked for a while as if he wouldn't return.

Perhaps no team on the planet has shown the level of adaptability that Clemson has in key moments, however, and once the Tigers got a break -- in the form of Shaun Wade's controversial targeting call and ejection on Clemson's fifth drive -- they quickly found a rhythm. Quarterback Trevor Lawrence picked up more of the running load, and the Tigers found opportunities for Etienne on the edge of the defense not by handing him the ball but by throwing it to him.

After the early drought led to a 16-0 deficit, Clemson scored three touchdowns in four drives to take the lead, and while another drought followed, the Tigers had a perfect drive dialed up for the final minutes. Down 23-22, the Tigers went 94 yards in four plays: an 11-yard pass to Ross, an 11-yard Lawrence rush, the first completion of the day to No. 3 receiver Amari Rodgers for 38 yards and a fake Lawrence rush-turned-jump(ish) pass to Etienne for a 34-yard score.

It was, to some degree, the same story on defense. Isaiah Simmons was Clemson's leader in havoc plays (tackles for loss, passes defensed, forced fumbles) this season from his outside linebacker position, but he had only one against Ohio State. Granted, it was a big one -- a tiptoeing third-quarter interception. Still, with Simmons neutralized for much of the game from a playmaking perspective, safety K'Von Wallace had a sack and two pass breakups, corner Derion Kendrick had a TFL and two breakups, linebacker Baylon Spector had two sacks and end Justin Foster had 1.5 TFLs. After getting knocked on its heels early in the game, the Clemson defense adjusted and gave up just seven points over the final 37 minutes.

This adaptability made the difference. Ohio State was the superior team for much of the game, but the Tigers found more success with Plan B and Plan C. They played like the title team they've already proved they can be.

The key to slowing down LSU: Bend, don't break

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LSU receiver Ja'Marr Chase says the championship game being in Louisiana means a lot and hopes his team can take home the title.

It will be an all-time matchup when LSU has the ball. The Tigers are one of the more pass-heavy teams in the country (120th in standard downs run rate, 110th on passing downs), and with good reason: They're amazing at it.

There has perhaps never been a passing offense more efficient than LSU's.

Despite taking on a slate that currently ranks sixth in SP+ strength of schedule, the Tigers are first in the country in both completion rate and passing success rate, and Burrow's stat line is video-game worthy: 78% completion rate, 5,208 yards and 55 touchdowns to six interceptions.

For all the flaws in the passer rating formula, it is still worth noting that no one has ever finished a season with a rating above 200, and Burrow is at 204.6. And depending on how things go on Monday, Burrow could finish with the single-season completion rate record as well. He is currently 0.9 percentage points ahead of Texas' Colt McCoy for that mark; if he throws 40 passes against Clemson, he would have to complete at least 27 to stay ahead.

What makes this even more impressive is that Burrow isn't really dinking and dunking. He is averaging 9.1 air yards per attempt (how far downfield the ball actually travels to its target), a smidge above the national average of 8.9. So he's throwing more aggressive passes than normal and still completing a record number of them.

The verticality of this offense -- Biletnikoff Award winner Ja'Marr Chase is averaging 20.8 yards per catch, Terrace Marshall Jr. 14.5, Justin Jefferson 14.1 -- means that to survive, big-play prevention is a must. But because Burrow is playing such mistake-free ball, and because the run game is efficient in its own right (third in rushing success rate), LSU can pretty simply shift to a more dink-and-dunk, efficiency-based attack and still score.

If any defense in the country can render this passing game inefficient (or at least of average efficiency), however, it's Clemson's.

Clemson has had the best pass defense in the country in 2019

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Justin Fields' interception to Isaiah Simmons in the third quarter marks the first turnover of the PlayStation Fiesta Bowl.

Clemson's pass-defense statistics are almost as impressive as Burrow's numbers. The Tigers are first overall in passing SP+, third in passing success rate allowed, first in passing marginal explosiveness (big-play prevention), third in sack rate and first in adjusted net yards per pass attempt (a yardage figure that adjusts for sacks, multiplies interceptions by 45 yards and multiplies touchdowns by 20 yards).

Despite lacking a standout pass-rushing defensive end, they are still third in sack rate. In the absence of a go-to pass-rusher, they attack from everywhere -- Simmons has seven sacks, tackle Tyler Davis has 5.5 and 10 others have at least two. They also get you sacked by covering your receivers for a really long time.

Simmons might be both the best safety and best outside linebacker in the country. He came to Clemson with safety skills and bulked up, and now he dominates from any number of areas on the field. He's first on the team in TFLs, sacks and even run stuffs, and he's tied for second in passes defensed. Plus, he's got two of the most prodigious regular safeties in the country in Wallace and Tanner Muse behind him. They've combined for seven TFLs, 10 run stuffs, six interceptions, 13 breakups and countless big plays prevented.

The presence of Wallace, Muse and veterans Nolan Turner and Denzel Johnson in the back not only frees up Simmons, it also allows Clemson's cornerbacks to get sticky and aggressive. In 74 passes thrown with corners Derion Kendrick and A.J. Terrell as the primary defender, only 33 have been completed, with one touchdown to three INTs. That's an 86.2 passer rating.

(Granted, Terrell can get a little too aggressive sometimes -- he's allowing only a 42% completion rate but nearly 15 yards per completion, and in the past two games, passes at his man are 3-for-8 for 74 yards and two big gains.)

Dialing back on the aggression and keeping LSU's prolific receivers in front of you might be the play here, though. Granted, if LSU has to go into extreme efficiency mode, with shorter passing and a healthy dose of a healthy Clyde Edwards-Helaire*, the Tigers are still going to move the football. But if you can force them to operate in the red zone, it might introduce the closest thing they've got to a weakness.

* Two thoughts about Edwards-Helaire: (1) His ability to play at full speed after missing much of the Oklahoma game with a lingering hamstring injury could be key if LSU is indeed having to spend extended parts of the game in efficiency mode. (2) Wow, what a matchup it could be if Edwards-Helaire and Simmons are spending a lot of time near each other. Edwards-Helaire's ability to leak out of the backfield into open space for Burrow was huge at times; he had at least four catches in eight games and caught a combined 16 for 128 against Auburn and Bama. If Simmons ends up tracking him, that could neutralize Edwards-Helaire ... and also neutralize Simmons' pass-rushing.

All things considered, LSU's red zone offense is pretty mediocre

LSU might be first in overall success rate, but the Tigers are only 61st inside the opponent's 10, 85th on first-and-goal and 104th on the goal line. This typically doesn't matter because they are scoring touchdowns from farther out, but it nearly backfired on them against Auburn. In a 23-20 home win, LSU averaged only 2.9 points per scoring opportunity (first downs inside the opponent's 40), well below the national average of 4.4. The Tigers settled for a 19-yard field goal in the first half and got stopped at the Auburn 1 in the second. Plus, they threw an interception from the 26, turned the ball over on downs again at the 29 and got pushed backward enough to have to punt from the Auburn 34.

LSU generated three more scoring opportunities than Auburn, which almost always results in victory, but if Auburn had better converted its own chances (AU settled for two field goals and threw an INT), this could easily have turned into an upset. Red zone failures also played a role in the only other game in which LSU was held under 40 -- the Tigers settled for three early field goals against Mississippi State, which meant they led only 9-7 late in the first half despite dominating.

They eventually pulled away, of course, but Clemson is much better than Mississippi State. If Clemson can prevent long TDs and force LSU to settle for field goals in the red zone, it might buy the defending champs all the cushion they need.

The key to slowing down Clemson: stopping second downs

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Trevor Lawrence puts an Ohio State defender on the ground with a juke and then busts loose for a 67-yard Clemson touchdown.

That's an odd choice for a key matchup, I admit, but stay with me: Clemson's superpower is catching back up to the chains. It allows the Tigers to stay aggressive on first down and keeps them in third-and-manageable at worst (and another first-and-10 at best). If LSU is to become the first team since September to hold Clemson under 38 points, it starts on second down. I'll explain.

Clemson's offense is absurdly balanced

The gist of having a good Plan B, Plan C, etc., is obviously being able to do a lot of things well. But how's this for a combination: Clemson is first in rushing success rate and first in passing downs success rate. The Tigers efficiently do the things most teams use to stay on schedule, and they are the best in the country at catching up once off schedule.

They find another gear on second down, however. On second-and-8 or more, they have a 50% success rate for the season (national average: 31%) and average 9.2 yards per play. They have more gains of 20-plus yards on second-and-long than plays with lost yardage. While plenty of this success came against lesser competition, it was the same story against Ohio State: eight second-and-longs, 50% success rate, 10.4 yards per play. After incompletions on the first two second-and-longs led to third-and-longs and punts, they followed that with a 67-yard rush by Lawrence, two 8-yard rushes to set up third-and-short and a 10-yard pass from their 1.

While second-and-long is certainly a defense-friendly down, a lot of defensive coaches don't necessarily get blitz-happy in such situations. On average, they blitz 26% of the time on second-and-long, versus 30% on third-and-long, and they are more likely to play in a zone rather than an aggressive man defense (man defense 32% of the time on third-and-long, versus 24% on second). Since offenses are still nearly 50-50 run-pass on second-and-long then ramp up to 75% pass on third, this makes sense. But Clemson seems more adept than most at taking advantage of this incongruity.

Last year's CFP championship game was defined by Clemson's ability to convert on third-and-long. Alabama had better success rates on first and second down, but the Tigers not only went a dominant 10-for-15 on third down, they were also 5-for-9 on third-and-7-plus. I'm not sure how sustainable that would have been had this been a best-of-seven series or something, but I am sure that LSU would be more than happy to force the same types of third downs, both because it means LSU would have survived second down without damage and because it plays into the hands of LSU's increasingly dominant secondary.

Clemson is mortal on third down

Despite that lofty overall passing-down success rate, Clemson is merely good on third down: 28th in third-and-long success rate, 44th on third-and-medium, 33rd on third-and-short. It was just 5-for-14 on third down against Ohio State (36%), and that's problematic considering how good LSU's D has been on third: 31% allowed for the season (ninth in FBS), 25% over the past five games.

The advantage shifts to LSU in these situations. The key, then, will be how well LSU can force those situations. Defensive coordinator Dave Aranda can't afford to sit in a zone and play things conservatively when the LSU forces a second-and-long. Don't save the exotic playcalls for third downs because Clemson might not give you a third down to get exotic on.

Then again, maybe Clemson can't afford to wait until second down to get moving. Because while Clemson has almost undoubtedly had the best pass defense in the country for the season as a whole ...

... LSU might have the best pass defense in the country right now

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Jalen Hurts attempts the trick-play pass, but leaves the ball in the air too long and is picked off by LSU defender Kary Vincent Jr.

LSU's Delpit won the Jim Thorpe Award as the best defensive back in college football this fall. Honestly, it was a baffling choice. Delpit was limited by injuries seemingly all season; Pro Football Focus, which grades every snap, named him merely an honorable mention All-SEC safety, not even among the top six safeties in his own league much less among the best DBs in the country.

Maybe the Thorpe voters had different criteria than they let on, however: Maybe they were voting for Delpit as the most valuable DB in America. They would have had a case there -- once Delpit got back to full speed (starting with the Texas A&M game, give or take), LSU's defense became almost untouchable.

Mind you, the Tigers' secondary had already begun to round into form. It has allowed just a 45% completion rate and 90.7 passer rating since the Alabama game, thanks in part to the emergence of all-world freshman corner Stingley.

After a tough game against Bama, Stingley has since allowed just a 9-for-32 passing line, with 99 yards, a touchdown and two interceptions, as the primary pass defender. That's a passer rating of 51.9. He has logged 21 disrupted dropbacks (sacks, INTs, batted or tipped passes) this season, second most in the FBS, and he didn't really get rolling until late. LSU already had a high-level cornerback in senior Kristian Fulton; Stingley's emergence was like air-dropping the best cornerback in the country onto the depth chart at the most important time of the year. Fulton might now be the best No. 2 corner in the country, too.

Still, the safety play was lacking for a couple of extra games until Healthy Delpit replaced Injured Delpit in the lineup. Since then, LSU has likely usurped Clemson atop the pass-defense hierarchy. LSU's past three opposing quarterbacks -- Texas A&M's Kellen Mond, Georgia's Jake Fromm and Oklahoma's Jalen Hurts -- all endured their worst passing performances of the season. Hurts' passer rating against the Tigers was 100.7, 90.5 points below his season average. Fromm's was 91.0 (51.2 points worse) and Mond's was a ghastly 39.1 (92 points worse).

LSU's pass defense was never bad this season. Through 11 games, the Tigers had allowed a 53% completion rate, 12.8 yards per completion and 19 TDs against 11 INTs. The past three games, however, have been nuclear-grade: 42% completion rate, 11.6 yards per completion, one TD and six INTs. Against three well-regarded quarterbacks, no less.

LSU's run defense is merely good, not great (and the big plays are awfully big)

Again, Clemson is balanced. You not only have to stop the run and the pass, but you also have to stop the between-the-tackles run, the outside run, the QB run game that Clemson breaks out on special occasions, the screen/sideline passing game, the checkdowns to explosive running backs, the intermediate passing game and the deep ball. Clemson will figure out the most vulnerable aspect of your defense and exploit it, even if it takes a little while.

Against LSU, part of the recipe for avoiding third-and-longs might involve simply running the ball more. While LSU is a solid 22nd in rushing success rate allowed, that's still worse than the pass defense. Plus, while LSU is aggressive up front, that has backfired at times. LSU is only 42nd in stuff rate (run stops at or behind the line) and has also allowed 11 rushes of 30-plus yards, 102nd in the country.

The mega-explosive Etienne has made eight such rushes himself. Clemson's run game is better than it has been at any point during the run of CFP appearances, and this isn't Aranda's best run defense.

Prediction and projection

SP+ projects a 32-29 LSU win, while ESPN's FPI leans slightly toward Clemson. Laying out the matchups above reinforces just how even this game is on paper, and while I wouldn't be surprised if the game is more high-scoring than the 61 combined points SP+ projects, I actually would be surprised if there aren't quite a few plot twists and runs.

I was excited about this matchup when I began writing this, and I'm even more so now. Give me something like 39-36 LSU (I'll say each team scores a touchdown more than the projection), but wow, could this be a fantastic game.