Clemson is making its fourth appearance in the national championship game in five years. The Tigers, winners of two of the last three titles, haven't lost since January 2018, giving them a 29-game winning streak. They haven't lost a fumble since October, and quarterback Trevor Lawrence has thrown 202 passes without an interception, the longest streak in program history and the longest active streak among FBS quarterbacks.
Yet somehow the Tigers are 5.5-point underdogs to LSU, a team without a title since 2007 and one that is making its playoff debut.
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"Being here two years now and playing in a few games, you just see how much it doesn't really matter who's the favorite, and I think we as a team really understand that," Lawrence told Sports Illustrated. "Not necessarily that we take offense to it, it's just like it really doesn't matter who the favorite is. You've got to go play the game."
It might appear that all that experience doesn't apply to the Tigers' defense: Three star players on last season's defensive line, Clelin Ferrell, Christian Wilkins and Dexter Lawrence, were taken in the first round of the 2019 NFL draft, with cornerback Trayvon Mullen and defensive end Austin Bryant selected in the second and fourth round. Yet not only is this season's unit one of the best in the nation, it's Clemson's best hope of winning another championship.
Heading into Monday's national championship game in New Orleans, Clemson's defense ranks No. 1 in the country for points allowed per game (11.5), No. 1 for passing defense per game (151.5 yards), No. 2 for total defense per game (264.1 yards allowed) and No. 2 for yards allowed per play (4.2). It also forced one out of every five opponents' drives to end with zero or negative yards, the fourth-highest mark in the nation.
Much has been made of Clemson's schedule this season, which is weak by previous playoff standards. But it's worth noting that Ohio State had the nation's No. 1 scoring offense before last month's Fiesta Bowl semifinal, where Clemson held the Buckeyes to a season-low 23 points and kept them scoreless in three trips inside the red zone. After taking all their opponents into account and Clemson's performance against each, the Tigers boast the No. 1 opponent-adjusted defensive efficiency in the country, per the Fremeau Efficiency Index. Fremeau also lists this year's Clemson defense as the fourth-best since 2007, behind only 2011 Alabama, 2011 LSU and 2016 Alabama.
Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables faces a significant challenge in trying to slow down the LSU offense, starting with quarterback Joe Burrow, the Heisman Trophy winner and prospective No. 1 pick in this year's NFL draft.
Burrow led the nation in adjusted completion rate (83%), big-time throws (32 throws judged by Pro Football Focus to be difficult and of high value) and passer rating from a clean pocket (156.7). His PFF grade for throws into a tight window - those in which the receiver has little separation from a defender - was nearly seven points higher than the next-best passer this year (87.3 out of a possible 100).
Clemson has pressured opposing quarterbacks on more than 43% of their drop backs but Burrow has stood tall in the pocket when pressured, completing 74% of his passes for 1,556 yards and 19 touchdowns, both best in the nation, with just two interceptions, per data from Sports Info Solutions.
Clemson will need to rely on forcing mistakes while limiting its own. Clemson led the nation in turnover rate (19%) and has committed just one turnover since Oct. 19 - an interception thrown by backup quarterback Chase Brice in a 52-3 dismantling of Wake Forest. Clemson has produced a plus-14 turnover margin over its last seven games and hasn't had a negative turnover margin in a game since it played North Carolina in September. Forcing LSU into turnovers would give Clemson extra possessions on offense while taking away scoring opportunities from the most-dynamic offense in the college ranks (48.9 points per game).
The key for Clemson will be its defensive leader, Isaiah Simmons. This year's Butkus Award winner as the nation's best college linebacker was used in a variety of situations. He's been the team's strong outside linebacker ("SAM"), a spy prowling the line of scrimmage and has also been dropped back in coverage as a safety. Simmons rewarded Clemson's faith by producing 97 total tackles (14 for losses), 14 quarterback pressures, six sacks, six passes defended and three interceptions. Pro Football Focus called him college football's most versatile player.
"They use him the right way, I mean built ready for all parts of the field, he's long, he's athletic and he has speed and he's disruptive," LSU Coach Ed Orgeron told reporters Wednesday. "You don't know where he's at, it's not like they're playing him as a base linebacker or up field. They play him in the middle of the field, they rush him and I think they use his skills very well. We need to know where he's at all times on the field."
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