This year’s College Football Playoff brings together third-ranked reigning champion Clemson and Final Four newcomer and #1 seed LSU in a final showdown at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans. Quarterbacks Joe Burrow and Trevor Lawrence could be the number one pick in each of the next two NFL Drafts, but there’s more to the game than just that, as Gridiron reveals:
LOUISIANA STATE UNIVERSITY
NATIONAL TITLES: 3
HEAD COACH: Ed Orgeron
SCHOOL RECORD: 38-9
Orgeron almost didn’t get the job: LSU’s then-athletic director Joe Alleva favoured Tom Herman, but that deal went south-west as Herman headed to Texas. That left the red-faced Cajun with the gravelly voice to turn around Tiger fortunes. Since being handed the reins, Orgeron has won more games against top-10 opponents than any coach in the nation and his hiring of Joe Brady from the New Orleans Saints has been the catalyst for an unbeaten season. Wins against Texas, Alabama, Florida, Auburn, Texas A&M and Georgia are explain why the Bayou Bengals are the favourites to win it all.
QUARTERBACK: Joe Burrow
The Ohio State transfer was solid, if unspectacular, in 2018, leading the Tigers to victory in the Fiesta Bowl against the previously undefeated UCF. But if anyone claims to have seen his 2019 coming, they are lying. Burrow, who worked hard changing is throwing motion, has become the best passer in college football, a more athletic Tom Brady in style with elite accuracy and toughness. He doesn’t have the strongest arm, but few would bet against Burrow winning the Heisman, the National Championship and being the first overall pick in April’s NFL Draft. To understand how good he’s been, consider this: in 2008, his last year at Georgia, Matthew Stafford never completed 70 percent of his passes in any of his 13 games. In 2019, his last year at LSU, Burrow has never completed less than 70 percent of his passes in any of his 13 games.
OFFENSE: A multi-faceted scheme run almost to perfection by Burrow that relies on timing and accuracy but has playmakers who can work back to the quarterback if he moves the pocket. The skill-position superstar is wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase, a 6ft 1in, 200lb sophomore who broke the LSU single -eason record for receiving touchdowns with 17. He’s ably assisted by seniors Justin Jefferson and tailback Clyde Edwards-Helaire – who is a squatty, Emmitt Smith-style runner with outstanding contact balance and great hands. Randy Moss’s son Thaddeus is a seam threat at tight end.
DEFENSE: The strength of this unit is in the secondary but don’t be fooled as it has playmakers at each level. Safety Grant Delpit and cornerbacks Kristian Fulton and Derek Stingley are all future first-round picks. Stingley, a freshman, has been the best cornerback in college football this season, while Patrick Queen is a terrific sideline-to-sideline linebacker. K’Lavon Chaisson and Rashad Lawrence are an excellent pair of edge rushers, meanwhile.
ACHILLES HEEL: The season hasn’t been without its mishaps: they gave up 614 yards of offense to Ole Miss, the most since 2001, in a 58-37 win in November. They’ve also allowed 35 or more points in four games, something they hadn’t done in 21 years since they went 4-7. At times, LSU have struggled with zone reads and quarterback counters: Rebels freshman signal-caller John Rhys Plumlee rushed for 212 yards and four touchdowns, including scoring runs of 46, 60 and 25 yards, so Lawrence could punish Dave Aranda’s unit if they’re not switched on.
NATIONAL TITLES: 3
HEAD COACH: Dabo Swinney
SCHOOL RECORD: 129-30
The former Alabama walk-on is easy to love. One of college football’s most infectious personalities, he is also a hell of a football coach. After taking over from Terry Bowden in mid-season of 2009, Swinney has turned the Tigers into a powerhouse that has won two National Championships and not lost a game since the Sugar Bowl at the end of the 2017/18 season. Over the past five campaigns, he’s won 68 games; who would bet against Swinney winning a third championship?
QUARTERBACK: Trevor Lawrence
After a comparatively slow start – at least by his standards – Lawrence has dominated since early October and not thrown an interception since the first quarter of the Louisville game. Despite Burrow’s heroics, he is the best pure passer in college football and the one quarterback NFL scouts and general managers cannot wait to draft. Ice cool in the biggest moments, his arm strength and range of throws are staggering. Much like Swinney, Lawrence hasn’t lost a game in two seasons and could be the difference if the Tigers are to repeat.
OFFENSE: Lawrence is blessed with the best skill-position talent of any of the final four teams. It all starts with wideouts Justyn Ross and Tee Higgins, two of the best in the game who use size, elite hands and smooth route running to defeat cornerbacks. If they get bottled up then Amari Rodgers, Diondre Overton and highly regarded freshman Frank Ladson Jr., can all deliver. Travis Etienne is a dominant force at tailback whose swiftness and ability to change direction leaves defenders grasping at air. He runs behind one of the best lines in college football, led by mauling left guard John Simpson.
DEFENSE: Quietly, this unit has become the best in the country. Despite losing Christian Wilkins, Clelin Ferrell, Dexter Lawrence and Trayvon Mullen, they are number one in total and scoring defense, as well as passing yards allowed and pass efficiency defense. Brent Venables may not have the elite talent at his disposal that he did in 2018/19, but may have a more well-rounded unit. The superstar is Butkus Award winner Isaiah Simmons, anther likely top-15 pick in the upcoming selection weekend. He has elite quickness and can rush the passer (six sacks), cover receivers like a safety and get sideline to sideline. Safety K’Von Wallace, cornerback A.J. Terrell and end Xavier Thomas are all terrific players, while freshman Tyler Davis has become a force inside.
ACHILLES HEEL: Last year’s – inexperience – was shoved down people’s throats by ripping out Alabama’s in Santa Clara. This year it might be the cupcake schedule of the ACC. The Tigers 62-17 destruction of Virginia in the conference championship game underlines the issue. The Tigers didn’t beat a single team that ended up ranked at season’s end until they played the Cavaliers and so their first real test of the campaign came two weeks before it ends. Will they be ready?
This article originally appeared in Issue LI of Gridiron magazine – for individual editions or subscriptions, click HERE
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