LSU vs. Clemson: College Football Playoff National Championship preview and predictions

No. 1 LSU (14-0) vs. No. 3 Clemson (14-0)

Location: New Orleans | When: Jan. 13 (8 p.m.) | TV: ESPN | Line: LSU -5.5

HOW THESE TEAMS GOT HERE

LSU: LSU ascended to new heights in its third season with Ed Orgeron as full-time head coach. And it took a major shift in offensive philosophy for the Tigers to take off. All offseason, Orgeron talked up his decision to hire New Orleans Saints assistant Joe Brady to run the offense alongside longtime confidant Steve Ensminger. It wasn’t just lip service. LSU went from the 69th-best offense in college football in 2018 to the No. 1 offense in 2019, earning Brady the Broyles Award, given to college football’s top assistant.

Brady’s influence on the team was evident early in the year, but so was the progression of quarterback Joe Burrow. Burrow transferred to Baton Rouge from Ohio State, but was average in his first year as the team’s starter. It was pretty clear when Burrow threw for 471 yards and four TDs in a Week 2 win over Texas that things would be different this year.

From there, LSU cruised through non-conference play and beat four top-10 SEC opponents — Florida, Auburn, Alabama and Georgia — en route to its first conference title since 2011. The win over Alabama halted an eight-game losing streak in the series and launched Burrow to the top of the Heisman conversation. Burrow ended up winning the award in a landslide, becoming the first LSU Heisman winner since Billy Cannon in 1959. 

In the CFP semifinal against Oklahoma, Burrow put forth a Heisman-worthy performance, throwing for 493 yards and seven TDs in a 63-28 win. Now the Tigers get to compete for the national title in New Orleans for the fourth time (2003, 2007 and 2011) in the last 20 years.

Clemson: The Tigers are returning to the site of their last loss. Clemson lost 24-6 to Alabama on Jan. 1, 2018 in the Sugar Bowl, a CFP semifinal, as the Crimson Tide advanced to play and beat Georgia for the national title. Clemson’s been on a 29-game win streak since then, a streak that’s aligned with the arrival of Trevor Lawrence. The sophomore QB has thrown for over 6,700 yards and 66 touchdowns over those 29 games and running back Travis Etienne has rushed for over 3,000 yards and scored 48 touchdowns.

The Tigers destroyed Alabama a year ago to cap a 15-0 season and win the national title. They continued that run this season and have outscored opponents by an average score of 45-11. There were a couple of close calls, however.

Clemson beat North Carolina 21-20 in September and only held on when the Tar Heels went for two in the final seconds and didn’t get it. From there, Clemson easily marched through ACC play, capped off by a 62-17 win over Virginia in the ACC title game. The CFP semifinal game against Ohio State presented much more resistance. OSU led at halftime before Clemson stormed back to win 29-23 and advance to play LSU. A win on Monday night would stretch Clemson’s win streak to over two calendar years and 30 games and establish the program as the de facto best of the playoff era.

What makes LSU’s offense so difficult to defend?

Joe Burrow is just one part of what has made the LSU offense so special this season. 

LSU deploys three NFL-caliber wide receivers on every single play: Justin Jefferson, Ja’Marr Chsse and Terrace Marshall. With 102 catches for 1,434 yards and 18 touchdowns, Jefferson was Burrow’s most reliable target throughout the year, but Chase is the team’s big-play threat. Chase leads the team with 1,559 yards on 75 catches — an average of 20.8 yards per catch. The third option in that trio is the 6-foot-4 Marshall, who went for 43 catches for 625 yards and 12 scores despite missing multiple games due to injury. 

The group is versatile and possesses the ability to line up both on the outside and in the slot to exploit potential matchup problems. Better yet, they have a knack for making contested catches from a quarterback with pinpoint accuracy down the field. Combine those three with tight end Thaddeus Moss and running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire, and you’ve got a mighty task for the Clemson defense — especially its secondary.

Burrow says the key to the offense is to force the defense to “defend every single person.”

“Anybody can get the ball on any play. We're not designing plays to go to this one guy. We have progression reads that everyone can get the ball on, so you have to be on your toes as a defense and really understand who has each individual player, otherwise we'll beat you, or I'll find a guy. That's what makes it so difficult to defend,” Burrow said in a news conference ahead of the game. “You've got to find your guy, and we make it difficult to do it and change up people's eyes with motions and moving different guys around from the slot to the backfield to outside. We do a really good job of finding matchups that are favorable for us.”

LSU head coach Ed Orgeron believes Edwards-Helaire is the key to the offense operating at the highest level.

“He's hard to tackle. He's explosive out of the backfield catching the ball. He's hard to defend. I think that when Clyde is not in there we're very predictable,” Orgeron said. “When he's in there, you can't overplay the run, you can't overplay the pass. You have to be balanced on defense, and that enables all the other guys to make plays.”

Ja'Marr Chase is one of the main targets for Joe Burrow and the explosive LSU offense. (Photo by Carmen Mandato/Getty Images)

How will Brent Venables deploy Isaiah Simmons?

If there’s one defensive coordinator who could be up for the tall task of containing LSU, it’s Clemson’s Brent Venables. Venables has been with Dabo Swinney at Clemson since 2012 and his defenses have thrived on the biggest stages — especially with multiple weeks to prepare. The Tigers have given up an average of just 13.4 points per game in each of their CFP semifinal appearances.

And the layoff ahead of Monday night’s title game makes it resemble a semifinal more than a title game from a preparation standpoint with the 16-day break between games. You know that Venables will have some tricks up his sleeve Monday night.

“When you look at defense, you think about Brent Venables and his ability to adjust against the different offenses he's seen,” Orgeron said. “I've known Brent for a long time and respected him as one of the best defensive coordinators in all of football. Their defensive line is quick and strong, can rush the passer. His blitzes are phenomenal.”

While Clemson doesn’t have four surefire NFL draft picks on its defensive line like it did a year ago, the best weapon Venables can deploy is 6-foot-4, 230-pound Isaiah Simmons. Clemson lists Simmons as a linebacker, but he lines up all over the place. He plays as a safety in coverage as he showed when he intercepted Justin Fields in the Fiesta Bowl. He can defend the run and blitz the quarterback as a linebacker. But he can also come up to the line of scrimmage and cover in the slot.

That’s where Simmons could be most needed against LSU, who will often put speedy running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire or 6-foot-3, 250-pound tight end Thaddeus Moss against overmatched linebackers. Simmons shouldn’t be overmatched against either player.

“[Venables] always has them in position to make plays. The guy is a phenomenal game day caller, especially his blitzes,” Orgeron said. “He knows how to blitz protections, and he can just send one linebacker, but it's at the right place. The way he uses No. 11, he's going to be all over the field. He puts his athletes in premier spots to make plays, and the guys play with great technique. They're hardly out of position.”

Trevor Lawrence the runner

Trevor Lawrence, Clemson’s star sophomore quarterback, showed off his full arsenal of talent against Ohio State. Known most for his cannon of an arm, Lawrence surprisingly gashed the Buckeyes with his legs, including a highlight-reel 67-yard touchdown run on a designed QB draw. Lawrence ended up leading the team in the Fiesta Bowl with a career-high 107 rushing yards on 16 attempts. 

LSU’s defense has struggled some against running quarterbacks; it surrendered 212 yards and four TDs to Ole Miss freshman John Rhys Plumlee on Nov. 17. But since then, LSU’s defensive play has been much improved. Lawrence won’t surprise anybody with his ability to run this time around, but if LSU keys in too much on Lawrence, it could potentially open things up for receivers Tee Higgins and Justyn Ross on the perimeter and Travis Etienne on the ground. 

“People don't give him credit for his running ability, so we're definitely going to take that into consideration,” LSU safety Grant Delpit said. “And just the amount of weapons they have, guys like Etienne, big, tall receivers like Tee Higgins, they'll go up and get the ball. It's going to be a fun match-up.”

Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence showed off his mobility against Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl. (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)

Can Clemson run effectively on LSU?

LSU’s offense might be generating more hype entering this game, but Clemson’s unit averages only 26 fewer yards per game. Clemson is more balanced as well and might be able to gash LSU for big chunks on the ground. 

Clemson averages a nation-best 6.41 yards per carry as a team. Etienne, one of the more underappreciated backs in recent memory, averages 8.0 yards per attempt with backup Lyn-J Dixon going for 6.2 yards per try. Corralling those two along with the threat of Lawrence in the run game behind a stellar offensive line — all five starters were all-ACC selections — will be a mighty task for the LSU defense. Even if Etienne was held to just 36 rushing yards on 10 carries in the Fiesta Bowl.

The Tiger defense has allowed just 86 yards per game on the ground since that Ole Miss game. During a recent CFP teleconference, Delpit said that was the week the defense turned the intensity up a notch. 

“I think after the Ole Miss game, it was kind of a turnaround for us,” Delpit said. “It wasn't our best performance, and I think we sat down as a defense and just saw what we did wrong and understood that some teams might try to make those plays and run it against us again. And I think we just kind of lit a fire and started playing LSU football after that.”

The return of Michael Divinity for LSU

The CFP title game will mark the return of a key part of the LSU defense: linebacker Michael Divinity. Divinity left the team back in November for what Orgeron said were “personal reasons,” but now the senior will be back with the team for its biggest game in recent memory. 

Divinity — who has 105 tackles, 17 tackles for loss and eight sacks in 29 career games — can play both inside and outside linebacker and will provide a key depth piece for the Tigers, particularly as a pass rusher in the team’s dime package.

“Mike has been a tremendous pass rusher for us. I know we're definitely going to use him. He'll be back in a role and we'll see what fits best. He's definitely going to play for us, and we'll definitely use him in the best situations we can,” Orgeron said. 

Added Delpit: “That's a big part of our defense. To have him back, that's huge. He's a vocal leader. He's a vocal guy on and off the field. I think that having him back is going to be a big key for us, and we're excited for it.”

PREDICTIONS

Nick Bromberg: I don’t like picking against Clemson. I can easily see the Tigers from the ACC extending the win streak to 30 and asserting themselves ahead of Alabama as the college football power of the decade. So this is a cop-out of sorts. I think Clemson covers the number but I wonder just how the Tigers are going to cover LSU’s wide receivers for the whole game. The Clemson secondary is very good and Simmons is like a queen on a chess board. He can do anything. But I think that LSU will have just enough to get the win in the fourth quarter and move to 3-1 in New Orleans in title games. LSU 38, Clemson 34.

Sam Cooper: Dabo Swinney said his team beat Ohio State by playing at a B-minus level, so that makes me hesitant to go against Clemson, but LSU is on a special sort of a run. The variety of weapons for Joe Burrow to work with will ultimately be too much for a Clemson defense that doesn’t have quite the same level of talent it had a year ago. I’m going with LSU 35, Clemson 31.

Pete Thamel (from the Yahoo Sports College Podcast): I really wanted to pick Clemson, but I can’t do it. The tape doesn’t lie and the tape leans LSU. I think the homefield advantage will be helpful and I think LSU is going to win 41-38.

Dan Wetzel (from the Yahoo Sports College Podcast): My theory all year is that I would not pick against Clemson because it was like the old Alabama teams. You occasionally pick against them and then you’re watching in the third quarter and it’s 45-14 and you go, ‘What the hell was I thinking?’ But I’m going to pick against Clemson. Joe Burrow has convinced me. I may regret this, but LSU’s going to win by like 10.

More from Yahoo Sports: