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National Championship Preview

Championship Game ATS Preview

by Thor Nystrom
Updated On: January 10, 2020, 10:18 am ET

College Football National Championship

January 13, 2020

LSU (14-0) vs. Clemson (14-0)

8 pm ET

ESPN

Mercedes-Benz Stadium

New Orleans

 

Line, location, lowdown

LSU -6 vs. Clemson

Total: 69.5

Thor’s adjusted line: Clemson -2

Line value: Clemson +8

 

First things first. This line is an overreaction. A significant one! 

Back LSU, and you’re going to pay – in the estimation of my numbers anyway – a touchdown-plus tax on the number. And that’s because LSU just beat Texas A&M, Georgia and Oklahoma by an average score of 50.0-15.0.

Prior to the Playoff semifinals, Clemson was listed as a 1-point favorite over LSU in a hypothetical title game. After, LSU opened as a 4-point favorite over Clemson, a line which was quickly steamed up to -6. The line has bounced between LSU -5.5 and -6 since then.

What’s interesting, perceptually, is that Clemson beat a far superior team in their semifinal (superior by margin). Entering action on Dec. 28, Ohio State was SP+’s No. 1 outfit and considered one of the Big Ten’s best teams of the past decade. Clemson won, barely, requiring a second-half comeback and a late hold to advance to the title game. 

Just prior to the Tigers’ dramatic victory, LSU demolished Oklahoma (63-28) so thoroughly that the Sooners were trying to hand the mic off to the next rap battle competitor at halftime, like Papa Doc in Eight Mile. Oklahoma entered as SP+’s No. 8 team and promptly proved to be one of the worst Playoff entrants since its inception.

Because perception shapes betting lines as much as reality, Clemson backers won’t have to pay a spread tax. Despite the Tigers’ sneaky mini-dynasty-in-progress, they’re actually receiving a big tax credit at the window. Again. As they’ve gotten each of the last three title games they played in. This might be a good time to mention that Clemson went 3-0 ATS in those games.

Joe Public has as much to say about another year of Clemson title-game line value as Joe Burrow. Per the Action Network, three-quarters of ATS bets had come in on LSU as of Tuesday late afternoon.

My adjusted number bakes in a variety of different metrics to set a baseline number. That baseline number is then modified based on real-time market indicators that signal sharp action. I have Clemson as a two-point favorite, giving the Tigers an absurd eight points of value on the number. 

The question you’ll have to ask yourself is the same question you had to ask yourself prior to last year’s title game, when Clemson stepped on the tracks as another offensive locomotive from the SEC rolled through: Do you have the guts to do it with them? 

The total of this game is hovering just south of 70. That feels steep at first blush. It’s also historically rich. Of the five title games in the modern Playoff era, only one went over the LSU-Clemson total of 69.5 – Alabama’s 45-40 defeat of Clemson following the 2015 season. 

 

When LSU has the ball

The game will be decided in this phase. LSU’s offense against Clemson’s defense: The nation’s best offense against the nation’s best defense. 

LSU’s offense ranks No. 1 in several SP+ efficiency and success rate metrics and comfortably inside the top-10 in the explosion categories. The running game, used as a compliment, is a top-5 per-play in the country. LSU also boasts the top red zone offense in the country. Clemson has the nation’s best scoring defense, total defense and passing defense – and it has surrendered the lowest passer rating against.

This brings us to LSU QB Joe Burrow, who is drawing Tony Romo comps. Burrow will have the pleasure of running Joe Brady’s Saints-esque machinations in Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Monday night. When LSU is firing on all cylinders, the Tigers look a heck of a lot like the full-force Drew Brees Saints.

Burrow has thrown for 5,208 yards with a 55/6 TD/INT rate this season. He needs 372 passing yards on Monday night to move into the top-5 all-time on the single-season passing yards list, while 424 would propel him into No. 4 all-time.

LSU WRs Ja'Marr Chase and Justin Jefferson are the headliners of the skill group. That duo currently shares LSU’s single-season school record with 18 receiving TD apiece. Jefferson posted a stupid 14-227-4 line against Oklahoma with Burrow targeting him 18(!) times. I wouldn’t be surprised if Jefferson’s targets are cut in half on Monday night for reasons I’ll get into shortly.

Chase, the Biletnikoff winner and one-time Kansas Jayhawk commit (sob), is the less-reliable but more explosive of the two. Burrow will look to Jefferson when he needs to move the chains, but LSU needs Chase to come through for a few home run balls if it hopes to win.

WR3 Terrace Marshall Jr., a five-star sophomore, is expected to play through the shoulder injury he suffered against Oklahoma. Marshall returned to practice Wednesday. Marshall isn’t a focal point of the offense, but he’s a long (6’4) and skilled red zone threat who hauled in 12 TD on 61 targets. 

LSU RB Clyde Edwards-Helaire, whom HC Ed Orgeron has likened to Maurice Jones-Drew, turned into a force down the stretch in the passing game, catching 38 balls in the six games prior to hurting his hamstring versus Oklahoma. 

Edwards-Helaire is a shifty runner with a low center of gravity who runs solid routes, both out of the backfield and when deployed out wide. Defenses started paying extra attention in the second half of the season, hands of linebackers having conniption fits as Edwards-Helaire motioned pre-snap. These sorts of moments open things up for CHE’s teammates and give Burrow key pre-snap tells of the defense’s coverage intentions. 

Edwards-Helaire, who was hobbled by that balky hamstring that limited him to two touches against Oklahoma, will be aided by this year’s 16-day wait window between semifinal and title game. He’s a strong bet to be a full-go and LSU needs him to be. The Tigers don’t have a player on the roster to replace the things he does.

The most important position group on the field for LSU Monday night is the Joe Moore-winning offensive line. If the line fails to play up to its billing, LSU is going to lose by double-digits. We thought LSU would have to make do without starting RG Damien Lewis, who was carted off with an ankle injury against Oklahoma, but Lewis miraculously returned to practice Wednesday and Orgeron says he’s going to give it a go.

Backup Ed Ingram played fine against Oklahoma, but LSU would have beaten the Sooners if Damian Lewis from Homeland had been Lewis’ backup. LSU’s offensive line simply cannot afford leaks against Clemson. If Lewis can’t go, Ingram would likely play LG with Adrian Magee shifting to RG. Offensive line skill is obviously important against Clemson. Same goes for communication, as things can get hairy quickly when the exotic stuff starts coming hot and heavy. If Lewis can’t go, it would have the effect of installing new faces at both guard spots. 

If that’s the case, look for Clemson DC Brent Venables to test Ingram (or the soundness of Lewis’ ankle) early with targeted stunts and exotic “replacer” blitzes. Venables loves to blitz from the back-seven and drop back a hybrid lineman into pass coverage. After years of enjoying a historically-stocked defensive line, Clemson had to slum it with merely an absurdly exciting young defensive line chalk-full of awesome young prospects in the fall.

Frosh DT Tyler Davis proved a revelation, the defensive end rotation is deep and athletic, and graybeard DT Nyles Pinckney is the kind of reliable lunch pail vet you want playing betwixt all those crazy kids. Clemson ranked No. 16 in the nation in sacks per game, averaging nearly a half-sack more per contest than LSU but falling a bit below their insane averages in recent seasons. 

I can’t wait to see what Venables has cooked up for Burrow. Remember all those delicious disguised coverage looks Venables served up to Tua Tagovailoa in last year’s title game? Burrow is going to get an opulent Vegas buffet on Monday. We forget so quickly, but last year’s Alabama team was an offensive juggernaut on an even higher plane than this LSU team. Venables walked to the center of the ring of Bama’s high-flying circus act and karate kicked the stake holding the tent up. 

In last year’s title game, the Tide lost 31 points off their season scoring average and nearly two yards per play off their season average, and Clemson tallied two INT and seven TFL. It was such a virtuoso John Wick game plan by Venables that a quivering-lipped Nick Saban attempted a fake field using his kicker as a lead blocker in a national title game in a huge spot. I swear on my unborn son this happened. 

But that’s not the craziest part! The craziest part is that earlier that day, Dabo Swinney and Venables studied Saban’s fake field goal tendencies back to 2002 at LSU. The Tigers were so convinced a fake was coming that they dropped seven and Chris Fowler actually said on the broadcast right before the snap: “Is Clemson alert for the fake?” You bet they are, Chris!

"We showed one front and (transitioned) to another and played cover-2 to it and sniffed it out," said Venables after the game. "It was gameplan-specific just assuming there might be a critical time in the game where they’ve got to seize momentum and make that play." 

Venables’ favorite toy is Isaiah Simmons, the Butkus Award winner. Simmons is misleadingly listed at linebacker. His position is more accurately described as NULLIFYER. Simmons had 24 havoc plays this fall. The next-highest Clemson defender had 15. Simmons led the team in tackles, TFL, sacks, runs stuffs, and was only one interception away from tying for the team lead in picks. I mean.

Simmons flashed in a huge way versus Alabama last January, acting as a sort of trump card against the Tide’s diverse offensive machinations. Simmons is a master-of-all LB/S hybrid who you can stick in the slot when you want to take away an opponent’s ability to abuse small college slots with a big inside receiver (*cough* 91.7% of the 6’3/190 Justin Jefferson’s snaps came in the slot this fall *cough*). Oh, and you can also sic Simmons on the quarterback off the edge. Seriously. Venables had so much fun with him.

Clemson ranks No. 1 SP+ pass defense and top-3 in most important categories. S K'Von Wallace is a difference-maker who led the team with 10 pass-breakups. CB A.J. Terrell is a 6’1 NFL-esque corner. Tanner Muse is a thick 6’2/230 safety who led the team in picks. 

I expect Simmons to draw plenty of Jefferson coverage assignments when he isn’t sent on the attack, and I expect Clemson to deal with Chase by putting Terrell in man coverage against him while giving Terrell over-the-top help every time Chase tries to go deep with bracket help courtesy of a Wallace or Muse (or Simmons, if Clemson happens to be playing him deep on a given play, which they’ll do as well). 

Venables masks looks pre-snap so well because things mostly look innocuous early from a vanilla two-high. The pieces change from there. His corners play man, he keeps two men deep on passing plays to take away deep threats, and he trusts that his defensive line can clog things up enough in the running game that the back-seven will be able to flow up and blow everything up. While LSU’s offense is a real treat to watch, Venables was built in a lab to give passing attacks of all shapes and sizes fits.

Burrow has skyrocketed up draft boards despite not having elite arm talent or athleticism because he’s accurate and functionally mobile and grades B+ or above in all categories. But if his brain starts to glitch against all the different disguised looks, if Jefferson is given fits by Simmons in particular, and if Chase is harassed by a steady-dose of Terrell and double-team help over-the-top... what is LSU going to default to in order to claw out first downs consistently? What happens if LSU falls down early to Clemson as Alabama did last year?

What happens if LSU is all of a sudden throwing every play not because that’s what it does, but because it must? The changeups and curveballs go away. Then you’ve got Venables/Clemson standing in the batter’s box sitting dead-red every pitch. And even though LSU’s passing attack throws it harder than almost any pitcher in the history of the game, Venables parks fastballs when he knows they’re coming. 

Just ask Saban.

 

When Clemson has the ball

By the numbers, Clemson’s offense is inferior to LSU’s. It lags behind LSU’s by almost four PPG in scoring, by about 25 YPG in distance, and by about 105 YPG in passing. But those are homogenized counting numbers. And they’re a little misleading. Because they’re removed from context. LSU plays football like the movie Mad Max. If we’re sticking with the Tom Hardy theme, Clemson is more Inception

I prefer Clemson’s offense to LSU’s – in this game, in a vacuum, in the moment we’re in, for Monday night. The reason is balance. It pays off in so many ways in a spot like this. High-pressure, huge stadium packed, NFL defenders on both sides, defensive staffs both stocked with future FBS head coaches, tons of prep time. 

What I’m trying to say is that the situation itself favors the defense. Balance and unpredictability have a way of neutralizing some of that advantage. Remember – this game isn’t going to be played 100 times. It will be played once. One shot. One opportunity.

Balance keeps a defense guessing. It wins your players a step or two each snap. Balance ensures that even if your quarterback has an off-night, your offense isn’t necessarily destined to lose its equilibrium. There’s a reason stability is a synonym for balance. LSU gives up twice the points that Clemson does per game, and they have twice as many things to worry about each down. 

If you could disrupt LSU’s passing offense either by consistently getting to Joe Burrow or by confusing him or by erasing his usual throwing windows, you shoot the blimp out of the sky. Clemson’s aircrafts aren’t as flashy, but they’re stealthier.

Trevor Lawrence is the best quarterback taking the field on Monday, and in my opinion the best pro quarterback prospect since Andrew Luck. He plays with two first-round receivers in Justyn Ross and Tee Higgins.

Clemson’s rushing offense is similarly scary. If we’re being technical, scarier, the No. 1 SP+ overall attack and also tops in the areas of efficiency, explosiveness and opportunity rate. RB Travis Etienne rushed for 1,536 yards and 18 TD on 8.0 YPC this fall. Etienne also answered questions about his receiving ability for the next level by posting a solid 32-396-4 receiving line, which of course gave Lawrence another weapon.

Clemson is elite offensively in both efficiency and creating explosive plays. The latter category is where LSU needs to be very, very careful. LSU’s defense is respectable overall, but it ranks No. 72 and 83 in SP+’s major defensive categories measuring the ability to prevent explosive plays. The math says there’s a better chance Clemson has more big plays than LSU on Monday.

Of course, that doesn’t take into account injuries. And Clemson’s receiving corps is dealing with two big ones, though it appears both Ross and Higgins, who each missed time in the win over Ohio State, will play. Higgins suffered an undisclosed upper-body injury – he’s been really coy about this with the media after initial reports suggested he’d suffered a concussion in the first half – and Ross a shoulder injury. 

Those two and Amari Rodgers, generally one of the best troikas in college football, were shut down by Ohio State’s stellar secondary, with injuries playing a part. Lawrence ultimately saved the day by moving the ball down the field despite OSU’s defensive backs hounding his receivers all night like TMZ reporters – but that can’t happen again. Fortunately, downfield space will be easier to find against LSU. Assuming Higgins and Ross are sound.

LSU’s defense is talented, and its staff on that side of the ball is stellar (in fact, LSU DC Dave Aranda, at $2.5 million, is the only assistant in the nation who earns more than Venables at $2.2 million). But LSU’s defense doesn’t always play up to its potential. Check that. It didn’t earlier in the season. 

As recently as Nov. 9 and 16, that unit was downright lost. On Nov. 9, LSU’s defensive backfield, which should be elite (always), was terrible. Stocked with the likes of CBs Derek Stingley Jr. and Kristian Fulton and Thorpe Award winning S Grant Delpit, LSU got lit up by Alabama and a compromised Tua Tagovailoa.

Bama receivers consistently gained easy separation and won contested situations. A rickety wheel affected Tua’s velocity and kept him confined in the pocket. Running lanes were freely available all game long. I watched the cut-up recently. LSU shouldn’t have won.

The Crimson Tide marched down the field with ease on their first drive. On 3rd & goal, Tagovailoa scrambled towards the end zone and fumbled without being touched, clearly terrified of making a hard cut and/or taking a big shot. In hindsight, he shouldn’t have been playing. 

LSU scored on a bomb of a TD to J’Marr Chase shortly thereafter. 7-0 LSU. The Tide drove to midfield and were forced to punt. Instead of pinning LSU deep, Bama’s punter inexplicably allowed the ball to doink off his facemask on the snap. LSU didn’t do much with the gift of field position, but Burrow scrambled 12 yards on a 3rd & 17 to slip just inside field goal range. 10-0 LSU. The Tigers sprinted to a 33-13 halftime lead and would need every point of that advantage to hold off Alabama 46-41.

LSU’s offense bailed out the defense. It did so again the next week against Mississippi in a 58-37 win that was closer in reality than it was on the scoreboard. The run defense’s issues came to the fore versus the Rebs. QB John Rhys Plumlee knifed through the creases that Tua couldn’t physically take advantage of, running for 212 yards and four TD. 

That’s a quirk to keep an eye on come Monday. LSU defenders fielded questions about Trevor Lawrence’s legs this week after Lawrence posted a career-high 107 rushing yards against Ohio State (mostly courtesy of the 67-yard gallop). Lawrence is a prodigy of a pocket passer, but his athleticism is a bit underrated. If LSU’s defense from the Bama/Ole Miss games shows up Monday, he’ll move the chains with his legs once or twice (and with his arm as many times as he likes).

Of course, the Alabama/Mississippi games were the first two that LSU had to play without veteran OLB Michael Divinity, who left to go on a sabbatical to “focus on a personal matter” after the team’s narrow victory over Auburn on October 26. But following the Ole Miss defensive disaster, it was as though LSU’s defense met its maker and emerged renewed. Divinity remained on sabbatical, but the Tigers allowed only 16.25 PPG down the stretch in four games against Arkansas, Texas A&M, Georgia and Oklahoma. 

Previous woes against the run disappeared – running lanes a Minneapolis snowplow could have fit through became so cramped that Jalen Hurts wouldn’t have been able to chuck a snowball through. LSU put the absolute clamps on Texas A&M (169 yards), Georgia (286 yards) and Oklahoma (322 yards). 

Divinity returns from hiatus versus Clemson and will start in the dime package. I have... decidedly mixed feelings about this. While LSU needed two games to pick up the pieces without him, the defense just played its three best games of the season in a row in his absence. 

Fellow LSU OLB K'Lavon Chaisson – a probable Round 1 pick while Divinity is no sure thing to be drafted – had two sacks against Oklahoma. Chaisson posted 4.5 sacks over the past three games and is having the best stretch of his career. Chaisson has long been LSU’s most talented edge rusher, and he’s now becoming the self-actualized freak we were hoping he’d be. What’s interesting to me is that his ascendance happened to coincide with Divinity’s sabbatical. Coincidence? 

LSU HC Ed Orgeron said of Divinity last week, “Mike has been a tremendous pass rusher for us.” The party line on Divinity focuses on his veteran presence and pass-rushing contributions in particular. Presumably, his presence in the dime package, along with Coach O's quotes, indicate that Divinity's late-add is for the purposes of adding to the pass-rush. Okay. I just wouldn’t allow Divinity to take even one pass-rushing opportunity from Chaisson. Not a one. 

If I’m Clemson, I attack Divinity early and make him prove that his head is in the game. Divinity’s return either levels up an already-peaking LSU defense and renders it literally championship caliber, or else it was an unnecessary risk. I’m not sure I would have taken it, myself. 

Either way, LSU cannot count on stealing points off turnovers. It’s going to have to play this thing straight and hope to get Clemson into punting situations. Clemson’s only turnover since October 19 was an interception thrown by backup QB Chase Brice. Clemson ranks No. 5 in the country in turnover margin.

Sometimes Clemson plays it a little safe. That's where it differs from LSU, script wise. That's where LSU could jump out to a lead early if it plays its cards right. I just wouldn't expect Clemson to unload a clip into its feet, because Clemson doesn't do that. And even if Clemson does come out listless, as Ohio State found, even if you have them dead-to-rights, and even if you’re an equally awesome team, the Tigers tend to hang around like Mikey McD in Rounders and find a way. Alligator blood.

 

Special teams

This is the phase of the game where LSU has a big edge. LSU ranks top-10 in the nation SP+ in overall special teams play, while Clemson has a bottom-40 unit. 

It’s an adventure when Clemson attempts a field goal – they went 13-for-22 this fall. HC Dabo Swinney would prefer that B.T. Potter only see the field for extra-points and kickoffs. Clemson also has paint-by-numbers return units that won’t scare LSU much. Clemson didn’t return a kick or a punt for a touchdown this year. It would be a surprise if they did so on Monday.

Different story on the LSU side. Freshman K Cade York is a keeper. The No. 2 ranked kicker in the 2019 class, York made good on the ranking by earning second-team All-SEC honors as a frosh. LSU’s punt return unit returned two for touchdowns this fall and should be handled with care. 

 

The Verdict

Clemson +6

Under 69.5

I'll also be on the Clemson +185 moneyline. I believe the wrong team is favored. And you can bet Dabo is relishing the opportunity to play the underdog card again. If Clemson beats LSU by double-digits – which I think is a distinct possibility – this may be his last chance to do it in a bowl game for a few years.

***

Lifetime record (2014-2019): 540-469-16 (53.5%) ATS

Thor Nystrom

Thor Nystrom is Rotoworld’s lead CFB writer. The 2018 FSWA College Sports Writer of the Year, Nystrom’s writing has also been honored by Rolling Stone magazine and The Best American Essays series. Say hi to him on Twitter @thorku!