LSU vs Clemson
Anyone with half-decent knowledge of college football over the past decade could have guessed this game would feature a battle between a Clemson WR and an LSU DB. Clemson has been a WR factory over the past half-decade, producing players such as DeAndre Hopkins to Hunter Renfrow, while LSU have sent countless DBs to the NFL over a similar span, most notably guys such as Tyrann Mathieu and Patrick Peterson. It's a battle of program identities.
It’s well known that Higgins can dominate the catch point. He is 6-foot-4 and 215-pounds, and shows no reservation in using all that size to his best advantage. Sideline throws, 50-50 jump balls, fighting through traffic over the middle — it doesn’t matter, Higgins has the size and muscle to win in physical situations. The last time Higgins made an appearance on the Showdown, it was the primary talking point for him.
What sets Higgins a tier above is how well he can also manipulate space as he is closing in on the ball to avoid contested situations. Sometimes they will happen regardless of what he does, but even for as well as Higgins can play in traffic, he is also exceptional at avoiding it altogether with subtle moves.
For example, check out this touchdown against Texas A&M. Higgins is running a sort of wheel route up the left sideline aimed toward the back-left pylon. For most of the route, Higgins has no discernable separation. Sure, he is always kind of “open” because of his contested-catch ability, but even the best contested catch guys are going to be better when they don’t actually have to do it. Catches passes without a defended draped over your back is way easier — who knew! Anyway, just as the ball starts to spiral down toward Higgins, he stacks himself on top of the cornerback then lightly extends his arm out. Higgins has the athleticism to maintain his speed while using just enough of a push-off to slow down the cornerback by a step. Though subtle in real-time, the move gave Higgins all the space he needed to catch this pass uncontested.
Squaring off against Higgins for some of the contest will be LSU CB Kristian Fulton. Depending on who you ask, Fulton is either better than former teammate Greedy Williams (2019 second-round pick) and has been a first-round pick all along, or he is a cornerback who thrives at the line of scrimmage without enough else to carry himself as a legitimately elite cornerback. The truth is somewhere in the middle.
It's true that Fulton is at his best at the line of scrimmage. A press cornerback by nature, Fulton loves to be walked up to the line of scrimmage and play true press coverage or press-bail. He has a sharp processor when it comes to feeling how WRs are rolling out of their stances and he has the quick feet to act on his senses. Where Fulton can run into issues is when forced to break dramatically, particularly to the inside.
Fulton can run WRs to the sideline all day, but in-breaking routes that force him to sink and shoot give him issues from time to time. Not only are his hips a bit slow to sink and change direction, but Fulton doesn't have that elite burst coming downfield or across the middle to always close the gap. Digs, over routes, posts, "basics," and deeper slants can all give Fulton problems, assuming the WR is a half-decent route runner.
Considering Clemson also have an elite QB in Trevor Lawrence guiding their offense, it's tough to imagine Fulton is going to have a fun day. That isn't to say Fulton is going to get toasted -- he isn't a top prospect by accident -- but it's more likely that this match ends up one of his least impressive tapes between the combined quality of Higgins as a receiver and Lawrence's pinpoint accuracy.
What championship game is complete without a meaningful matchup in the trenches?
In previous seasons, the schools might have been flipped. LSU has produced a slew of offensive tackles (and other linemen) over the past five seasons, while Clemson's track record of producing defensive linemen, particularly edge rushers, is well documented. The two programs have switched roles for this bout, though.
LSU's K'Lavon Chaisson is the clear favorite in this matchup. A modern, hybrid player at 6-foot-4, 250-pounds, Chaisson is a stand-up edge rusher who can sprinkle in some blitzes from a traditional linebacker spot and occasionally drop back into coverage. Make no mistake, Chaisson is a pass-rusher first and foremost, but creative defensive coordinators (like his current one, Dave Aranda) can find ways to get extra value out of him.
Right now, however, Chaisson is getting by as a pass-rusher with little more than raw athletic ability. Chaisson has great length, burst, and quick feet for the position, but his lack of a concise approach makes it difficult for him to put together stretches of consistently dominant play. He flashes, and the flashes are oh-so excellent, but he is not a player who can always be counted on to get pressure right now. To NFL teams and coaches, Chaisson is a desirable ball of clay more than anything.
Across from Chaisson is a prospect of a lesser caliber, but of a style that may be able to handle the LSU pass-rusher.
Clemson RT Tremayne Anchrum is a short, thick offensive tackle at 6-foot-2, 315-pounds. Though not the nimblest mover, Anchrum lives up to his name in that he can anchor on the spot and hold his ground. Of course, that requires Anchrum getting to the edge in time and securing a stable position in front of his opponent, but if he gets a grip of his opponent, he has a strong base that allows him to stand them up right where he catches them.
Against Chaisson in particular, this could be huge. Chaisson will beat Anchrum around the edge a few times, but Chaisson doesn't have the strength to beat even tackles of average strength and anchor, let alone the absolute unit that Anchrum is. Chaisson's approach is going to be limited against Anchrum because he doesn't have the pass-rush moves or raw strength to just run through him, so he is going to almost exclusively have to gun for the outside shoulder and hope he can bend around in time. Though Chaisson should still impress, this is a great chance for Anchrum to prove himself versus a potential first-round pick.
It's not often that a defender listed as a "linebacker" will have the most responsibility against one of the best slot receivers in the country, but Clemson LB/S Isaiah Simmons doesn't operate under traditional labels.
Simmons is a skeleton key. While his closest official listing is linebacker, Simmons can play all over Clemson’s defense. With an eccentric coordinator like Brent Venables calling the shots, Simmons has found himself playing a number of positions for significant stretches this season.
This chart from ESPN’s broadcast of the Clemson vs Ohio State match highlights Simmons’ versatility. He’s taken more snaps at slot cornerback than anywhere else, but has played at least 70 snaps in four different spots, and that doesn’t even entirely account for different coverages and assignments within those roles. The possibilities with Simmons are endless. Even the Ohio State game itself was an excellent microcosm. For the first half, Simmons was playing a fair amount of outside linebacker and nickel, but in the second half, Simmons was used more as a safety and middle of the field defender, both as a true safety and as a deep dropping linebacker.
Here is Simmons playing from s split-safety position into the boundary. Clemson are showing blitz pre-snap, which would leave Simmons responsible for all of the final #2 (innermost WR of the two) in the route distribution, or at least for inside and vertical routes. Simmons is playing 10 yards off the scrimmage to help take away vertical routes, but anything that hits inside or shallow early can be a problem. In this clip, the outside receiver trails behind the slot receiver and instantly cuts across the field. Simmons has to see the switch and drive on the route in time to get there, which requires both a smart angle and requisite speed. True to form, Simmons gets there in time and stops the play for a two-yard gain, at best, to force a third-and-long.
Venables also used Simmons’ flexibility to throw Ohio State QB Justin Fields for a loop, which eventually led to an interception Simmons snagged on the sideline. That Simmons can fly downhill like in the clip above as well as play middle of the field to sideline like he did when intercepting Fields in the playoff game is absurd.
Simmons is important for this game in particular because he gives Clemson a weapon that can not only move all over the field, but if need be, hunker down at the nickel position to handle LSU slot WR Justin Jefferson.
Jefferson is on the larger side for slot WRs. At 6-foot-3, 192-pounds, Jefferson is a lean and lanky fellow, but moves with the smooth hips and short-area quickness of a much smaller receiver. While it’s a stretch to say Jefferson is Michael Thomas, he is sort of shaped from the same mold and serves a similar role in LSU’s offense.
Jefferson thrives on routes that break right around five to seven yards. Slants, option routes (like the first clip), shallows, and outs are all right in Jefferson’s wheelhouse. His ability to accelerate up through is stem, sink his hips, and smoothly shoot out to a new direction without giving opposing defenders a clear window to get a read on him can be devastating.
Additionally, Jefferson isn’t too shabby down the field either. Pure speed isn’t really where Jefferson wins, but he does very well to pinpoint the ball at the catch point and make acrobatic efforts to find the ball, no matter where it is. It’s no accident that QB Joe Burrow was able to find back-shoulder passes to Jefferson (and Ja’Marr Chase) all year long.
In the pure player vs player matchup, Jefferson likely comes out with a slight edge. For as wonderful as Simmons is, a slot WR of Jefferson's caliber should be able to have a solid day. The real value with Simmons, however, is that he can move around everywhere and should provide unique solutions to problems that 15-or-so other defenses have not been able to solve against LSU this season.