College football isn’t exactly running it back with the same playoff matchups as in past years — LSU is a first-time playoff participant and a relatively fresh face — but the more things change, the more they stay the same. Monday night’s national championship game between LSU and Clemson is the fifth-straight between two teams from the South.1 Once again, blue-chip recruits, dynamic spread offenses and elite quarterbacks ruled the season.
Though Ohio State came close in an exciting national semifinal, it’s hard to argue with the bona fides of the 14-0 championship opponents. With a win, either one would have a compelling case for the title of greatest college football team of all time. Both won their semifinals in different but impressive fashion. And with an unusual 16 days between semifinals and final, both are healthy.2 All of that means we’re in for one of the best possible matchups between two top-ranked units: LSU’s stunning offense, led by Heisman Trophy winner Joe Burrow, and Clemson’s always-stingy defense.
One indicator of the consistency in those two units entering Monday: Burrow, who may be wrapping up the best individual season in the history of the sport, has completed at least 70 percent of his passes in every single game this season, against a schedule that included Texas, Florida, Auburn, Alabama, Georgia and Oklahoma. The Clemson defense has not allowed any qualifying quarterback to complete more than 70 percent of his passes in a game since facing Florida State’s EJ Manuel in 2012, Brent Venables’s first season as defensive coordinator. In that 108-game span, the Tigers have faced starters including Tua Tagovailoa, Jalen Hurts (twice), Justin Fields, Jameis Winston, J.T. Barrett, Ian Book, Baker Mayfield and Lamar Jackson (twice).
As for Burrow, the breakout star has been so consistent in his record-breaking completion percentage that 70 percent might as well be called the Burrow line. He’s above that marker in every quarter, play-action or not, under pressure or not, against the blitz or not, against man or zone. Considering that completion rate and the fact that most of Burrow’s pass attempts (280 of 478, or 58.6 percent) travel 5 or more yards past the line of scrimmage, the rhythm is difficult to interrupt. Burrow hasn’t been immune to the pass rush — he has faced pressure on 32.9 percent (167 of 507 dropbacks) — but it almost doesn’t matter. He has a 73.9 percent completion rate and 11.3 yards per attempt against pressure and a 79.1 percent completion rate and 10.7 yards per attempt with no pressure. He leads the country in pass efficiency against the blitz (212.7).
That’s bad news for Clemson, which is blitzing more often than it ever has with Venables as the coordinator (38.7 percent of 463 dropbacks), in large part because the Tigers don’t have the three first-round NFL draft picks they had on the defensive line last season. But when they don’t blitz, opponents are no better off than when they do: They have achieved a 97.0 pass efficiency against the blitz versus 95.9 against no blitz. They also mask defenses well, playing about 50 percent zone, 25 percent man coverage and 25 percent Cover 0 or Cover 1.3
By now, LSU’s offensive transformation is no secret. Burrow has laid it out in press conferences before. “It’s getting 5 yards on a route every play and making them defend every single person,” he said last week. “Anybody can get the ball on any play.” In putting five receivers in coverage on every snap, rather than holding back an extra blocker, the Tigers open themselves up to more pressure but make their passing attack lethal and zone coverage difficult. A preview in The Athletic quoted an anonymous SEC defensive coordinator: “You have to defend five guys in routes on every play. Not a zone exists that allows for that. Which means you better be able to get rush with four and be able to play man to man.”
In discussing LSU’s offense, Clemson All-American safety Tanner Muse said Burrow and his receivers can make defenders “look like clowns trying to cover everyone.” But Clemson’s top five pass-defenders — four defensive backs and first-team All-American linebacker Isaiah Simmons — have each started every game this season and might represent the team’s best defense against five pass-catching options. The Tigers’ depth in the secondary means their defense holds up well against deep passes such as those that LSU used to burn Oklahoma. Clemson leads the country in opposing raw QBR on passes of 20 air yards or more, and Venables’s defense ranks eighth in opposing pass efficiency on such throws.
In the end, this is truly a matchup of strength versus strength. This is not LSU’s best defense of the decade, but as its offense goes, so goes the team. Clemson’s defense can shift the balance in their favor or, as happened in the Peach Bowl, Burrow can make sure the other side of the ball doesn’t matter.
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