Why Clemson Will Beat LSU

Mercedes Superdome
Mercedes Superdome

You have seen this movie before – no, not Clemson playing LSU for the national championship (that’s new), but an outstanding offense against a formidable defense with a high-level defensive coordinator. An awesome, overwhelming, beautiful, loaded offense with a Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback goes against a rugged and resilient defense on the biggest stage in the sport.

By Matt Zemek

The defense doesn’t always win, but it often does.

LSU knows what this feels like, too… on the winning side.

Recall the 2004 Sugar Bowl? Yes, it did help that the Tigers were playing in a very loud and friendly Superdome against Oklahoma, but they still had to go onto the field and shut down 2003 Heisman winner Jason White and the rest of a superpowered, turbocharged Sooner offense. It was easy to think that after Oklahoma got ambushed by Kansas State in that season’s Big 12 Championship Game, the Sooners would roar back and get it right against LSU.

No, they did not.

Recall, one year earlier, Ohio State containing Miami’s offense in the Fiesta Bowl to win the 2002 BCS national championship. Recall 2000 Florida State getting shut out (on offense – a safety was FSU’s only score) by Oklahoma’s nasty defense in another BCS title game, this time at the Orange Bowl.

CFP Trophy with NOLO backdrop
Courtesy of College Football Playoff
2006 Ohio State versus Florida. 2008 Oklahoma versus Florida and the same defensive coordinator, Charlie Strong, who had smothered the Buckeyes two years earlier.

Yes, sometimes the great offense beats the formidable defense, as was the case when Vince Young dominated USC and Pete Carroll in the second half to lift Texas to a national title. The 2015 and 2016 national championship games were high-scoring affairs in which the defenses were on the run. In the 2018 national title game, however, and in many previous instances this century, we have seen that an elite defense can rise up against a juggernaut offense and throttle it.

Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables, whose unit contained Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl, pulled off an even bigger feat when he made Alabama and Tua Tagovailoa look very mortal in Santa Clara, California. This is Clemson’s best chance to beat LSU in the Superdome and win back-to-back national titles.

Consider this point about LSU: It is not as though it is impossible to contain this offense. Auburn showed the way in late October, punching LSU in the mouth. Auburn might have won that game if it had a decent quarterback, but as it was, Auburn still held LSU to 23 points. If Clemson can do that, it has a great chance to win. It held Ohio State to 23 points in the Fiesta Bowl. Can Clemson do what Auburn did? That doesn’t seem like such an impossible task.

Here is the bigger point about LSU: The Tigers have not come up against many opponents which could consistently pressure Joe Burrow. Oklahoma didn’t lay a glove on Burrow. Georgia very rarely got a finger on Burrow. Clemson, though, got after Justin Fields and won its share of battles against Ohio State’s strong and robust offensive line. If it can do that, it can certainly outplay LSU’s offensive line and plant Burrow on his back.

This game has so many interesting dimensions, but few would dispute the claim that the epicenter of the action is the Clemson pass rush against the LSU offensive line. If Clemson wins that one battle, everything else becomes so much more manageable and realistic for the ACC champions.

Clemson shut down Tua in the second half of last season’s national title game. Shutting down Joe Burrow in the second half of this season’s final act isn’t the impossible task some people might think it is.

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