Photo courtesy of LSU Athletics
The Tigers that play their home games at a place affectionately known as “Death Valley” are your 2019 national champions. Take it to the bank.
The only question is, “Which one?”
No. 1 LSU and No. 3 Clemson will meet two weeks from Monday in New Orleans. The match-up itself isn’t a huge shock. The path however, was fairly different for each team. That may not have been truer than in Saturday’s semifinals.
In the Peach Bowl, LSU dominated from the start, stomping No. 4 Oklahoma, 63-28. LSU quarterback and Heisman Trophy winner Joe Burrow accounted for more than 400 yards passing by halftime. By the 10-minute mark in the third quarter, he’d accumulated eight total touchdowns.
Playing in the SEC, LSU carried the weight of a juggernaut throughout the course of the season. Sure, there were close games. By mid-October, we all knew the Tigers were a legitimate playoff contender. The Tigers knocked off six ranked teams in their 14 games – all of which were ranked in the Top 10 at the time.
Burrow and his outstanding team of skill players were unstoppable. LSU failed to score 36 points only once. The Tigers won shootouts over then #9 Texas, #7 Florida and #3 Alabama. The question was never the offense. The question was if the defense could find consistency. They gave up 38 points to Texas and Vanderbilt, 41 to ‘Bama, and 37 to Ole Miss. But the defense hit their stride down the stretch, allowing only 37 combined points in their 3 games before the semifinal. That includes their 37-10 beatdown of playoff-hopeful Georgia in the SEC Championship. On Saturday, an Oklahoma team that came in averaging more than 43 points per contest was held to 28 points – with half of those coming in garbage time in the second half.
Despite being the reigning national champs, Dabo Swinney’s Clemson team played the underdog role all year long. Although Clemson has beaten national powers recently, the verdict was still out on this year’s Tiger squad.
Playing in a maligned ACC, the Tigers didn’t defeat a ranked team during its 12-game regular season schedule. The first ranked opponent came in the ACC Championship in now 9-5 Virginia. Clemson passed that test with flying colors in a 62-17 rout.
Despite their competition, Clemson did feel resistance in a wake-up call. Against North Carolina in Chapel Hill in late September, the Tigers stopped a 2-point conversion with just over a minute to play to stave off the Tar Heels, 21-20. From that point forward, Clemson didn’t play a game decided by fewer than 31 points — until Saturday.
Now on a 29-game winning streak, Clemson quickly found itself down 16-0 against Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl. Defensive coordinator Brent Venables’ unit bent early, but it would not break, forcing the Buckeyes to settle for three red zone field goals.
Behind the arm and legs of quarterback Trevor Lawrence and running back Travis Etienne, the Tigers seized momentum before halftime with two touchdowns in a 95-second stretch to make it a 16-14 game at the break. Clemson would find good fortune in a questionable targeting call, a roughing the punter and an Ohio State defensive touchdown overturned by replay, but when it was time to make a play, the Tigers were up to the task.
With less than three minutes to play and the ball at their own 6-yard line, Lawrence and Etienne showed why they have the attention of so many NFL scouts. Clemson drove 94 yards in four plays, as Lawrence connected on throws of 11, 38 and a 34-yard touchdown strike to Etienne to go with an 11-yard run.
Ohio State marched inside Clemson’s 25-yard-line on the game’s decisive drive, but safety Nolan Turner intercepted Ohio State’s Justin Fields to preserve the 29-23 victory. The win sends Clemson to its fourth National Championship appearance in five years.
Death Valley Matchup
The January 13th showdown in New Orleans will feature two heavyweight teams who had different paths to the College Football Playoff. Swinney looks to win his third national championship in four years, surpassing coaching greats like Bobby Bowden, Pete Carroll, Joe Paterno and Bob Davaney. LSU’s Ed Orgeron had a losing record when he was tabbed to lead the Tigers midway through the 2016 season. That’s not shaping up to be a decision that anyone in Baton Rouge regrets.