Updated: May 23
FRAGILE DESTINY PT. I (OF II)
by LONN PHILLIPS SULLIVAN
(originally published 1/8/2020)
Only a weekend to go until the 2020 National Championship game kicks off between LSU and Clemson in the heart of New Orleans...and none of us can wait. Without a doubt, these are the two best teams in college football, as you can tell by the trail of blood, loose teeth, and the rest of Division I's emasculated pride left tattered in their wake... However, after weeks of film study, we're still just as perplexed and as bamboozled by these two great teams as you are, but one thing we know for sure: We'll be watching the two fastest, most aggressive, and balls-to-the-wall (PC heart attack?) teams in their divine element: dancing with the devil in the pale moonlight to see who'll have to change their pants first. Yeah, that's right: LSU v Clemson will be better than Texas vs USC, it'll be crazier than the first two Clemson-'Bama tilts, and it'll topple the raucous overtime chess match drama of Miami-Ohio State and UGA-'Bama. This battle between LSU and Clemson will surely be the most fun we've experienced in college football in a long time, with no more chastising looks from Saban after a 45-41 shootout or dealing with Kirby Smart's pathetic insecurity after his team chokes another title away, it'll just be the two best teams in college football duking it out for the ultimate bragging rights. Due to their supposed equal footing, whoever wins must take it from the other, and that intrepid desperation (bordering on animalistic madness) will set the stage for a gnashing of teeth at the Superdome...only the strong surviving.
During Monday night's quest for blood and bone, proceedings will get biblical as we witness two of the best quarterbacks you'll ever see leading their tremendously successful offenses against the most well-coached, versatile, and talented defenses around: In suspended animation, we'll look on as Clyde Edwards-Helaire and Travis Etienne both set the field afire with their all-encompassing Marshall Faulk-isms, and wonder in awe at the bevy of world class receivers: the unstoppable Ja'Marr Chase, the uncoverable Justin Jefferson, and the matchup equivalent of Kevin Spacey's basement when facing Thaddeus Moss or Tee Higgins. LSU & Clemson are also employing the strongest pair of coaching staffs in the country and to top the occasion off, the Tigers and the "Tigers" are without a doubt the two loudest, most extreme fan bases in all of collegiate sports...and they'll have the rest of this week to get themselves ripped to the tits until they're ready to provide a truly electric atmosphere. But let's get one thing straight here from the very beginning: there's a lot more on the line than a national championship trophy... After Monday night, each team could seal their place in the history books as the greatest college football team of all time: Dabo's Clemson are going for consecutive titles (first team since Alabama in 2011-2012) and an unforeseen, unbelievable fourth in five years; Meanwhile, LSU are pushing to crown the greatest single season in program, SEC, and college football history, facing their NCAA-record 7th top 10 team when they square off against Clemson;
Coach O will do everything in his power to make damn sure seniors Joe Burrow, Rashard Lawrence, Kristian Fulton and Michael Divinity Jr go out in a tangle of on-field glory, champagne-doused Tom Rinaldi histrionics, and cigar-sparking catharsis. The gritty Coach O looks to restore the Tigers as a perennial powerhouse, and the experience these freshmen and sophomores (Stingley, Emery Jr, Brooks, Davis-Price, Chase, Chaisson) gain from a title game, combined with LSU's recent high quality recruitment, indicates the heavy possibility of an Orgeron-led Bayou Bengals' dynasty in the SEC. Not to make it all about one guy, but LSU's Joe Burrow is the heartbeat, the pulse, and the brain behind this team's mentality and their unbelievable performances. He's enjoying a season for the ages, one that'll long be remembered no matter what the outcome on Monday. We need to just stop and appreciate #9 and take this in for a moment...drop the jaded bullshit and actually process what this young man has accomplished...I'm warning you, the following does read like a Tom Brady wet dream: Jeaux leads the nation in touchdowns (SEC record 55), completion percentage (an atrociously filthy 77.6%), while ranking 2nd in passing yards (5,208); Burrow's on a 17-game streak where he's posted 20+ completions while leading LSU to 40+ points on 11 different occasions in 2019; he's even driven the Tigers once-archaic offense down the field faster than a booty call with Tiger Woods, scoring in 53 out of the last 56 quarters...we always knew Joe was a proponent of a "wham! Bam! Thank you, ma'am" offense, but this was something far more elaborate, amusing and mythical altogether. Joe's bloodlust only increased. Burrow went one step closer to Hannibal comparisons after he cannibalized Oklahoma, the Heisman-winner dropping the mic, picking it up again and deciding to just go off and commit a heinous massacre on national television.
Joe's intense Tom Berenger-isms were all a pointed response after he cried for the first time in a decade on the Heisman stage, and showed the world his "Mr. Joe Nice" side for the last month....all he received in return was the tag "Heisman curse" or rather scandalously: "Heisman bust"... No more Mr. Joe Nice: The Heisman winner has evolved into Cutthroat Joe, the most punishing, aggressive quarterback in the game...and he's not stopping until he has a national championship. Even at this very moment, Joe is alone, standing in a locked, pitch black room somewhere holding a football and staring at the wall...frothing at the mouth for show time. There can only be one suitable finale for this type of bottled lightning: How would Kurt Warner's 1999 St. Louis Rams be remembered without that hard-fought championship?
Without his Super Bowl in 2009, Drew Brees would have by far and away the most disappointing career of any quarterback, all time; If you take away the 2005 BCS National Championship game (which the NCAA did) Pete Carroll and Ed Orgeron's USC have nothing to show for their mid-2000s dynasty. Though his entire college career could be up to a bed-wetter's debate if LSU were to lose, Joe won't pass up a moment such as this to shower his teammates and the fans in the hard-earned rewards of a long run to glory. Glimpsing beyond the clapped dust of the record books, we can also forecast the impact this game will have on recruiting, specifically in expanding Clemson's currently-limited reach into Texas, Arkansas, & Mississippi, or, if LSU win, the victory enhances and affirms Coach O's national grasp. Heading into this title game, Clemson currently boast a team full of young 5-star talent, most of them already wearing a championship ring on their fingers; in addition to this young (yet experienced) unit, the Clemson staff of Swinney, Venables, Elliott and Scott have been able to haul in the #1 ranked recruiting class coming into next season, beating out LSU, Alabama and UGA's big signing days. However much they may look and act like Jerry Springer's bouncers, if Swinney, Venables and their staff were to pull off a stunning victory against the greatest offense college football has ever seen, it would undoubtedly have positive, wide-ranging effects for Clemson's national recruiting map in the years to come. More than any of the banal storylines swirling around this fantastically poised contest, we think the game's unpredictability is at the top of the list.
There is no right or wrong way to eat this Reese's, yet things become a kick in the crotch when predicting this game. There's almost no way in hell to foresee how Clemson's dynamic, mostly untroubled talents will ball against LSU's battle-tested freight train. But after weeks of film study, one thing has become all too apparent: these are the two fastest and most athletic squads in the country, on both sides of the ball. The speed of both defenses allows them to "disguise" their blitzes, usually from Venables and Aranda instructing guys like Simmons, Wallace, or Grant Delpit / Jacoby Stevens to spy in on each quarterback and either react, blitz the quarterback or follow coverage responsibilities in motion if necessary. This "hesitating blitz" scheme provides a variety of challenges to both Trevor Lawrence or Joe Burrow, while keeping either line bullied, bloodied and bashed in the trenches. Crucially, one of these "hesitating blitzes" could create the precious turnover(s) in this game for either defense.
Which is exactly what Monday night could all come down to: one turnover...one bulleted pass...one brilliant catch...one future pariah's drop...or, as Ohio State found out in the harshest way, one call...one review can take it all out of your hands and leaving you begging on your knees like Nicolas Cage for a drop of scotch after they take the home. There's a lot to get into...so instead of going on and on about the season Joe Burrow's had or the remarkable, historic, orgasmic performances he's spat out game after game after game in 2019, and in lieu of rambling about what you already know about Trevor Lawrence and his national title and his fantastic Tom Brady Ducking Ability, we're going to go beyond the headlines and get down to the real nitty gritty, with Pt.I focusing on LSU's much-maligned defense vs Tony Elliott and Jeff Scott's deceptively complex offense.
LSU DEFENSE VS CLEMSON OFFENSE
All we've heard about LSU's defense is how much they'll struggle, how many yards they'll surrender, and how susceptible they are to big plays. We've seen a lot of disrespect aimed towards the LSU defense with many pundits naively questioning whether they'd be able to clamp down on Jalen Hurts and Oklahoma. But they shut the Skip Bayless's of the world up for good when they put the former Alabama QB in a vice-grip he was never getting out of: LSU's stingy defense bullied the Sooners, surrendering a paltry 7 points until the game was far out of reach, only letting Hurts and co surpass 20 in the hazy aftermath of Ensminger and Brady'$ offense dropping 56... And that's exactly what's been hard for the talking heads to statistically quantify. In a world where we let stats dictate the story of the game, we trick ourselves into believing we don't even need to watch the games to understand what happened, and we can catch these people in the act when they review LSU's defense.
Barring their games against Auburn and the second half against Alabama, LSU's high-octane offense has ran every other team off the field before the contests had even begun, while Aranda's defense rested their badly injured starters or were forced into prevent formations as guys played hurt... You can't simply look at the 38 points LSU allowed vs Vanderbilt and say "woah, they done got gassed by Vandy" (LSU were up 45-17 with 11 minutes left in the 3rd, also 14 of Vandy's points were from defensive scores) or the 20 allowed to Arkansas (LSU were up 49-6 in the 4th), you can't just point to the 28 LSU gave OU in the midst of a titanic blowout: there's an overall picture of Dave Aranda's hard-hitting, veteran defense that gleams more to reality. We'll start with the positives, since we're all about positivity:
Aranda's defense is full of supreme speed alongside extreme athleticism and aggression, all components of a versatile unit capable of defending any kind of team during a variety of situations. They've been stout in the red zone, unflappable on key 3rd downs, and have been devastating to an opposing offense's efficiency. The LSU defense is also incredibly deep. While they were beaten up badly on the big play throughout the season, they were also hampered by significant injuries in key areas; for example, safety Grant Delpit and defensive end Rashard Lawrence each played on one ankle until after the Ole Miss game. Yet in spite of all these injuries to their best players, Dave Aranda's defense is gaining in health, depth, and in play-making within their ranks at the right time.
Not only are freshmen Marcel Brooks and Derek Stingley Jr playing high quality minutes, we've seen a resurgent sophomore K'Lavon Chaisson performing at his optimum, in addition to the recovered leaders Lawrence and Delpit. Elsewhere, chief defensive senior Michael Divinity Jr returns after a saga that's been kept under wraps from the national and local media.
Divinity Jr led LSU in sacks through the first section of the schedule before leaving the team, citing "personal reasons" in the build-up to the Alabama game. To his credit, Divinity stayed with his teammates, coaching the defense up on the sidelines, and still wearing his uniform. Ever the motivator, Orgeron will be counting on him to atone for his lost season. Being able to call upon such a leader, on-field organizer, and talent as Divinity is storybook stuff for defensive coordinator Dave Aranda and all LSU fans:
This is a senior in his last stand, playing in front of his hometown crowd...count on him to display the poise and emotion that made him a cornerstone throughout his LSU career. His long road back culminates on Monday night as #45 will play his best game in the purple and gold. Another under the radar lineman is Tyler Shelvin, another one of the many massive linemen Aranda could deploy against Clemson's fantastic offense. Shelvin is a perfect weapon to clog Trevor Lawrence's passing lanes and force Etienne to remain patient as one hole collapses after another...Shelvin may also be a guy Venables doesn't have much tape of. Which brings us to Sunshine, aka Clemson's long-haired, big-jawed, moonface quarterback, who's also sporting a sizable buttchin.
Trevor Lawrence is indeed a specimen: he's just as comfortable scrambling for 60 yards as he is ripping a bong at Burning Man, with his feet and size consistently bailing him out of trouble; it's this unpredictability which pushes Clemson to even greater heights and makes this game a pain in the ass to forecast. The near-sexual manner in which Dabo's then-freshman dispatched Alabama in last year's national championship game and the sophomore's historic 29-0 undefeated start to his college career was all you needed to see and hear to respect Lawrence. But after the run he sprang through the displaced teeth of Ohio State, he's alerted us all to his deceptive speed, power and agility we need to be wary of as well. There's a lot more to raining all over Sunshine's creampuff parade than stopping him through the air. As if he couldn't seem anymore untouchable, Lawrence hasn't lost a game (college or high school) since November 17th 2017 going 81-2 with 3 overall titles. A quarterback with that size, step and ability to extend the play is a rare talent that's damn near impossible to stop, just look at what Aaron Rodgers has been able to do in the NFL: now imagine a raw version of Rodgers executing his usual play-extension, but he's 6'6, 200+ pounds... With Trevor Lawrence's arm, his IQ, his strength and hulking build, he's a monster to stop. So how does LSU stop Trevor Lawrence? 1. HIT HIM...REALLY F#*%KIN HARD!
It may sound ruthless, but this is about a national championship, and there are no seats reserved for the feint of heart. For LSU's defense to provide Joe Burrow exactly what he needs to put up points, they must lay the wood on Lawrence time and time again. Enter stage left, already hitting me as I type this, LSU's freshman safety #9 Marcel Brooks. The speedy paintrain's a vicious, versatile DB/LB who hunts with a hardcore hit and a mean, speedy blitz, just as he displayed on some huge plays against Oklahoma.
Watch for Aranda to blitz Brooks from his secondary position around the edge, hoping to take a shot at the young quarterback...and hopefully Trevor won't duck too far...or he may just get his head taken off....Brooks doesn't play around. Although blitzing and containing Lawrence is easier said than done: Just like Joe Burrow, Clemson's quarterback often looks more comfortable when the play itself breaks down and he's forced to scramble and extend. Shutting plays down and anticipating Lawrence's next target or outlet option is huge...and there's no bigger escape valve than Travis Etienne. 2. TO STOP LAWRENCE, YOU MUST ALSO STOP ETIENNE
Shutting down Lawrence's effectiveness relies solely on his favorite target, no...not Tee Higgins or Justyn Ross, we're talking LSU recruiting target, Travis Etienne. Last time out, Ohio State dismantled Etienne in the backfield, surrendering 36 yards on 10 carries. However, the severity of Travis's dual threat capabilities stood out in the semi-final as he busted two long TD receptions to the house. To stop Etienne's ability to break it wide in the screen game, Dave Aranda must position his strong tackling corners and hard-hitting safeties slightly wider of the tight bunch formations Clemson use. LSU must learn to live with some 5 or 6 yard gains, but what they cannot do is over-commit in the blitz or get stretched out wide and give up a massive hole in behind for Etienne to gash. At nearly 8 yards per rush, Travis Etienne is going to get his, but what Aranda's guys should realistically aim for is limiting his effectiveness after the first hit and jam him off his rub routes in the backfield, delaying his movement. This is why the wider positioning of LSU's corners or safeties outside of Clemson's formation is most key:
If Clemson begin motioning Etienne out of the backfield or sending receivers from one side of this bunch formation to the other, then the corner will follow, while the responsibility to come up and stay home out wide rests with the safety. This is why the versatility of LSU's secondary is so important in stopping, or at best limiting a machine like Travis Etienne. Another wrinkle offensive coordinators Tony Elliott and Jeff Scott exploited to devastating effect vs Ohio State: the RPO quarterback keeper. Don't let the blonde hair fool you, Sunshine's fully aware of LSU's newfound respect for his supernatural ability in between the tackles, and if he notices an enlarged gap in between the safeties and linebackers, he'll try to execute the RPO with Etienne. This dual rushing threat could absolutely wear down and suffocate LSU's defense early if Clemson's RPO action can get going, draining the clock and in the process, keeping the big bodies of Aranda's front seven on the field and Burrow on the sidelines. 3. LSU's DEFENSIVE LINE MUST WIN IN THE TRENCHES
The mass and size of LSU's D-line is off the charts and ever since the debacle against Ole Miss, Dave Aranda has found a better scheme that'll allow LSU to strut their stuff and throw their weight around. After the debacle vs Ole Miss and John Rhys Plummlee, Aranda switched from his three nose-tackle look to a four-man set-up across the front, and ever since then, the overall improvement in the LSU defense is night and day. Lately, Aranda is utilizing Chaisson in the manner he was always meant to be used (injuries have prevented him from this previously): in the last four games, we've seen Chaisson ghosting as an extra linebacker or hugging the line of scrimmage; while the big boys push Clemson's offensive line around, they'll create lanes for the future NFL pass-rusher to attack around the edge. The new "jumbo nose-tackle" formation is a big boost for K'Lavon, helping the versatile rusher post a whopping 20 tackles, 4.5 sacks and 3 assisted tackles in the last 4 games, including his blistering and disruptive display vs Oklahoma, which began with his brutal sack on Hurts.
Also along that battering ram front is Tyler Shelvin, a big #72 who's sneaky quick athleticism coupled with his unhinged motor, threatens to blow up Clemson's RPO game in the Superdome. Elsewhere, there's senior Rashard Lawrence, a real LSU warrior playing in his last stand as well; if you've ever watched Rashard play over his epic Tigers career, you'll know the man is going to be moving mountains on the defensive front against Clemson...there may not be a more beastly or unheralded pass-rusher in the game. There's also the aforementioned Michael Divinity Jr as well as Neil Farrell Jr and Glen Logan, all top notch options who'll be working on their craft every Sunday in the near future, should they so choose. Why am I just listing the names of LSU's options at defensive line? Because these are the names of the men who'll dominate the line of scrimmage on Monday night. 4. TURNOVERS
For all the critics of the Tigers' defense, some numbers and their context may surprise you...but for those who've been watching LSU football all season, this won't: Aranda's defense has forced 21 turnovers (17 INT, 9 FF, 4 REC), supplying Joe Burrow and his high-octane offense with easier scores thanks to the dangerous field position. Additionally, this unit grabbed multiple turnovers in 7 different games this season, including 5 in the last two games. In these post-turnover situations, LSU's offense is damn near automatic, scoring 86 points off turnover and only failing to score after a turnover on 3 occasions. An early turnover would potentially jettison LSU to the finish line. 5.
This is where Clemson's outstanding wide receivers must be given their due. We've discussed the danger of Etienne in space at length, however Clemson wide receivers always seem to rise to the occasion in these CFP games. Justyn Ross and Tee Higgins each have had illustrious collegiate careers, appearing in their second consecutive title game as a receiving duo, and outside of the turnover battle, there's no bigger indicator of a Clemson victory than yards after catch. This pair of receivers are highly skilled ball-winners with speed and length: Justyn Ross has torn off 7 games with at least one 30+ yard catch and Tee Higgins packs 10 on his 2019 resume, each receiver registering a season-high gain of 50+ yards multiple times. In space, with separation, Higgins and Ross can make you pay, dominating the ball in the air with their length. It'll be an intriguing contest out wide between Higgins and Ross vs LSU's Stingley, Fulton and Vincent, though if there's a weakness to this Clemson offense, it's in their passing game. All in all, Aranda's defense won't completely shut Clemson down, but with their 2nd ranked opponent completion percentage and their speedy tackling in space, they can more than limit Trevor Lawrence's effectiveness. Next we'll be detailing Joe Burrow and the legendary LSU offense taking on Brent Venables' defense, the real puzzling questions, and the prediction. JOIN US! by LONN PHILLIPS SULLIVAN LSU V CLEMSON "MAIN COURSE" PT. II VERY SOON! GEAUXTIGERS!