In the battle of Death Valley Tigers in Monday night’s national championship game, it is one team that has reinvented itself over the last two years against another that knows who it is and has owned it for years. It’s Clemson versus LSU for the 2019 season national championship. Which team has an edge? Any edge? Thursday we looked at the perspective from LSU. In this piece, we will take a look at the game from the Clemson Sidelines.
Much of the story line on the national landscape this season has been that Clemson does not look as dominant as in the past, or as people expected. The ACC was a dumpster fire much of the season. The one real showdown that was expected was in week two against Texas A&M. The Tigers won it convincingly, 24-10. It turned out the only real regular season challenge came in Chapel Hill, when a missed two-point conversion by North Carolina in the closing minute secured Clemson’s one-point win. Looking in the rearview mirror, as we get to do at the end of the season, it turns out UNC’s Sam Howell is an amazing freshman quarterback, and maybe we should not be so shocked by the Tar Heels hanging so close with Clemson.
Still, the knock on Clemson was that they cruised through an easy schedule, and the stats back some of that up. But there was more. The pundits said Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence did not look as sharp as he did last season. He struggled early with turnovers. He finished the season with eight interceptions, double his 2018 number. But as the season progressed, so did Lawrence. He now has 201 consecutive passes without a pick.
Taking Care Of Business
The fact is Clemson took care of the games in front of them. Is the ACC a wreck right now? Yes. The SEC was always accused of being top heavy, but it is nothing like the current incarnation of the ACC. This is Clemson and then everyone else. The ACC is 3-6 in non-playoff post season playoff this season. But just how much do you punish Clemson for this? They did what was asked of them. They won. The Tigers have won 29 straight games and are looking for their third national title in four years.
Lawrence threw for more yards (3,431), and touchdowns, (36), than he did in 2018 when he was lauded as a future multiple Heisman winner. He also threw at a higher completion percentage (67.6) and had more rushing touchdowns (eight), than he did last season.
Running back Travis Etienne did not have the statistical year that he did last year. He was down in total yards and touchdowns. But he was also more valuable as a receiver out of the backfield with 396 yards and 4 touchdowns through the air.
Clemson’s defense, despite losing several standouts from last year to the NFL, remained second in the country in yards allowed. The Tigers gave up only 264 yards per game. They were also the top scoring defense in the country, giving up an average of 11.5 points per game.
Why The Detractors?
The critics, who point to the easy schedule, will rightfully say the Clemson defense struggled against Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl. The Tigers had to play a real team. They gave up season highs in points (23), total yards (516), rushing yards (196), and passing yards (320), as they faced the best team they have seen all year. Clemson needed to come back from 16 down to win the semi-final game.
But they did what they needed to do as they have all season long. Lawrence makes Clemson a favorite every week, up until this game. LSU is a five-and-a-half-point favorite as of publication. And Etienne, while not having the production he did in 2018, can break open a game.
So, where does the nay saying come from? Quite often from within Clemson itself. Head coach Dabo Swinney has built an undeniable juggernaut. He has also created an aura of trying to make it Clemson versus The World each week. The Clemson nation made it a routine to claim they are underappreciated by the national college football pundits and the media. Swinney frequently said his players were shortchanged in annual national awards. He alleged that the college football hierarchy did not want to see Clemson back in the playoffs, and thus would tinker with the rankings if need be. Much like most everything Swinney proselytizes about, the fan base bought in when it came to feeling their Tigers were unbeloved by the college football world.
As someone who votes for an All-American team, as well as on two panels for a couple of major national awards, the Clemson players were right where they needed to be. Linebacker Isaiah Simmons and offensive lineman John Simpson made multiple All-American teams. Simmons also won the Butkus Award as the best linebacker in the country. Etienne was frequently a second team All American running back. In a year of Jonathan Taylor, AJ Dillon, Chuba Hubbard, and J.K. Dobbins, Etienne got more than enough credit for his numbers. The “woe is us” routine has struck pollsters, voters, and national fans alike as an odd stance that really has no geographic legs outside of Clemson itself.
Know Thy Self
As for the team, it is exactly where it belongs; in the national championship game. Even while struggling against a dynamic Ohio State offense in the semi-final game, defensive coordinator Brent Venables summoned some of his best work of the year. Say what you want about the schedule. Goodness knows we have. They have supplanted Alabama as the dominant program in college football in the here and now.
Clemson has been an underdog twice in the last two years. Monday’s game and last year’s national championship, which they won 44-16 over the Tide. They will go in with a decided advantage over the Tigers from the Bayou. They have been there and done that. Nothing that happens with the hoopla, media obligations or other circus-like elements surrounding the game is going to phase them. It will be all about getting the 30th win a row and then sticking their collective tongues out at the rest of the doubting nation.