If we’re lucky, the college football season ends with a championship game between teams shaped from the same mold, offensively gifted, defensively tenacious, confident in their own abilities.
On Monday night in New Orleans, that’s exactly what we’ll get when LSU and Clemson, both undefeated, both in their prime, go at each other in a game what will be appointment television at its best.
Even better, it will feature at least a dozen certain NFL draft picks, led by Heisman Trophy winner Joe Burrow, LSU’s sensational quarterback. If all goes well, the Cincinnati Bengals will take him with the first overall pick.
Still, Clemson’s sophomore quarterback, Trevor Lawrence, probably would be the first player taken if he was eligible. At 6-feet-6, with a cannon arm and the ability to scamper from the pocket, he is already the quintessential pro, a potential franchise guy in a league that honors their QBs.
If there is an advantage, it might go to LSU because it’s located about two hours by car from New Orleans. Their fans will certainly fill the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, giving the Tigers their support as they try to win their first national championship since 2007.
Of course, Clemson is the defending national champion. It will try to win its 30th straight game and its third title in four seasons. And apparently Clemson will play with a major chip on its shoulder, the feeling many fans in the nation want to see it toppled.
“It’s like everybody hating on the Patriots,” Clemson safety K’Von Wallace told ESPN. “People are tired of seeing consistent winners, they always want to see new winners or somebody who makes a miraculous turnaround in their program. They don’t want the same ending of Clemson national championship, Clemson national championship.”
But let’s talk sexy, the Burrow-Lawrence matchup. Some say it will be the greatest QB dual since the 2006 Rose Bowl when USC’s Matt Leinhart took on Vince Young of Texas.
“I think it’s fantastic,” LSU coach Ed Orgeron said. “It just goes to show you. If you to want to play for the championship, you have to have a great quarterback.
Burrow, who has thrown for 5,208 yards and 55 touchdowns this season, is coming off one of the greatest performances in the sport’s history. Against Oklahoma in the Peach Bowl, he threw seven first-half touchdowns, setting a College Football Playoff record. He ended with 493 passing yards, the third time he’d thrown for over 470 this season. And he’s incredibly hot right now – 17 TDs and no interceptions in last four games.
Earlier this week, Burrow admitted LSU’s offense had borrowed liberally from the one the New Orleans Saints have developed for Drew Brees.
“Yeah, I’ve studied that offense all off-season. That’s basically what we do. We do a lot of the same stuff,” Burrow said. “So yeah, I watched a lot of Drew, a lot of the Saints in the off-season to kind of figure out his footwork and his eyes, certain concepts.”
Lawrence, with 3,431 yards passing and 36 TDs, led his Tigers to their semifinal win over Ohio State by using his legs as much as is arm, scampering for a 67-yard TD run just before halftime.
“To me, I live for games like this. I love playing in these big games where everyone’s watching,” Lawrence said.
And then he led his team on a four-play, 98-drive in just 78 seconds that led to the game-winning touchdown.
“Most fun game I’ve ever been a part of,” Lawrence said. “I’ll do whatever it takes to win.”
Clemson coach Dabo Swinney knows Lawrence has the NFL watching, but he didn’t want to speculate on what his quarterback’s future might be like.
“If it’s God’s plan for them to go play in the NFL, well, hey, that’s going to happen. … I just talk about they’re going to be better if they come in and they put their head down and they go to work,” Swinney said. “I don’t promise anybody anything. These guys will tell you that. I recruit everybody the same. … The NFL stuff, that’s not something that I spend hardly any time talking about it until it comes time for some of these guys to have to make decisions, and I try to help them have good and accurate information so they can make solid decisions for their future.”
Burrow and Lawrence know each other well, having met years ago at the Manning Quarterback Camp.
“Yeah, we got to spend some time together. That was a fun week,” Burrow said. “We got to spend time with a lot of quarterbacks around the country. He’s a super fluid guy for how big he is. He’s fun to watch. You can tell he’s a great competitor, tough guy. I respect those kind of guys.”
But while the rest of the national might be captivated by the Burrow-Lawrence matchup, Burrow says he’ll have more important things to do than keep track of Lawrence’s stats.
“We’re focused on going up against the defense and trying to beat what they throw at us,” Burrow said. “So I’ll watch our defense out there and obviously watch the game, but we’re focused on going up against their defense.
“I think our team as a whole is playing our best football. Our defense has become one of the best in the country, and they’ve worked really hard to get there. I think as an offense obviously there’s still some room to improve, but I think we’re very explosive right now, and our O-line is playing their best ball of the season.”
Burrow and Lawrence each have a corps of great receivers. LSU has Ja’Marr Chase (75 receptions, 1,559 yards, 18 TDs) the Biletnikoff Award winner as the nation’s top wideout. But it also has versatile Justin Jefferson (102 receptions, 1,434 yards, 18 TDs) who has four TD catches – and 14 receptions for 227 yards – against Oklahoma.
Lawrence’s top weapons certainly are Tee Higgins (56 catches, 1,115 yards, 13 TDs) and Justyn Ross (61 catches, 789 yards, eight TDs). But he also loves to throw to Clemson’s top halfback, Trevor Etienne, who had 98 receiving yards an two TDs against Ohio State. From Louisiana, he chose Clemson over LSU.
“You’ve to win the game,” Orgeron said. “You’ve come this far, you’ve got to win the game. There’s nothing else to even think about.”