Thanks to the sheer force of LSU and the resiliency of Clemson, we have the matchup for what promises to be college football’s spectacular National Championship Game on Jan. 13 in New Orleans.
Here’s a look back at two semifinal games that couldn’t have been more different.
Heisman hero leads the way
When you win the Heisman Trophy by the largest margin in history, every move you make during the remainder of your career will be judged alongside the landslide.
It’s just the way the world works. And LSU quarterback Joe Burrow understands that.
Saturday’s Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl against Oklahoma was Burrow’s first chance to strike the pose since winning the Heisman. And his performance was epic.
Burrow threw seven touchdown passes – in the first half – and scored an eighth with his legs to lead the Tigers to comprehensive 63-28 dismantling of Oklahoma.
Not only were Burrow’s eight TDs the most ever scored in one game by an SEC team, there were the most by one player in the history of bowl games.
Those who thought Oklahoma had a chance to win was based on the perception the Sooners’ defense was vastly improved. Too often in their recent history, their capacity to win resulted in the ability of their offense to overcome their program’s defensive deficiencies.
The Tigers never gave Oklahoma quarter Jalen Hurts the chance to keep pace. After the Sooners tied the game at 7-7 in the first quarter, LSU buried them.
LSU had 21 points by the end of the first quarter, then added four more TDs before halftime. They scored TDs on seven consecutive drives. The nation’s top offense was operating in warp speed and it ended up with 692 total yards.
“We go into every game saying that we’re going to throw the ball,” Burrow said. “That’s just who we are. We got a great offensive line that gives me time back there and I think you’ve seen our receivers. They’re pretty good.”
In just over three quarters, Burrow completed 29 of 39 passes for 493 yards. His seven touchdown passes in the first half tied Central Michigan’s Cooper Rush – against Western Kentucky in the 2014 Bahamas Bowl – for the most in FBS bowl history.
Burrow and Justin Jefferson combined for four TDs – 19, 35, 42 and 30 – the most by any player, not only in Peach Bowl history, but in any New Year’s Eve Six game or CFP semifinal.
“They certainly made plays, but we gave them a lot of plays with our mistakes.” said Lincoln Riley, Oklahoma’s coach.
There’s more: Burrow is the first player to throw seven touchdowns in a CFP game and the first in SEC history to throw at least five touchdowns in five games of a season.
“We see this every day from him and then the outside is like ‘wow, that’s amazing, that’s amazing,'” LSU linebacker K’Lavon Chaisson told ESPN. “That’s expected from Joe, and the crazy thing is he don’t even make no emphasis on it. He don’t try to put nothing extra on it. He don’t feel his self or try to boost his self anymore. He’s the same way every day and we love it about him.”
Burrow is three touchdown passes shy of tying the FBS single-season record of 58 set by Colt Brennan in 2006.
“There’s still a lot of room to improve. I missed some throws that I usually make today,” Burrow said. I wasn’t quite as sharp as I had been in the past. My receivers bailed me out on a lot of throws. I’m excited to get back to practice and get those things fixed.”
Defending national champions show poise
All season long, Clemson coach Dabo Swinney has told anyone willing to listen his football team was the most underappreciated in the nation.
Swinney was aware playing in the ACC gave cynics cause to claim the Tigers played too soft a schedule to draw comparisons to the top teams in the nation.
So image the snickering that must have been going on after Ohio State built a 16-0 lead in the first half of the PlayStation Fiesta Bowl?
“People have been saying we haven’t played anybody all season,” Clemson receiver Tee Higgins said. “This just shows that we have that dog in us. We have that fight, and we can pull it off playing any team out there.”
You don’t win 29 straight games and perennially put yourself in contention to win championships without the capacity to rise to the occasion against great competition.
And that’s what the Tigers did Saturday night. They cut the lead to 16-14 by halftime and then went on to beat the Buckeyes 29-23 to earn their share of the National Championship Game.
“That’s just our program,” Swinney said. “It’s not just this season. It’s how we’re built.”
Now the Tigers have their chance to become the first back-to-back national champion since Alabama did it in 2011 and 2012.
Clemson’s gumption was on display in the final 3:07 of the game after Ohio State took a 23-21 lead. If there was going to be a comeback it would have to start at the Clemson 6.
Remember something: During his first two seasons, Clemson QB Trevor Lawrence had only once been asked a win a game late in the fourth quarter – this season at North Carolina.
According to the New York Times, Lawrence walked into huddle, told his teammates he loved them and then said: “Let’s go win this thing.”
The Tigers rolled on four-play, 94-yard TD drive capped by a 34-yard completion to Travis Etienne with 1:49 to play.
Lawrence, who passed for 259 yards and was Clemson’s leading rusher with a career-high 107 yards on a career-high 16 carries, had two TD passes in the game. But his most spectacular play was a 67-yard scoring run just before halftime during which he outran the Buckeyes secondary down the sideline into the end zone.
“When you get an opening, you gotta take it,” Clemson’s Amari Rodgers said. “That’s the way this game goes, and we took it. We never doubted that we were going to win this game.”
Ohio State did not just lay down. After Etienne gave Clemson the lead, the Buckeyes drove down field and put themselves into position to score the game-winning touchdown. But a broken route by Chris Olave led to QB Justin Fields throwing a game-ended interception to safety Nolan Turner in the end zone.
“I’m certainly feeling a range of emotions right now,” Ohio State Coach Ryan Day said. “Proud, sad and certainly angry.”