Which Tiger Will Earn Their Stripes?

Which Tiger Will Earn Their Stripes?

NEW YORK, N.Y.- It’s almost here. After what feels like forever and a day since the College Football Playoff semifinal games took place, the national championship is right around the corner. The best matchup we’ve seen both on paper and on the field is set to take place in New Orleans as the top ranked LSU Tigers takes on on the defending champions and third ranked Clemson Tigers. 

So which team has the edge going in? Both have identical 14-0 records and have star power all over the field. Below are three keys for each team on how they can leave New Orleans hoisting the championship trophy.    

Three Keys To A LSU Win:

Touchdowns, Not Field Goals: Watching the Fiesta Bowl easily hammers home this point. Ohio State moved the ball up and down the field against Clemson, but continuously settled for field goals, which kept Clemson around. LSU has to score touchdowns once they get inside the 20, which hasn’t been a problem for them this season. LSU has been deadly in the red zone, owning the most efficient red zone offense in the country, scoring at a 97% clip. The Tigers have entered the red zone 70 times, scoring a touchdown 55 times. This is a trend that must continue, especially considering that LSU has already faced three teams with a better red zone defense than Clemson, which is tied for 16th in the country. Red zone efficiency will be a huge key to this game and is a category that favors LSU.

 

Defensive Confidence: Throughout the year, the Tigers defense has been a question mark and left many, including myself, believing that the defense was holding them back from being a championship level team. Things have changed as LSU has shored up their defense. A big reason for that has been availability, as safety Grant Delpit recovered from an ankle injury, K’Lavon Chaisson is back to 100% and Michael Divinity Jr. will return from suspension to suit up for the Tigers. The narrative has changed dramatically as since the Ole Miss game, where significant doubts that the defense would hold LSU back from winning a national title, the Tigers have allowed just 270.2 yards per game and 14.2 points per game. The Tigers aced their biggest test of the season, holding a potent Oklahoma offense to 200 fewer yards and almost two touchdowns less than their per-game average. The defense is playing with an extreme confidence that will carry into Monday’s game. 

Feed Clyde Edwards-Helaire: The “do it all” back has been virtually unstoppable this season. The Athletic’s Bruce Feldman wrote a great article this week, asking coaches who faced LSU this season how their offense has been so unstoppable. Aside from Burrow, the coaches highlighted Edwards-Helaire as who gives defenses the most problems. The junior running back has rushed for 1,304 yards while adding 50 catches for 399 yards and 17 total touchdowns. Edward-Helaire is a matchup nightmare as he’s a bruiser between the tackles, can speed past linebackers in coverage, run over the cornerbacks who try to tackle him and juke past the safeties that try to corral him. The premier running back should be close to full health after injuring his hamstring in practice leading up to the semifinal game against Oklahoma. If he’s in the mix early and often, it could be a frustrating night for Clemson. 

Three Keys To A Clemson Win:​

Complete Effort: While LSU has played both elite offenses and defenses at different points this season, they have yet to face a team that has both an elite offense and defense. Clemson poses that challenge as their defense is tied for first in the nation in yards per play allowed while the Clemson offense is third in total offense. This balance can put pressure on LSU like they’ve never experienced this season. The best defense against Burrow this season has been offense. While not their specialty, long drives by Clemson can not only can keep the potent LSU offense off the field, but wear down their defense to open up some big plays in the second half. While LSU is more battle tested this season, Clemson has the advantage coming out of that Ohio State game of knowing what it takes to win a game in which all three phases are needed to perform at their highest level. 

Flex Offensive Firepower: Did we all forget that this is the same Clemson offense that shredded Notre Dame and Alabama for a combined 1,020 yards and 74 points in the two Playoff games last year? For all of the hype and attention Burrow and this LSU offense has received, let’s not sleep on this juggernaut of an offense that resides in South Carolina. The Tigers rank third in the country in total yards, fourth in scoring offense and 11th in rushing offense. They have superstars at every level offensively as Trevor Lawrence is the presumed number one pick in the 2021 NFL Draft, Travis Etienne leads the nation at eight yards per carry while both Tee Higgins and Justyn Ross are legitimate No. 1 receivers. LSU has only faced one offense similar to Clemson’s in Alabama and allowed 41 points. LSU has elite offensive talent, but Clemson has a real chance to give the Tigers a taste of their own medicine and put on an offensive explosion in the Superdome. 

Ride The Underdog Wave: Speaking of the Superdome, this national championship game will have a totally different feel than most because of its close proximity to LSU’s campus. Located just over an hour away, New Orleans will be flooded with fans clad in purple and gold. No coach has worked the underdog role more than Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney. Dabo lives to be the underdog and has “Little Ol’ Clemson” playing their best when they have a chip on their shoulder. Already underdogs in terms of the betting line and essentially playing a road game in New Orleans, Dabo gets to fire up the disrespect card one last time this season. 

So Who Gets It Done?

The storybook season for Joe Burrow and LSU is leading me to believe more and more that Monday night in New Orleans will be a coronation for the Tigers. I mean even Hollywood couldn’t even write this script of an Ohio kid transferring in and after a decent first year teams up with a young passing game coordinator to produce the single greatest college football season we’ve ever seen from a player and possibly even a team if they can finish the job. 

What’s made me a believer isn’t Burrow or passing coordinator Joe Brady, but the LSU defense steadily improving and peaking at the right time. This combination of a historic offense coupled with a confident defense is enough for me to drink the kool-aid and believe that LSU will get it done Monday night. 

This Will Be The Greatest College Football Playoff Yet

NEW YORK, N.Y.- The stage is finally set. After months of deliberation and debate, the four teams that will make up the College Football Playoff are set. LSU, Ohio State, Clemson and Oklahoma will all battle it out to hoist the national championship trophy.

The College Football Playoff is in its sixth season and while there have been some exciting games and a few shocking outcomes, we’ve yet to have all three games come down to the wire, pit equally talented teams against each other and have us all walk away feeling like we saw the best three games of the year. Blowouts have unfortunately been commonplace, but this year’s field sets up in a way that could go against the norm.  The 2020 Playoff has all of the necessary ingredients to produce the best one we’ve ever seen in its short existence.

Star Power:

All four teams provide household names even the casual college football fan is familiar with: Joe Burrow. Chase Young. Justin Fields. Jalen Hurts. Trevor Lawrence. Each quarterback has their own case of being the best in the country to go along with the best overall player gives both semifinal matchups a real sexiness. In fact, all four Heisman Trophy contenders are playing in the Playoff: Burrow, Young, Fields and Hurts. This is the first time in the six years of the Playoff that every Heisman finalist is on one of the final four schools remaining.

On top of the great quarterback play, stars fill out every roster of the four teams. Oklahoma has the best receiver in the country in CeeDee Lamb while LSU, Ohio State and Clemson own three of the deepest receiving corps in the country. Isaiah Simmons has emerged as the next great Clemson defensive star while Oklahoma’s Kenneth Murray might be the most athletic, sideline to sideline linebacker in the country. Whether it’s at running back, defensive back or offensive line, each team is loaded, providing for must-watch matchups all over the field.

Photo courtesy of Heisman.com

Coaching Prowess:

Because players cycle in and out every three or four years, coaches become the face of programs. Having four big time coaches competing against each other adds an intriguing angle to an already exciting Playoff field. No coach has had the success that Dabo Swinney has had these last five years, posting a .944 winning percentage, making the Playoff all five years and winning two national titles. Ed Orgeron is the most eccentric and viral coach you can have, as his weekly press conferences and pregame entrances flood social media every week. He’s captivated the Bayou crowd and made them believers.

Both Lincoln Riley and Ryan Day were tasked with the impossible: replacing a legend at their school. Riley, since taking over for Bob Stoops, has led Oklahoma to the Playoff all three years and has coached three Heisman Trophy finalist quarterbacks, with two of them winning the award. Day, in succeeding Urban Meyer, has the Buckeyes at 12-0 for the first time since Meyer led an NCAA sanctioned Ohio State team to a 12-0 record in his first season, when they were ineligible for postseason play. All four teams boast successful, rock-star like coaches that will be fun to watch scheming against each other.

Photo courtesy of Sports Illustrated

Strength vs. Strength:

The rankings perfectly align these four teams to test what each does well and because of that, provides the two best matchups we could have asked for this season on paper. LSU and Oklahoma have two of the most explosive offenses in the country, as the Tigers and Sooners come in with the top two offenses in terms of yards per game. Both can score at will, as the Burrow-led offense owns the third best scoring offense, while the Hurts-driven Oklahoma offense is fifth in scoring. Both defenses have shown improvement, but sometimes struggle as holding down the opposing offense. This could lead to offensive explosion, as we may see a game reminiscent of the Georgia-Oklahoma 2018 semifinal that saw the Bulldogs win 54-48 in 2 OT’s.

On the flip side, Ohio State and Clemson have proven to be the two most balanced teams in the country. Ohio State is the best scoring offense in the nation, while the Tigers aren’t too far behind at fourth. Each team’s defense has been stout as well, with the Buckeyes owning the third best scoring defense while Clemson sits at the top in college football. You can breakdown every position for these two teams and neither has a significant edge over the other. This Ohio State-Clemson matchup in the Fiesta Bowl will be significantly more competitive than the last time these two teams matched up in the Fiesta Bowl, as the Tigers bulldozed the Buckeyes 31-0.

Any way you look at these two semifinal games, it’s hard to look back and think we’ve had as exciting and balanced of matchups in the history of the College Football Playoff. While it’s widely regarded that LSU, Ohio State and Clemson are in a class of their own compared to Oklahoma, the Sooners have the elite scoring ability to keep this an exciting game. From the superstar names on the field to the brand names of the schools involved to the head coaches squaring off against each other to the even strengths on the field, we are primed for the three most exciting and well-played games the Playoff has ever seen. Is it December 28th yet?     

It’s A Michigan Problem, Not A Harbaugh Problem

NEW YORK, N.Y.- For fans of both Michigan and Ohio State, this past Saturday etched the latest chapter to a storied rivalry, although the result was all-too-familiar for Wolverine fans. The latest edition of “The Game” saw the Buckeyes run through Michigan 56-27. The result was a historical one for Jim Harbaugh, although not in a way Michigan fans would be proud of. Harbaugh’s career record against the school he is paid to beat is now 0-5, becoming the first coach on either side of this rivalry to lose their first five games.

The outgoing, brash head coach is being fairly criticized for talking a big game and not being able to back it up against the best competition. But the blame shouldn’t stop at Harbaugh. This problem goes beyond him and extends to the entire football program, athletics department and University.

Ohio State has made this anything but a rivalry, winning eight consecutive games and 15 of the last 16. The inability to beat their hated rival has been a problem for the maize and blue for almost two decades. The last four Michigan head coaches all have losing records against the Buckeyes, including the legendary Lloyd Carr. In fact, Gary Moeller was the last head coach to have a winning record against the scarlet and gray, going 3-1-1 from 1990-1994.

On the flip side, excluding Luke Fickell’s interim season, only one Ohio State coach since 1950 owns a losing record against “That Team Up North,” as John Cooper went a forgettable 2-10-1 from 1988-2000. In that same time frame, Michigan has had five coaches with losing records to Ohio State.

Tim Fuller, USA TODAY Sports

Both schools view this game as their Super Bowl. The difference is that Ohio State prepares for this game 24/7, 365, while Michigan prepares like it’s just another opponent. Buckeye quarterback Justin Fields, who’s brand new to this rivalry after transferring from Georgia, stated it best postgame when he said “I think we take this rivalry more serious than they do. I think it just means more at Ohio State.”

Herein lies the main issue at heart: There are more important things to Michigan than beating Ohio State in football. Striving to be the best public university in the nation is extremely important to Michigan. So is maintaining a pristine academic reputation. Beating Ohio State is up there, but not the biggest priority. This has allowed the Buckeyes to gain an upper hand in recruiting, which has been the biggest reason for the domination the last 25 years.

Harbaugh’s biggest flaw since taking over has been allowing the talent gap between the two schools to increase, as the Buckeyes have outclassed the Wolverines in every aspect the last few seasons. There should also be legitimate concern that the former Michigan quarterback is ignorant when it comes to recognizing the weaknesses of his team. When asked if there’s a talent, preparation or coaching gap between the two schools after Saturday’s game, Harbaugh responded by stating, “I’ll answer your questions, not your insults,” before crediting Ohio State for simply playing better.

Rick Osentoski, USA TODAY Sports

The issue is right in Harbaugh’s answer, or should I say, lack there of. There is a legitimate gap in all three phases. Ohio State has nine more five-star and 11 more four-star recruits than their rival, something Michigan can’t allow to happen. This goes back to the buy-in, as the Buckeyes have used every resource possible to collect as much talent to Columbus.

Changes for Michigan need to start with recruiting, with efforts focused on building a team to specifically stop Ohio State. For years, the Wolverines have lacked defensive speed. This has to be an emphasis moving forward or else Michigan fans should get accustomed to crooked numbers being hung on the scoreboard.

While the outlook looks bleak for those in Ann Arbor, they have the ability to turn things around and become competitive with their biggest roadblock to the College Football Playoff. But it doesn’t start with Jim Harbaugh. It starts above him with the buy-in from the athletics department and administration to not only have this program continue to stay a consistent winner, but enter into that elite level that the Buckeyes have risen to since Urban Meyer was hired. If the buy-in isn’t there, then get used to having this conversation on the last Saturday in November for years to come.

COLUMN: WHY WINS IN COLLEGE FOOTBALL STILL MATTER

NEW YORK, N.Y.- What a weekend it was in college football. Two of the initial top four teams in the College Football Playoff went down, including Minnesota upsetting Penn State and LSU defeating Alabama in the “Game of the Century.” The big question after that SEC clash was: “Where will Alabama land after this loss? Are they still deserving of staying in the top four?”

Ultimately Georgia was slotted fourth this week while the Crimson Tide slipped to fifth to the dismay of many. The committee got it right this week, as they valued impressive wins by Georgia over a close loss to the top team with Alabama.

The latest edition of the College Football Playoff rankings were released Tuesday night, as Clemson and Georgia slide into the top four.

There is a growing notion that a “good loss” can actually boost your resume when it comes to arguing your case to be one of the final four teams. This can absolutely be true when the sole loss can be paired with a few solid wins. When the biggest brag about a team’s resume is that they lost a close game at home to the number one team in the nation, that shouldn’t trump having wins over ranked opponents.

The biggest indictment for Georgia was their home loss to South Carolina, a team that beat the ‘Dawgs with their third string quarterback and likely will finish the season 4-8. An inexcusable loss for sure, but one game doesn’t tell the entire story of their season. The Bulldogs own two top-10 wins this season, defeating No. 7 Notre Dame at home and No. 6 Florida in Jacksonville. Two wins over highly ranked opponents should definitely outweigh a brutal loss.

Alabama’s resume on the other hand is completely different. They have the best loss by far of any one-loss team when they fell to now top ranked LSU. Outside of that, they have nothing else to lean on. The Tide did beat Texas A&M when the Aggies were ranked No. 24, but have since fell out of the rankings. The only chance ‘Bama has left of notching a ranked win will be in the Iron Bowl at Auburn, who could have three losses if the Tigers fall to Georgia this weekend.

Nov 9, 2019; Tuscaloosa, AL, USA; Alabama Crimson Tide wide receiver DeVonta Smith (6) gets wrapped up by LSU Tigers safety JaCoby Stevens (3) during the fourth quarter at Bryant-Denny Stadium. Mandatory Credit: John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

Alabama’s ranking will be a hot button topic for the rest of the season because of their resume, or should I say, lack there of it. Owning the best loss is helpful, but can only take you so far, especially when teams behind the Tide have opportunities to pad their resumes. Oregon and Utah, should they win out, will face each other in the Pac-12 title game and the winner will own a conference title and a win over a top 10 team, neither of which Alabama can claim. Minnesota still has two ranked opponents left on their schedule in Iowa and Wisconsin plus gets a shot at most likely Ohio State in the Big Ten Championship should the Gophers make it. Penn State has a chance to avenge its loss by traveling to Columbus to play the Buckeyes next week. Oklahoma and Baylor play each other this weekend and most likely again for the Big 12 title, helping to boost one of their resumes.

Since the College Football Playoff has been implemented, two teams have made it without winning their own division: 2016 Ohio State and 2017 Alabama. The common dominator with both were their big wins throughout the season as the Buckeyes captured three wins over ranked opponents, including No. 3 Michigan while ‘Bama opened the season with a win over third ranked Florida State and tallied two other wins over ranked opponents. Their impressive victories were the reason they made the final four in those respective seasons, not their “good losses.”

This may seem like I’m just picking on Alabama, but the truth is you could insert any team with the Tide’s resume and the argument would be the same. I understand the eye test is a big component of what the committee factors in when they are judging teams, but the body of work can’t be ignored either. Wins have to matter in college football. If they don’t why are we even playing the games?