Zach's Draft Corner: National Championship Preview
Image Credit: USA TODAY Sports
Welcome to Zach’s Draft Corner, where it’s always amateur hour.
It’s all come down to this. We have the final college football game before it is officially, without a doubt, draft season. That game is the 2020 National Championship Game in New Orleans, with the Clemson Tigers squaring off against the Louisiana State Tigers. The game will take place at 8:00 PM Eastern Time on Monday, January 13, and can be watched across the ESPN family of networks (they typically do conference-specific broadcasts in addition to the regular broadcast if you prefer a biased take). You know the names to watch by now, so I’m going to dig a little deeper into how these teams and prospects match up to prepare you for what may be the best game of the season.
Joe Burrow vs. Clemson Defense
Joe Burrow has been an unstoppable force this season. His stat line has been absolutely ridiculous, going 371 for 478 (77.6 percent) for 5,208 yards, 55 touchdowns, and with only 6 interceptions. He’s even been a weapon on the ground, with 101 rushes for 310 yards and 4 touchdowns. Say what you will about Oklahoma’s defense, but Burrow was responsible for 8 total touchdowns against the Sooners and didn’t even play the entire game. Burrow is on a roll, and you have to wonder if anything can stop him.
In comes the Clemson defense, with the second best defense in the nation in yards allowed per game (264.1), the best defense in the nation in total touchdowns allowed (18) and scoring defense (11.5 ppg), the best defense in the nation in pass yards allowed per game (151.5), and the seventh best defense in the nation in yards allowed per completion (10.61). They gave up a lot of yards to Heisman finalist Justin Fields last week (320 yards on 30-of-46 passing and 1 touchdown), but also turned him over twice (two interceptions). Clemson stifled one of the most potent offenses in the nation last week, but will need to do it again if they want to pull off the upset.
Clyde Edwards-Helaire vs. Isaiah Simmons
The LSU offense has been great, but they reach a new level when Edwards-Helaire is healthy and producing on the ground. On the season, he has 199 carries for 1,304 yards (6.6 per carry) and 16 touchdowns, but is also a threat in the passing game with 50 catches for 399 yards and one more touchdown. Edwards-Helaire was facing an injury that limited his production against Oklahoma, but looks to be going full bore against Clemson.
It will largely be up to do-it-all defensive weapon Isaiah Simmons to limit Edwards-Helaire. Fortunately for LSU, he was not able to limit J.K. Dobbins, who had 18 carries for 174 yards and 1 touchdown against Clemson in the semi-finals, and the game very obviously turned when he got hurt. Simmons will need to do a much better job against LSU.
Justin Jefferson and Ja'Marr Chase vs. A.J. Terrell, Derion Kendrick, Tanner Muse, and K'Von Wallace
LSU has not had a receiving duo this good since the Odell Beckham Jr./Jarvis Landry tandem earlier this decade, and Jefferson and Chase may be even better. Jefferson had 102 catches for 1,434 yards (14.1 per catch) and 18 touchdowns, and is coming off a dominant performance against Oklahoma (14 catches for 227 yards and 4 touchdowns). He’s the only one that is draft eligible, but he’s not even the Biletnikoff Award winner. That honor went to Chase, who had 75 catches for 1,559 yards and 18 touchdowns (20.8 per catch) on the season, though he only had 2 catches for 61 yards against Oklahoma. While the Clemson secondary is looked upon very favorably, they have their work cut out for them against this duo.
Trevor Lawrence vs. LSU Defense
Trevor Lawrence may not have lived up to the monumental expectations that we put on him at the beginning of the season, but it was still a largely impressive season for a true sophomore: 250 for 370 (67.6 percent) for 3,431 yards, 36 touchdowns and 8 interceptions, with an additional 93 rushes for 514 yards and 8 touchdowns. Lawrence took over the Ohio State game when it mattered, amassing 366 total yards and 3 total touchdowns in the semi-finals. Lawrence has yet to lose a game in his college career, but he is going to have to be exceptional to pull it off this week.
While the LSU offense has been amazing this season, the LSU defense has not been as good as expected. In fact, it may be the worst unit of the game. LSU is fifty-sixth in the nation in pass yards allowed per game (221.9), eightieth in yards per completions (12.63), twenty-ninth in total yards allowed per game (339.9), and twenty-ninth in scoring defense (21.6). Lawrence is going to have every opportunity to keep Clemson in this game.
Travis Etienne vs. Jacob Phillips and Patrick Queen
It will be a lot of help to Lawrence if Etienne can continue to be his explosive self in the Championship. As good as Edwards-Helaire has been, Etienne has been better with 192 carries for 1,536 yards (8.0 yards per carry) for 18 touchdowns, with an additional 32 catches for 396 yards and 4 touchdowns. Ohio State shut him down on the ground (10 rushes for 36 yards and 1 touchdown), but gave up the explosive plays through the air (3 catches for 98 yards and 2 touchdowns), keeping Clemson in the game long enough for the Tigers to come back.
Phillips and Queen have been getting stronger as the season went on, but LSU’s run defense has only been so strong because other teams have been down so much that they need to pass. This was on display last week against Oklahoma and Kennedy Brooks, who only had 10 carries for 35 yards and 1 touchdown. Etienne will need to produce to keep LSU’s offense off the field.
Tee Higgins and Justyn Ross vs. Kristian Fulton, Grant Delpit, and Derek Stingley Jr.
They may not be Jefferson and Chase, but Higgins and Ross are a formidable duo themselves. Higgins, the only one of the pair that is draft eligible, had 56 catches for 1,115 yards (19.9 per catch) and 13 touchdowns on the season, but was limited to only 4 catches for 33 yards against Ohio State. Ross, who many believe is the better draft prospect but is only a true sophomore, had 61 catches for 789 yards (12.9 per catch) and 8 touchdowns on the season, but only brought in 6 catches for 47 yards against Ohio State. Higgins and Ross need to step up against a secondary that is full of first round prospects, including Fulton and Delpit, each of which are likely to be drafted this season, and Stingley, who as a true freshman is already proving to be the next great LSU cornerback.
It’s so hard to go against LSU here. They have been dominant all season, and Ed Orgeron is one of the best characters in college football. Joe Burrow is one of the best quarterbacks in the nation, they have a great set of skill position players, and are way more battle tested than Clemson this season.
But that’s exactly what I’m going to do. While LSU may have faced a larger quantity of quality opponents this season, Clemson has the best single win with their victory over Ohio State. When it comes down to it, I trust Trevor Lawrence to do whatever it takes for his team to win more than I trust Joe Burrow to do the same, as Lawrence has literally done it in every college football game he has ever played. Look for Clemson to take advantage of LSU’s merely good defense to keep pace with LSU, and look for Trevor Lawrence do finish the game off when it counts.
Clemson – 35, LSU – 34
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