Playoff Championship Expert Preview
Season to date (93-33) Straight Up (67-51)* Against the Spread
Monday January, 13th
The College Football Playoff National Championship
#1 LSU (14-0) vs. #3 Clemson (14-0)
5:00am PT, ESPN
Line: LSU -5.5
Beta_Rank Win Prob: LSU 71%
Beta_Rank Line: LSU -6.67 (DO NOT GAMBLE)
We have invited some college football experts to help preview the game.
Brett Ciancia (@PickSixPreviews) founded Pick Six Previews in 2012, and his Power 5 predictions have been named "Most Accurate in America" by long-time prediction tracker Stassen. A one-man operation, his annual Season Preview book covers all 65 Power 5 teams and is the end result of 1,000+ hours of research. After the release of his 2019 Preview book, Ciancia was selected to become a Heisman Trophy voter and was invited onto 100+ radio/TV spots.
Nicholas Ian Allen (@CFBWinningEdge) is a former football coach and minor league baseball front office executive. He has been a full-time college football analyst since 2013, and developed CFB Winning Edge in 2018. His work is also featured online at Athlon Sports, FanSided and Major Wager.
Parker Fleming (@statsowar) is the resident statistician at the TCU SBNation site FrogsOWar.com. Parker lives in Fort Worth, Texas. Follow himon Twitter account for college football graphs, stats, and conversation.
LSU Offense vs Clemson Defense
Rob: This is the headline matchup for the game. LSU ranks #1 in Beta_Rank on offense and Clemson ranks #1 on defense. LSU comes in #1 in every category in Beta_Rank except Drive Efficiency; where they are #2. You also can't say they haven't been tested they have already played the #2 and #3 defenses in Beta_Rank in Auburn and LSU and while Auburn managed to avoid giving up some points; LSU marched up and down the field in the game. That is broadly similar to the game the Clemson defense had against Ohio State where the Tigers were out-gained pretty considerably. If Clemson has a small weakness it is in Drive Effieciency where they are #8 in Beta_Rank. They don't give up big plays, but they do give up some drives. A major difference from the semis for Clemson is that while Ohio State was a run first team that struggled when Clemson switch into a 3-3-5 inverted Tampa 2, LSU is #1 in Effective Pass in Beta_Rank and has a #56/#1 run/pass split. Even with Clemson's #1/#1 run/pass split they are not going to be facing Justin Fields who holds the ball a little too long because he's conditioned to working out of play action behind a dominant run game. Wins for Clemson's defense will be giving up field goals instead of touchdowns.
Nicholas: We all know how incredible LSU has been on offense this season, so I think it’s important to focus a little more on the Clemson defense, and determine if Brent Venables can get his unit to do something pretty much everyone else has failed to do: stop Joe Burrow.
It’s worth noting Clemson is a much different defense – especially up front – than it was in 2018. The Clemson defensive line is smaller than it was last year, and therefore probably won't be able to bully the LSU offensive line, but with guys like Xavier Thomas, Justin Foster, Logan Rudloph and K.J. Henry, it’s also arguably more athletic than it was a year ago. After losing four elite defensive linemen to the NFL, Venables had to get more creative in 2019, and the athleticism of the unit has been an asset in providing a variety of looks. Venables has used a lot of three-man fronts this year, especially early on, though in recent weeks Clemson shifted back more to its traditional four down linemen. We’ll likely see both Monday night.
One area where Clemson has elite size is at cornerback – which is something LSU didn’t really have to contend with against Oklahoma. Every Clemson corner expected to play Monday is 6-foot-1 or taller, while Oklahoma has one defensive back on its depth chart who is listed at 6 feet, and fielded multiple corners listed at 5-foot-10 or shorter. Unlike CBs A.J. Terrell and Derion Kendrick, the safeties aren't elite talents, but they're smart and productive. The talent on hand combined with Venables' schematic abilities should give LSU a test comparable to Alabama, Florida and Auburn, and possibly better.
Brett: In preparation for my annual Season Preview book, I watch every spring game I can find. I’ll never forget the surreal moment when LSU lined up in 5 wide on the first play, and stayed committed to it the whole game. This, from a program historically featuring a smashmouth power run game that would fit in better in the ‘3 yards and a cloud of dust’ Big Ten. Usually a scheme transition this large would take a few seasons, or at least a few games, to be fully implemented. But credit pass game coordinator Joe Brady, because this unit has been firing on all cylinders since Day 1. LSU has 38 passing touchdowns in the 1st halves of games alone – only 5 other FBS teams have 38 in FULL games. Joe Burrow is on pace to set an NCAA record for completion percentage, but in addition to that accuracy, he is elusive in the pocket and creative in extending plays. His core of receivers can rival Clemson (and Alabama) as the best in the nation: Chase, Jefferson, Marshall, Moss, and even Clyde Edwards-Helaire who adds a nation-leading 50 catches out of the backfield. LSU’s performance against Oklahoma was the best game grade of the entire 2010s decade, according to my Game Grader formula that evaluates statistical dominance with opponent strength factored in.
Clemson is the #1 scoring defense in America; their 11.5 points allowed per game is the best in FBS since 2012. Brent Venables unveiled an “inverted Tampa Two” look against Ohio State which allowed him to get more speed on the field and disguise his blitzes and pressures. It works best with a strong interior linebacking core – which Clemson has. Credit Clemson for slowing Ohio State in the red zone, but know that LSU won’t be so generous. LSU’s offense is #1 nationally in red zone scoring. Further, in some of the “all-22” angles, I saw Clemson’s corners having trouble containing the Ohio State receivers. This LSU unit will execute on any missteps Clemson gifts them.
Parker: LSU's offense vs Clemson's defense is the college football matchup we've been waiting for. At some level, I was secretly hoping we'd get to see LSU-Ohio State in a truly "best-on-best" situation. This matchup isn't far behind, and if we look at the season long Expected Points Added (EPA) numbers, Clemson outperformed their first half numbers in the second half of the season by a full .2 points per play! Clemson coming into the playoff has been hotter than anyone: the East Coast Tigers are 54.6% better than the average FBS defense on a per play basis, whereas the Bayou Tigers are 41.9% better than the average FBS team on offense. The real matchup here will be how Clemson gets LSU into troublesome situations: LSU's offense is first nationally in EPA per play on first downs, fifth on passing downs, but only 43rd on standard downs. Clemson's defense, on the other hand, is seventh in limiting EPA per play on first down, 4th on passing downs, and 12th on standard downs. The Tigers force third downs at a higher rate than anyone in the nation. The matchup to watch will be how Clemson's pass rush will be able to create disruption on second and third downs, limiting LSU's damage and forcing them to convert low probability situations to extend drives.
Clemson Offense vs LSU Defense
Nicholas: First and foremost, my game projections incorporate the player ratings I’ve developed at CFB Winning Edge, which attempt to evaluate each player based on his talent potential, experience and career performance. Player ratings are designed to mimic what you would expect to see in a video game, with the maximum rating equaling 100, and an average rating roughly an 80. Using those ratings to compare the Clemson offensive to the LSU defense, we can take a closer look at the position and individual matchups to see what (if any) specific advantages one team would have on the other.
Naturally, quarterback Trevor Lawrence has a max 100 rating, as does top running back Travis Etienne and leading receiver Tee Higgins. Justyn Ross and Amari Rodgers are also highly rated, as are several backups. Clemson doesn’t utilize the tight end much in the passing game. That’s a talented corps of position players. Nevertheless, though LSU has been susceptible defensively at times this season, it features one of the most talented defenses in the country. In short, eight of LSU’s 11 defensive starters have a 100 rating, including at least two at every level. Linebacker Michael Divinity, who is not expected to start, but should take his first snaps since Week 11, is also a 100-rated player.
However, if there is one area where Clemson may have an advantage, it’s at the line of scrimmage. The Clemson offensive line is the No. 4-rated unit in the country in terms of talent, according to our numbers, but ranks No. 1 overall in our O-Line Performance ratings. The LSU front three ranks fourth nationally in our unit strength ratings, but comes in No. 23 in D-Line Performance, which would indicate the Bayou Bengals haven’t played to their full potential up front, while Clemson has met (and even slightly exceeded) expectations.
Brett: This side of the ball is being overshadowed by their top-ranked counterparts, but there is no lack of firepower here. Exactly a year ago we saw this same offense torch Saban in the title game, with their core of receivers winning one-on-ones all game. Then-freshman Trevor Lawrence was flawless, and since the whole offense was set to return in 2019 (minus center Mitch Hyatt), the expectations were set unrealistically high. Lawrence came out of the gate slow, and threw more picks than we all expected. So did Deshaun Watson early in 2016, and this Clemson offense closed the season on a strong note just like that 2016 title team. No other team rotates their backups more than Clemson, so if we look only at 1st half stats for a true look at the starters, they average 6.98 yards per carry – the best in the entire 2010s decade. Travis Etienne would have been a Heisman candidate with a normal workload, but still, he became the 1st back EVER to average 7+ yards per carry in three straight seasons.
Defensive coordinator Dave Aranda turned in three straight Top 10 defenses (2016-2018) and has another talented unit. Star power abounds; unanimous All-American Grant Delpit at safety, K’Lavon Chaisson and Michael Divinity in the front seven, and even corner Derek Stingley who has surged in the 2nd half of the season earning rare All-American honors as a true freshman. I was skeptical in November when LSU was averaging 6.3 yards allowed per play in their first 6 SEC games. That would rank #110 nationally. But over their last 4 games including a conference title and playoff game, they sliced that down to just 4.1 per play (would be #1 nationally). A lot of that has to do with health, as the unit was battered with midseason injuries. Look for Aranda to send complex looks to try to confuse Lawrence – Delpit will be lining up all over the field and wreaking havoc. Fitting for the Chinese Bandit’s vaunted #7 jersey.
Parker: Clemson's offense is the underrated unit coming into this game - the Tigers are 36.31% better than the average FBS team on offense, trailing only Ohio State, LSU, Oklahoma, and Alabama. Behind Trevor Lawrence, Clemson is 6th in first downs EPA, 3rd on passing downs, and 25th on standard downs. The Tigers don't really care where they are; they'll move the ball. Clemson has the fifth highest average in yards per play, and the seventh highest variance in yards per play among FCS teams. Most notably, the Tigers are 7th on first down explosiveness and fifth on passing downs - Clemson loves to face passing downs, and they love to pass on passing downs: they rush only 39% of the time on second or third and long. The fact of the matter is, Clemson doesn't find itself in third downs very often: 3rd in third down percentage in the nation. The LSU defense, on the other hand, might be the weakest unit in the game, and even then, they're still 8th overall in defensive EPA+, 26% better than the average FBS defense. LSU's defense doesn't force many third downs, relative to other "elite" teams: the Tigers are closer to Penn State, TCU, and Utah in forcing third downs than they are the "elite" defenses. How Clemson capitalizes on early downs and avoids tough third-and-long situations will drive this matchup: this offense is perhaps the best one that the Tigers have seen this season.
Rob: It seems counter-intuitive, but there is a bigger gap between LSU's #1 offense and Clemson's #1 defense in Beta_Rank than Clemson's #5 offense and LSU's #11 defense. Clemson is a fairly balanced unit without relying more on explosiveness than efficiency or with any run/pass split at #16/#16. LSU does two things particularly well; they contain Explosive Drives #12 and they cause Negative Drives #3. You can drive on LSU though. They rank #40 in Drive Efficiency. They also have a better secondary than rush defense with a #21/#12 run/pass split. So if you are Clemson and you get behind throwing the ball could lean into what LSU does best; which we have seen a few times this season. I do expect Clemson to have some QB designed runs up their sleeve. It won't be the shock that it was against Ohio State, but they should be effective. They will need to get the running game going and try to cool down LSU's passing attack by leaving them on the sidelines.
Brett: Every once in a while, special teams are the deciding factor in a national championship. Picture 2015 when Saban called the surprise onside kick, and also when they returned a kickoff for a touchdown. That flipped the entire game result. Missed field goals can do that too. I have to go all the way back to 2010 for a game-winner (Auburn) and 1993 for a game-wrecker (Nebraska). But should this one come down to field goals, Clemson has a severe flaw here, with just a 59% rate (#113 rank). For context, LSU hits 81% of their field goals.
Parker: Worth noting somewhere in this piece, perhaps here: LSU is plus 9 in turnover margin on the season, whereas Clemson is plus 16; that includes the early weeks where Trevor Lawrence looked merely superhuman and not immortal. Clemson is the ball-hawking defense LSU hasn't faced all season: Clemson is 2nd in fumble recoveries, 3rd in interceptions, and only two teams on LSU's schedule (Auburn and Alabama) otherwise rank in the top 15 of either category.
LSU is 8th overall in special teams SP+: Clemson is 103rd. The difference between those two in terms of points is 2.9 points, about a field goals' worth. I do not expect this to be a game decided by a special teams play. I actually expect both teams to be kicking-averse, whether that's punting or field goals. Field position will be of enormous consequence in what figures to be a battle of who can score quicker; I expect both coaches to fight to extend drives on fourth downs and look to be conservative in kickoff coverage.
Rob: There is no way to sugarcoat this; Clemson's placekicking is bad. They come in at #59 in special teams in Beta_Rank. Their struggles did not impact them in the semi, but they might here. LSU on the other hand has been very good at #3 in special teams. I think LSU's advantage winds up on the score board in this one where if they stop Clemson in field goal range the Clemson Tigers come up empty.
Nicholas: I’m glad Brett brought up Clemson’s track record of missing field goals. Special teams are hugely important given its impact on field position, or how a single play – a blocked kick or touchdown return, especially – can swing a game in a completely different direction. Missed field goals are often overlooked, but a missed kick is a failed scoring opportunity analogous to a turnover.
Nevertheless, it’s very difficult to project or predict how special teams will impact a specific game. I’ve often thought of special teams like bullpens in baseball. Though a team may have a dominant closer, or similarly, kicker or return man, the performance of the unit as a whole can vary wildly because of small sample sizes. But also like bullpens, outside intangible factors – such as the confidence of a single player – can have an outsized effect. And because field goals rely so heavily on one player’s ability to execute, a Clemson field goal attempt – made or missed – could be the difference in the game.
Parker: Not much more can be said that hasn't already been said about LSU's acquisition of Joe Brady. The most surprising thing to me, though, is how quickly LSU listened to the newcomer and embraced his ideas - that's an uncommon reality for most veteran coaches, and Coach O has seen the payoff. The Tigers have embraced the noble philosophic concept of "slingin' the ball" this season: LSU ranks 14th in early downs (1st and 2nd) rush rate. Joe Burrow's total QBR in 2018 was 14th overall at 78.4 and his pass-only QBR was 33rd nationally. Joe Burrow worked hard this offseason and grew up quite a bit, but his 2019 QBR is 94.4, 2nd overall, and his pass-only QBR is first in the nation. The scheme has worked, and perhaps in LSU's favor, there's not a book on how to beat them... yet.
If anyone could come up with the book to beat LSU's offense, it's Dabo. The Clemson coach has turned an obscure ACC school into one of history's greatest powerhouses, and last season, in a situation quite similar to the one his team faces now, Dabo lead his powerhouse to a 28 point victory over a seemingly unbeatable Alabama team. Clemson appeared to follow the path that many an NBA team has over the last few years in starting slow, waiting until it really counted to get up into top gear - remember in September, Clemson needed a failed 2 pt. conversion to beat North Carolina. Since that game, Clemson won 7 straight FBS games by an average of 41.7 points.
This game will be a tale of two halves; Clemson has the talent and film to attack LSU early and stymie the offense, but we know that LSU starts fast and Clemson slow. How close of a game Clemson makes it at the half - how can they stand the initial offensive deluge of LSU - will really determine who wins the game. Dabo adjusting at halftime will throw a wrench in LSU's plan; it all depends on if Clemson can keep LSU within reach.
Rob: I am going to go with a Clemson edge here on coaching. Clemson has been there and done that while LSU is playing for all the marbles for the first time under Orgeron. Clemson makes excellent adjustments in game; as we saw in the semis. Venables and Dabo are absolutely going to have their hands full with the the LSU offense, but I expect they'll have some wrinkles that will for LSU to make changes. That said, Clemson's coaches are going to need the same level of execution and luck that they had against Ohio State in this game.
Nicholas: We assign ratings to head coaches similar to our player ratings, bbased on historical performance. Though the ratings are weighted so that recent results matter most, Orgeron’s Ole Miss tenure dragged his rating down a little bit and he began the season ranked in the mid-30s. He’s up to No. 5 now, though. Swinney entered the season with a max 100 rating and has stayed atop the pack. Therefore, Clemson has an edge according to our numbers, but not a huge one.
Digging deeper, I’ve been incredibly impressed with the way in which both coaches have surrounded themselves with an excellent group of assistants. LSU DC Dave Aranda is one of the best in the business (he’s a top five defensive play-caller according to our ratings), and the improvement Steve Ensminger has shown with the addition of Joe Brady and the updates to the offense has been remarkable. Ensminger began the season as our 79th ranked OC, but LSU has the No. 1 offense in the country, so he’s shot up the board.
For Clemson, Brent Venables is the No. 1 DC in the nation according to our numbers, so it should be a heavyweight fight. Offensively, Jeff Scott and Tony Elliott have designed a highly efficient unit, and the pair comes in No. 3 in our OC ratings. I’m slightly worried that Scott has split his time between Clemson and the USF head coaching job in recent weeks, but having a co-coordinator is a strength in that situation so it’s unlikely to have a major impact.
Brett: I see some similarities between Dabo Swinney and Ed Orgeron. Swinney of course was the mastermind behind Clemson owning the “social media” angle of recruiting, as he loved the spotlight, the post-game pressers, and really vividly painted the experience of attending and playing for Clemson. Matching his big persona is Orgeron, who has motivated his entire state (and locker room) all season. They both are excellent at leading programs and picking coordinators. Give Orgeron a ton of credit for realizing the need to evolve his offense, and being humble enough to outsource it to a 29-year old NFL staffer.
Dabo’s next best strength has been the ability to retain his ace coordinators. Brent Venables has a Broyles Award of his own, and could win it every season with the consistently elite output. His co-offensive coordinator Tony Elliot also has one. LSU’s defensive mind is no slouch with Dave Aranda who upon his arrival in Baton Rouge, fielded three straight top 10 units (and yes, he’s been a Broyles Award nominee twice). I’d call this ultimate chess match a draw, but maybe slightly side Clemson due to Playoff/Title experience. Brady’s complex NFL passing attack against Venables’ disguised “inverted Tampa Two” will be must-see.
Final Score Prediction
Rob: LSU 37 Clemson 31
Nicholas: Clemson 35 LSU 34
Brett: LSU 34 Clemson 30
Parker: Clemson 38 LSU 35