NEW ORLEANS – Two national head coach of the year winners who started as interims in their respective programs.
A Heisman Trophy winning quarterback vs. a national championship winning QB.
Game-breaking starting running backs, both Louisiana born and bred.
Defensive coordinators who are the two highest paid assistants in college football.
College football’s No. 1 offense vs. the No. 1 defense, Purple and Gold Tigers vs. Purple and Orange Tigers, it’s 14-0 No 1. LSU vs. 14-0 No. 3 Clemson in tonight’s 7 p.m. College Football Playoff national championship game here in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
It’s the place that LSU lost 21-0 to Alabama in the 2011 BCS national championship game. And it’s the venue where Clemson lost 24-6 in the 2017 Sugar Bowl CFP semifinal to eventual national champion Alabama.
LSU is a 5½-point favorite, maybe on the basis of an overwhelming homefield advantage of fans that have flooded the French Quarter since Friday afternoon.
“Ever since we knew the national championship was going to be in New Orleans, it was a goal of ours to earn the right to be here,” said LSU coach Ed Orgeron, a south Louisiana Cajun to his core born and raised in Larose 62 miles southwest of the Superdome. “I know our players were looking forward to that. Now we’re here and we’ve got to do something about it.”
With the first offense in college football history featuring a 5,000-yard passer, a 1,000-yard rusher and two 1,000-yard receivers, the SEC champion Tigers have wins over six top 10 ranked opponents.
They have won a boatload of individual awards, led by Heisman Trophy winning QB Joe Burrow, whose goal of winning the national championship has been greater than capturing individual honors.
“We’re 14-0, that’s exactly where we expected to be,” said Burrow, the fifth-year Ohio State grad transfer who has thrown for SEC single-season records of 5,208 yards and 55 TDs with a nation-leading 77.6 completion percentage. “I wanted to be here when everyone else is at home getting ready to watch us.”
Burrow, well-protected behind college football’s best offensive line, spreads the ball to an array of future NFL playmakers.
They include running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire (1,304 yards rushing, 16 TDs, and 50 catches for 399 yards, 1 TD), wide receivers Justin Jefferson (102 receptions for 1,434 yards, 18 TDs), Biletnikoff Award winner Ja’Marr Chase (75 for 1559, 18 TDs) and Terrace Marshall Jr. (43 for 625, 12 TDs) as well as tight end Thaddeus Moss (42 for 534, 2 TDs).
It’s the ultimate challenge for Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables, who’s considered the best in the college ranks.
The defense of the ACC champs, No. 1 in the FBS in total defense (264.1 yards per game allowed) and No. 1 in scoring defense (11.5 points per game allowed), has handled five teams currently ranked in the top 40 nationally in total offense.
But LSU, the national offense leader in yards (564.1) and scoring (48.9), is a daunting challenge.
“They’ve got a superstar cast, fabulous football players, all dynamic in their own ways,” Venables said of LSU’s offense. “Joe Burrow is unbelievable. The running back (Edwards-Helaire) is a different dude, he’s the heart and soul of their whole offense. Then, the receivers, the tight end. They all make you defend every patch of grass on the field with incredible, explosive, dynamic playmakers.”
Clemson, which ranks third nationally in total offense (538.4 ypg) and fourth in scoring (45.3 ppg), is led by sophomore quarterback Trevor Lawrence (3,421 yards passing and 36 TDs, 514 yards rushing and 8 TDs), running back Travis Etienne (1,536 yards rushing, 18 TDs) and wide receiver Tee Higgins (56 catches for 1,115 yards, 13 TDs).
Lawrence is 25-0 as Clemson’s starter, but knows his greatest test of the season has arrived.
“They’re definitely going to be a challenge because they’re so good on every level,” Lawrence said of LSU’s defense. “Their back seven is really good. Up front, they have some good pass rushers, big guys that can make some plays.”
LSU defensive coordinator Dave Aranda said the emergence of Lawrence as a runner in last year’s CFP playoffs and in the Fiesta Bowl CFP semifinal win over Ohio State on Dec. 28 has LSU’s `D’ on high alert.
“The run game is the first thing that concerns you,” Aranda said. “Having hats for Etienne and having the ability to play the edges right on the zone reads with Trevor Lawrence are dangerous situations. You want to be able to take care of those first.”
While LSU feels it is carrying the weight of an entire state since the game is in its backyard – “The atmosphere may never be as great as it’s going to be with everybody from the state of Louisiana coming to this one spot just to cheer us on,” Edwards-Helaire said – Clemson is playing for a place in college football history.
It is attempting to become the first team to win consecutive national championships with a perfect record since Nebraska in 1994 and 1995.
“We win and we’ve won 30 in a row, and these guys went 15-0 again back-to-back,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said. “Man, it’s been special. We going to do everything we can to win. We know that matters, but we’re not defined by that.”