In Monday night’s NCAA Football Championship Game in New Orleans, which may or may not still be going on as I type this, the LSU Tigers tamed the Clemson Tigers in convincing fashion, 42-25.
If you watched much college football this season, it wasn’t a huge surprise. LSU was dominant from start to finish, and the win against Clemson last night meant they beat each of the top four teams in the preseason poll (Alabama, Clemson, UGA, Oklahoma), as well as two other top ten teams (at the time) in Auburn and Florida. And they did the whole thing pretty easily. They ended up beating Alabama by only 5 points, but were in control of that game throughout. Following the Bama win, LSU had won five straight games by an average of 32.4 points per game, including wins against two top five teams (Georgia and Oklahoma).
Clemson coach Dabo Swinney has been playing the “nobody believes in us” card for what feels like years now, and considering that Clemson was coming into this game on a 29-game win streak(!), it felt a bit stale, to say the least. Clearly, some people believed in Clemson. Someone had to, right?
Well, I did not. Nothing against Trevor Lawrence and his beautiful hair, or Travis Etienne or Tee Higgins or the speedy defense masterminded by Brent Venables, who looks like a young Willem Dafoe, but I was one of the people fueling Dabo’s fire. I did not believe that Clemson was good enough to beat LSU. Yes, Clemson thumped Alabama a year ago in the National Championship game, but this year they had not played a schedule nearly as tough as LSU—heck, hardly anyone in the country played a schedule as strong as LSU navigated. Clemson kept it tight for most of the first half, but once LSU adjusted and Burrow settled down, it was over.
LSU rolled all season long, and the lesson I took from watching them this year was that you can’t expect to do big things in college football unless you’re willing to take some risks along the way. Forever, we have heard the way to win at football was to establish the run. That was the way LSU played forever, even as the SEC and college football drifted to a more wide-open model. This season, Ed Orgeron turned over the keys to the offense to Joe Brady, who came from the NFL to be the passing game coordinator, whatever that means. And in that title game, how many times did LSU motion Clyde Edwards-Helaire out of the backfield to leave Joe Burrow standing back there alone? Seemed like it happened throughout the first three quarters. LSU still ran for almost 170 yards, but that came later in the game when they were just riding the clock.
If you want to win a title in college football, you have to have a quarterback who can throw the ball and, when all else fails, run. Look at the last four Heisman winners (Burrow, Kyler Murray, Baker Mayfield, Lamar Jackson), all dudes who were legit dual threats to pass or run. Look at the four quarterbacks in the playoff this season (Burrow, Lawrence, Justin Fields, Jalen Hurts), all guys who can escape or scramble and even run for a first down when needed. The days of having a quarterback sit in the pocket and sling it out of bounds when the line collapses are dunzo. You have to have a quarterback who can act almost as a secondary running back if you want to keep these fast SEC defenses honest. And with coaches like Mike Leach and Lane Kiffin matriculating to the SEC, things are only going to get more wide open. (By the way, last year’s Egg Bowl ended with one player pretending to be a dog and fake peeing on the field. And this year’s game could be even weirder.)
As a UGA fan, I thought about all this a lot during the title game, watching Joe Burrow and Trevor Lawrence (and his hair) frequently escape the pocket and dash for positive yardage. Georgia has been good enough to sniff the title game the last few seasons, and even get to the SEC championship a couple of times. But QB Jake Fromm was mostly a pocket passer who was better hanging in and looking for a checkdown than he was running wild. Now that Fromm is gone, UGA recently signed Wake Forest transfer Jamie Newman (NEWMAN!), who not only ran the ball at Wake Forest, but ran it after long, luxurious reads of the defense…
You either evolve or you get left behind. The NFL changes at a snail’s pace, but college football changes almost constantly. Each season some new coach and some small school pops up with an interesting idea, and the next thing you know, everything is different. Some coaches are able to change with the times, some aren’t.
Give Ed Orgeron and LSU all the credit for being willing and able to adapt. And if you’re another SEC school, you better not be afraid to take some big swings if you want to keep up.