LSU-Clemson National Championship 5 Story Lines: It's going to be a classic

Glenn Guilbeau
Lafayette Daily Advertiser
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The College Football Playoff National Championship Head Coaches News Conference was held on Jan. 12, 2020 at the Grand Ballroom in the New Orleans Sheraton Hotel.  LSU's Head Coach Ed Orgeron, left, and Clemson's Head Coach Dabo Swinney made remarks and took questions from the press.

NEW ORLEANS — Former LSU athletic director Joe Alleva is going to be one proud man after Monday night's national championship game.

The man who hired defensive line coach/recruiting coordinator Ed Orgeron to be his interim head football coach on Sept. 24, 2016, then promoted him to the coach on Nov. 26, 2016, was much criticized locally and nationally, but proven very right in the end. Alleva also stuck by Orgeron when he struggled in his first full season — losing 37-7 at Mississippi State and 24-21 to 20-point underdog Troy two weeks later.

Flashback: "I'm the search," said Joe Alleva

Helmets and hats off to Alleva, who is one of the few athletic directors in history to be fired before getting to watch the most important hire of his tenure win it all. Alleva was fired last April 17 after a decade on the job, but less than three years after hiring Orgeron.

The reasons were not football related — fundraising issues, poor spending decisions, lack of communication issues, lack of personality issues. But it remains amazing that at a football factory like LSU, an athletic director was fired while his football coach hire was doing very well — 5-2 as an interim in 2016, 9-4 in his first full season in 2017, and 10-3 last year with the No. 3 recruiting class in the nation.

So, enjoy the game, Joe. You deserve so much of the credit.

Not A Dream: LSU is playing for the national championship

But back to the field and five story lines for the national championship game between No. 1 LSU (14-0) and No. 3 Clemson (14-0) to kick off shortly after 7 p.m. Monday in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

National Championship matchups to watch: LSU offensive staff vs. Clemson's Isaiah Simmons

1. CLEMSON LINEBACKER ISAIAH SIMMONS: Orgeron refers only to him as No. 11, because of how he fills the screen in film sessions. He plays inside. He plays outside. He plays safety. He plays nickel. The 6-foot-4, 230-pound junior from Olathe North High in Olathe, Kansas, has 97 tackles in all with 61 solo stops, 14 tackles for losses, seven sacks, three interceptions, a fumble recovery and a forced fumble.

"They use that No. 11 in great spots. We've got to know where he is all the time," Orgeron said Sunday.

"What he does best is when they let him roam the field in the middle and read my eyes," said LSU quarterback Joe Burrow, who usually throws in the middle of the field. "He's really good at that. He's really fast, super explosive, good tackler. He's super tough to defend."

2. LSU EDGE LINEBACKERS K'LAVON CHAISSON AND MICHAEL DIVINITY JR.: The Tigers have not had these two — their best pair of quarterback rushers — on the same field since the Auburn game Oct. 26, and for the first time since that game, they will clearly need both. Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence is a great passer, but he is underrated as a runner and will need to be contained.

Together Again: Chaisson And Divinity

"We need to make him uncomfortable in the pocket," Chaisson said. "If we get the quarterback hits and the quarterback pressure, it's going to be a long night for him."

More:When was last time Clemson QB Trevor Lawrence lost a football game?

3. LSU OFFENSE ADJUSTMENTS: Clemson has the best defense LSU will have seen since Auburn, which held the Tigers to a season-low for first-half points with 10 and led LSU 13-10 in the third quarter before losing, 23-20.

Auburn used a seven-man secondary to thwart Burrow's and passing game coordinator Joe Brady's air attack, so offensive coordinator Steve Ensminger went to the run. And LSU dominated with tailback Clyde Edwards-Helaire. That could happen again.

More:LSU's Joe Brady: ‘I wanted to win (the Peach Bowl) more than anything (for Steve Ensminger)’

"Auburn and Clemson are both big on the defensive line," LSU center Lloyd Cushenberry said. "Both disciplined. We've got to be on our A game."

There is no telling what Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables — the best in the business — will try. He uses a myriad of fronts and packages.

"There's so many, and they've been in the system with the defensive coordinator for so long (since 2012), it's nothing to them," Cushenberry said. "They can put them things in, so there are a lot of things that we have to be prepared for. It's by far the most fronts. So many exotic things, we know they're going to make plays. Things are going to happen. We've got to move on and execute."

LSU's Perfect 10: With room for one more

But what is best about Brady, Ensminger and Burrow is their adjustment capability on the fly in games.

"They're masterminds," Cushenberry said. "There are plenty of times we come on the sidelines and you see Joe always on the phone with them. They're telling him what they see up in the booth. At halftime, they come in and talk. I mean, I can't even explain it. They're the smartest group of guys I've ever been around."

LSU's offense has not been extended since the Alabama game on Nov. 9 when the Tide drew within 33-27, 39-34, and 46-41. LSU won its next five games by an average of 32 points and has not trailed in the second half of a game since Auburn.

So, how much offense is there on reserve should the Tigers find themselves in a game late?

"I'm sure we can come up with something," Cushenberry said.

4. THE LSU SUPERDOME: LSU's fans have something to prove. They had the numbers advantage clearly in their last national championship home game on Jan. 9, 2012, but they were shocked, awed, and mostly silent from early on until the bitter end in the 21-0, loss to Alabama.

Not Tourists: Hard rules for Tigers in the Big Easy

This is their chance to redeem themselves. If LSU gets off to a very good start or it's close early on, Clemson will hear a sound from an opponents' fan base it has likely never heard.

The key is for Burrow not to open the game with a pick six, which is something he has never thrown at LSU. That would mute the crowd.

Alabama's Tua Tagovailoa threw one on his third pass of the national championship game last season. Cornerback A.J. Terrell, who is a junior for Clemson this season, returned it 44 yards for a touchdown and 7-0 lead with 13:20 to play in the first quarter. Clemson took a 31-16 lead at the half, and it was over as Alabama fell, 44-16.

5. THE BURREAUX FACTOR: It's hard to picture Joe Burrow losing a game. The last time that happened it took seven overtimes and at least two very bad calls at Texas A&M.

"He's America's sweetheart," Chaisson said. "He's a perfectionist."

More:Here's why LSU Tigers will win; it's spelled B-U-R-R-E-A-U-X

If he has the ball last in a one-score game or overtime, advantage LSU. Clemson's Lawrence is very good, too, though. If he gets it last, advantage Clemson. These could be the No. 1 overall picks in the next two NFL Drafts on the same field.

"I've never been around a player like Joe. The guy's a perfectionist, and it does rub off on our football team," Orgeron said. 

"They put the offense in Joe's hands," Cushenberry said. "They trust him. We do too."

As the game goes on, look for Joe Burrow to transform into Jeaux Burreaux.

More:So, who gets the Burreaux jersey now? A lucky fan, Burrow, his dad?

PREDICTION: It's going to be a classic. Look at the paper match-up.

» LSU is No. 1 in the nation in total offense with 564.2 yards a game. ... Clemson is No. 2 in total defense with 264.1 yards allowed a game.

» LSU is No. 1 in scoring offense with 48.9 points a game. ... Clemson is No. 1 in scoring defense with 11.5 points allowed a game.

» Burrow is No. 2 in passing yards a game with 372. ... Clemson is No. 1 in passing yards defense with 151.5 allowed a game.

» Burrow is No. 1 in the nation in passing efficiency at 204.6 on 371-of-478 passing for 5,208 yards and 55 touchdowns with six interceptions. ... Clemson is No. 1 in the nation in pass defense efficiency at 96.32 on 200-of-384 passing allowed for 2,121 yards and and nine touchdowns with 19 interceptions.

It will be close, and Burreaux will close.

Prediction: LSU 41, Clemson 38.  

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