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Joe Burrow and the Promise of Transcendence

Monday’s national championship is LSU’s biggest game in nearly a decade. It’s also a chance at transcendence for a quarterback, a city, and a fan base.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

It’s a metropolitan city in that there’s a public airport with four boarding gates, and a nominal downtown area with a handful of museums. There’s even a splash fountain, outside the Shaw Center—when it’s dark, and newlyweds aren’t taking pictures in front of it, the fountain lights up in purple and gold. That’s because Baton Rouge is a college football town, in the sense that some essential part of it is wrapped up in whether Ja’Marr Chase can make an over-the-shoulder catch in the red zone, or Clyde Edwards-Helaire can outrun a pack of defenders for another first down.

In fact, driving into Baton Rouge at dusk, on the I-10 westbound from New Orleans, you could easily trick yourself into thinking that the whole city runs on college football: that the power lines are fizzing with the sound of drunk students, and drunk professors, and drunk everyone, shouting themselves hoarse over shrill horns blasting the fight song. College football spreads deep into the soil and fuels the chalky glow of the interstate. On Wednesdays, immediately following The Ed Orgeron Show, it filters out of the radio sounding like Chuck Hanagriff and T-Bob Hebert on Eagle 98.1. And every day, it’s present in the signs—Mike the Tiger, with a crazed grin, trying to sell you a Caniac combo; or a reverent shot of Heisman Trophy winner Joe Burrow pointing to the sky, not in gratitude, but as if he were calling the charge. (“We Comin’” says another one, with the Coaches’ Trophy where the “i” should be.)

There’s a hideous injury attorney’s office located just one exit before the one that leads to my parents’ house, and above it there’s a digital billboard with a simple, comforting “14-0.” I say comforting because, if you’re a fan of Louisiana football in the broadest sense, the hangover of the third straight Saints postseason’s ending on a brutal final play may be short-lived. It is genuinely difficult to imagine the number on that billboard not climbing to 15-0 after LSU takes the field against Clemson for the national championship on Monday night.

Mind you, this is not because Clemson isn’t good. Last year, it vaporized one of Alabama’s best teams ever; this year, it overcame a 16-point first-half deficit to knock off undefeated Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl. Clemson has one of the most exciting quarterbacks in college football in Trevor Lawrence, who’s thrown for 3,431 yards with 36 touchdowns this season, and he got off to a slow start. If Clemson defeats top-ranked LSU, that’ll mark 30 wins in a row, not to mention back-to-back national titles—“three championships in four years for this senior group,” as the people on TV are saying. Only three teams in the AP poll era have accomplished that feat: Notre Dame (1946, 1947, 1949), Nebraska (1994, 1995, 1997), and Alabama (2009, 2011, 2012). Clemson is making its fourth national title game appearance in as many years, so it also has “championship experience,” meaning the uncanny ability to bring swift justice (or injustice, if you’re a Buckeyes fan) at the last possible second.

It’s just that while Trevor Lawrence is one of the most exciting quarterbacks in college football, Joe Burrow is the best quarterback in college football. I state this claim, for once, with near 100 percent certainty that no one will disagree with me. I mean, let’s look at Lawrence’s line against Ohio State:

That’s good! Great, actually, since the line doesn’t account for his brain- and defense-splitting 67-yard rushing touchdown in the second quarter. The problem is, against 12-win Oklahoma, the no. 4 seed in the playoff, Joe Burrow topped that. I’m not saying it’s a one-to-one comparison, but Christ, look:

Four hundred ninety-three passing yards. All seven passing touchdowns came in the first half. (Burrow also added a rushing touchdown in the third quarter, for good measure.) Against a top-five ranked program, LSU hung 63 points with ease. It’s one thing to beat a playoff semifinalist by 35 points; feeling like that margin could’ve been 50, just as comfortably, is something else.

If you’re in need of further numerical evidence of just how remarkable Burrow has been: He’s now the single-season FBS leader in completion percentage (77.6) and passer rating (204.6). His completion percentage is more than three points higher than Kellen Moore’s record (74.3) from 2011, and his passer rating is more than five points better than Tua Tagovailoa’s mark (199.4) from 2018. This season Burrow has:

  • 55 touchdown passes, second all time to only Colt Brennan, who threw 58 for the University of Hawai’i in 2006. Burrow can break Brennan’s record with four on Monday.
  • 5,208 passing yards, seventh all time. And every player ranked ahead of him played in a pure Air Raid offense. The top three (B.J. Symons, Graham Harrell, and Case Keenum) all attempted more than 700 passes in their respective seasons. Burrow has attempted 478.
  • 76 completed passes of 20 yards or more, the most in the country. That means not only is Burrow throwing more accurately than every other player in the sport, but he’s also being this accurate while uncorking bombs.
  • One tracking shot that has no historical equal.

It’s such a good season that it’s nearly without precedent. Think about it: Which other college quarterback had a season that was comparably … epochal? Steve McNair in 1994? Vince Young in 2005? Tim Tebow in 2007? Cam Newton in 2010? Comparing Newton and Burrow on the ESPN College Football Show, former Alabama quarterback Greg McElroy, whom Newton beat in that 2010 season, pointed out that no other player on that Auburn roster has recorded a single NFL catch or rushing attempt to date.

There are transcendent figures, and then there are transcendent figures. What Newton did is nothing short of mind-boggling, and I can’t say with precision how it felt to root for that team. Yet I feel safe in declaring that there’s a larger freight of emotional investment behind this LSU team, and behind Burrow in particular. I’m talking about that special meaning an athlete takes on when he drags not just a team, but an entire program over the hump. At the risk of getting preachy: Burrow has reordered what was thought to be possible. In outpacing the field and rewriting the college football record books, sure, but also in adding a devastating vertical attack to LSU’s perennially stingy defense, in effect creating one of those Star Destroyers with Death Star tech.

LSU last played for a national championship in January 2012, meeting Alabama in a rematch of one of the most nervy, turgid defensive battles I’ve ever watched. The 21-0 loss in that title game in New Orleans was—well, I’m trying to think of a more evocative word than soul-crushing. Forgive the top-line analysis here, but it’s dispiriting to watch someone score on you when you can’t score on them. That 2011 team was good—it had Tyrann Mathieu, Morris Claiborne, and Michael Brockers—but it was fallible. Quarterback Jordan Jefferson finished that game 11-of-17 for 53 yards.

In the time between title berths, LSU was always sort of ominous, and had its share of icons: Leonard Fournette, Devin White, Derrius Guice, Jamal Adams, Odell Beckham Jr., Eric Reid. But the team had an annoying habit of failing to move the ball and score when it mattered most, and in the one season in which that wasn’t so much of a problem (2013), the defense had trouble getting stops. Meanwhile, Nick Saban’s Alabama dreadnought was at its most immovable during this stretch—LSU would build up a head of steam, play Alabama, get its spirit broken, and limp into bowl season, ad nauseam. Then in November, Joe Burrow went to Tuscaloosa and did this:

Something about this LSU team seems inevitable, as if the whole season has been rolling downhill, heading eastbound on the I-10. The Tigers have won decisively in just about every game that was supposed to be close: They raced to a 33-13 lead against Bama, stomped Georgia in the SEC title game, and erased Oklahoma from the face of the earth a few weeks ago. And now it’s on to New Orleans. It’s a popular myth, that a game for keeps can be just like any other game, but you get that sense that for LSU this really could be just a Monday. Another popular myth is that when the Saints lose, LSU wins. For the first time, it feels like LSU will win, no matter what.

It’s the frostiness in Joe Burrow’s voice, I think. The way he waved goodbye to Texas. The way he coolly pointed forward after ending Alabama. Covered in confetti at midfield after beating Oklahoma—again, by 35—Burrow said, “We just gotta finish it off.” Now he has the chance.