College football has a reputation for zaniness and for being the sport in which anything can happen. But the truth is that no sport is more completely designed to maintain competitive power among the elite. College football’s all-time greatest upset is either a game played during the first week of the season or a game played between teams that had already been passed over for a national championship. Despite having four times as many teams as the NFL, the FBS has produced fewer different champions this century. There is no draft to distribute quality players to bad teams, and no salary system that allows bad teams to attract stars with big money. The College Football Playoff is the smallest postseason of any major American sport, and it was initially criticized for having too many teams. The NBA, WNBA, NHL, and MLB all had first-time champions last year, and the NFL had one two years ago; college football, meanwhile, hasn’t had a first-time champ since Steve Spurrier and Florida won it all following the 1996 season.
It is a sport built for teams that look like Clemson. A few years ago, Tigers head coach Dabo Swinney decided he didn’t like losing, so his program simply stopped doing it. Clemson won the national title in January 2017 behind an all-time performance from Deshaun Watson. Watson left for the NFL, and was soon replaced by an even higher-rated quarterback prospect, Trevor Lawrence. Lawrence won a championship in January 2019 and now has the Tigers on the brink of their third title in four years heading into the game on Monday night. When Lawrence leaves campus, he’ll be replaced by DJ Uiagalelei, a consensus five-star passer. Clemson has won 29 consecutive games in a sport that has 12- to 15-game seasons. Its 2020 recruiting class is considered by some experts to be its best yet.
LSU, Clemson’s opponent on Monday, has not perennially competed for championships. The only time LSU has been in the national title hunt is when the championship is played in New Orleans. The title game was held in New Orleans three times since 2000; LSU has played in all three of those games, which were also its only three title appearances in that time span. Monday’s matchup against Clemson marks LSU’s fourth national championship appearance in New Orleans. LSU’s coaches have changed, but its uncanny ability to make it back here, and only here, has not. It’s not a talent; it’s magic.
Heading into the season, it seemed like LSU quarterback Joe Burrow would uphold the program’s tradition of mediocrity under center, and that head coach Ed Orgeron would perpetuate a losing streak to Alabama that dated back to President Obama’s first term. Both were retreads: Burrow was a transfer who couldn’t win the starting job at Ohio State and seemed unimpressive in his first go-round as LSU’s starter, and Orgeron was a failure at Ole Miss who prior to 2016 hadn’t held a head coaching job in more than a decade. Sure, LSU had won championships before, but it hadn’t won one in 12 years. That may as well be a millennium in a sport that gives players five years of eligibility, tops.
But then mild-mannered Joey from Ohio transformed into college football’s Throwverlord, a dominant hero who shattered records en route to winning the Heisman Trophy by the largest margin in its 84-year history. Orgeron fully harnessed his powers as the Cajun God of Energy, his voice somehow growing deeper and more powerful with each passing day. I heard him talk on Saturday, and the sheer strength of Coach O’s introductory “MORNIN’” blasted my New Orleans hangover into the second deck of a local college basketball arena. He didn’t speak into the microphone positioned in front of his podium, and yet nobody missed a word. LSU opened December by routing the fourth-ranked team in the country by 27 points; a few weeks later, it routed the new fourth-ranked team in the country by 35.
Monday’s clash of the Tigers will give both schools the chance to leave their marks on the sport in different ways. Clemson can stake its claim as one of college football’s all-time dominant powerhouses. LSU can cap off one the greatest and most unlikely seasons in history.
Swinney would be happy if this story trashed Clemson. He has weaponized disrespect against his program, seemingly scanning the globe for evidence that anybody remains skeptical of his Tigers. This year, Swinney had plenty of fuel for his fire. Clemson went 15-0 last season, the first team to do so in 121 years. It brought back its most valuable player and opened 13-0 … only to drop in the rankings from first to third.
There were reasons for this. In September, the Tigers almost lost to an unheralded North Carolina team that went on to barely scrape together a .500 record. They avoided defeat only by making a last-minute stop on a two-point conversion. Lawrence struggled out of the gate, throwing eight interceptions in Clemson’s first seven games after throwing just four in all of last season. The team’s schedule also didn’t give it any chances to impress. Clemson’s overwhelming ACC dominance has apparently drained every one of its league opponents’ will to live.
But it’s getting harder and harder to provide Swinney with the disrespect he craves, as Clemson has thoroughly proved its excellence. Outside of that UNC scare, the program’s closest ACC win was decided by 31 points. Lawrence’s last interception came in mid-October. Clemson rallied from a 16-0 deficit in the Fiesta Bowl against Ohio State, and Lawrence turned in the longest run of his career and led a game-winning touchdown drive in the final two minutes.
If Clemson wins Monday, it will mark the school’s third national title in four years. Only three teams in the AP poll era have won three titles in four years, meaning this group could distinguish itself from all but the most exclusive tier of college football’s elite. Before last season, it seemed like Alabama was the sport’s undisputed king, having won five championships under Nick Saban with a three-in-four stretch from 2009 to 2012. Then 44-16 happened, which was an evisceration that apparently changed everything. This season, Alabama missed the playoff and Clemson went undefeated and finally surpassed Bama in the recruiting rankings. I could see Clemson winning titles under Swinney in 10 years; I suspect Alabama’s best hope of winning titles in the 2030s (when Saban will be 78) would be for the Tide to hire Bama grad Swinney, although that move seems to become less likely with every Clemson triumph. If Clemson wins Monday, it won’t even share top-dog status anymore. It will be alone on the college football summit.
But I agree with the general consensus that LSU has been the best team this season. It is rated higher in all the polls, in advanced metrics like SP+, and in five out of the six formulae used in the old BCS rankings. As of Monday morning, Las Vegas oddsmakers list LSU as a 5.5-point favorite.
It’s easy to see why. Clemson’s toughest regular-season opponent, Texas A&M, was LSU’s sixth-toughest regular-season opponent. Clemson beat the Aggies by 14; LSU beat them by 43. Burrow demolished the single-season completion percentage record despite often throwing on the run to tightly contested receivers downfield. Orgeron won the award given to the nation’s best coach; first-year passing game coordinator Joe Brady won the award given the nation’s best assistant; and Ja’Marr Chase, Burrow’s top target, won the award given to the nation’s best receiver for his repeated Mossings of opposing defensive backs. (Oh, and Randy Moss’s actual son is on the LSU roster.) On defense, safety Grant Delpit won the award given to the nation’s best defensive back, although he arguably wasn’t the best defensive back on his own team—freshman cornerback Derek Stingley Jr. put himself in the conversation to be a top pick in the 2022 NFL draft. ESPN draft guru Todd McShay ranked five LSU players as potential 2020 first-rounders, as opposed to just two Clemson guys. Nobody is even asking who will be the no. 1 overall pick—everyone knows it will be Burrow.
LSU scored 46 points against Alabama, more than anyone has ever hung on the Crimson Tide under Saban. It put up 63 on Oklahoma, the most points any team has scored in the playoff’s existence. Burrow had seven first-half touchdowns against the Sooners, tied for the most any player has ever thrown in any first half in the history of the sport. If LSU wins Monday, it’ll have a legitimate case to be considered the greatest team of all time based on its statistical success, its sparkling résumé, its cabinets full of accolades, and its reserve of pro-caliber talent.
It’s unexpected, to say the least. LSU had lost at least three games in seven consecutive seasons before 2019. If Clemson was in Alabama’s shadow before that 44-16 whupping, LSU was locked in the basement. The Tigers play the Tide every year, and had lost eight matchups in a row, creating a statewide inferiority complex. But then there was this.
It’s rare in modern college football history for a team to rise like LSU has. A few teams have shot out of nowhere to prominence—but what this LSU team did is arguably more impressive. It didn’t come out of nowhere. It was a known entity, and not a particularly good one. A few months ago, Burrow was a senior with no draft stock; now he’s going to be the no. 1 pick. Orgeron’s old car commercials were better known than his coaching prowess; now, he’s the Coach of the Year. Sure, LSU was on the list of teams that could win the title—not that I’m bragging or anything—but I can’t recall anybody projecting it to even make the playoff.
And so LSU feels like a team of destiny. It has fulfilled its apparent birthright to play this game in this city. Its quarterback’s ascent feels like divine intervention. There is little talk of the team returning to this stage next year, as its best players will move on to the pros. There is only now.
But college football isn’t traditionally a sport for destiny—it’s a sport for dynasties. An LSU win would be a reminder that it’s possible for magic to exist in this sport. It’s hard to imagine any neutral observer witnessing the joy of LSU’s magical season and hoping for more Clemson dominance. I’m sure Dabo wouldn’t have it any other way.