ATLANTA — It is fast becoming a season defined by high-profile firsts for the College Football Playoff.
Forty-nine points in a semifinal’s opening half. Louisiana State’s surge to the top seed. Alabama’s absence.
There will be at least one more: For the first time in the Playoff’s six-season history, the national championship game will include both the regular season’s best defense and its best offense.
“We’ve got a windshield mentality in our program — that’s why we’re consistent. It is always about what’s next,” Dabo Swinney, Clemson’s coach, said after his program beat Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl, 29-23, on Saturday night and secured its fourth title-game berth in five years.
But third-seeded Clemson’s win meant only that it had survived the first part of a two-game playoff crucible; the Jan. 13 showdown against LSU in New Orleans will carry perils unlike any the defending national champion has seen so far this season. And LSU, whose rise has hinged on its new spread offense and a quarterback who went from afterthought to runaway Heisman Trophy winner, will confront a defense that just curbed Ohio State’s offense that scored almost 47 points per game this season.
“We have one more game left,” Justin Jefferson, an LSU wide receiver, said after the Tigers (14-0) disassembled No. 4 Oklahoma (12-2), 63-28, in the Peach Bowl in Atlanta on Saturday. “We’re going to go in these next two weeks focused, ready to go, and, I mean, dominate the next matchup that we face.”
Sports books opened betting on the title game, already informally known as the Tiger Bowl, with LSU as a 3-point favorite, and gamblers quickly drove the spread up to 6 by Sunday morning. Bettors also overwhelmingly wagered that the game would surpass a total of 70 points.
They drew some of their inspiration from LSU’s semifinal victory, in which the Tigers’ 63 points set a Playoff record. And while semifinal games have proved susceptible to lopsidedness — only three of the dozen played so far have been decided by single-digit margins — LSU has scored at least 42 points against four top-10 teams this season.
Clemson (14-0) has plenty of LSU offensive film to pore over between now and the championship game, but footage from past years will hold only so much value. In the span of one season, LSU’s introduction of the spread took its offense from 38th in the country to No. 1.
Joe Burrow, the quarterback who transferred from Ohio State, has thrown 55 touchdown passes, and LSU’s rushing corps has run for 31 more. The offense, which, on average, gains close to 8 yards per play, has recorded 389 first downs, far surpassing the 2007 LSU team that won the program’s last national championship. On Saturday, the Tigers had 10 kickoffs and punted just once.
But semifinal blowouts do not always lead to success in national championship games. In the 2014 season, Oregon pummeled Florida State in a semifinal game, winning by 39 points, still the largest margin of victory in the Playoff’s history. Less than two weeks later, Ohio State upset Oregon for the title.
The next season, Alabama scored 38 and did not surrender a point to Michigan State. Unlike Oregon, it followed up by winning the national championship with a narrow victory over Clemson.
Still, that LSU is even in the title mix is a surprise to most people beyond some die-hards in and around Baton Rouge. Preseason predictions put the team finishing second in the Southeastern Conference’s West Division and Burrow as a third-team all-SEC selection.
Clemson, as has often been the case in recent years, was judged a contender from the start.
Although its headliners are on the offensive side of the ball — including quarterback Trevor Lawrence, tailback Travis Etienne and a cache of lithe receivers — Clemson has returned to the championship game on the back of its defense.
While Clemson yielded the fewest points (10.6) and yards per game (244.7) during the regular season, it has been at its best in the shadow of their goal posts.
Two games stand out: On Sept. 28, the Clemson defense stuffed a 2-point conversion to preserve a 21-20 win at North Carolina, and on Saturday night Ohio State ventured into the red zone five times and left with one touchdown, three field goals and the interception by safety Nolan Turner, which ended the Buckeyes’ hopes.
It took awhile for the defense to get to this point. Nobody on the defensive line, which includes the freshman tackle Tyler Davis, who replaced the first-round NFL draft pick Dexter Lawrence, had started a game before this season.
“Every season is a little different,” the team’s defensive coordinator, Brent Venables, said this month. “For us, we got in a great rhythm about midway through the year. Early in the year, I thought we were pretty good, but as a lot of guys gained experience, the cohesion started.”
LSU will enter next month’s title game with one notable advantage: The matchup’s long-ago determined site, the Superdome in New Orleans, is about 80 miles from its campus. Ed Orgeron, the Louisiana native who has coached LSU to a title game in his third full season at the top of the program, was probably underselling Jan. 13 when he predicted that “the state of Louisiana is going to be on fire.” But the fire, he suggested, stopped at the sideline.
“We have to be ready to play our best football game,” he said. “All those things on the perimeter are nice. Just like in a fight, when you get hit with the first punch, all that stuff goes out the window and you’ve got to play football.”
Clemson, which spent much of the season complaining that it was overlooked and underrespected, is conceding nothing. Its win over Ohio State, the reasoning goes, was more than enough to quiet the skeptics, to prove itself worthy of a title matchup.
“We’re not interlopers,” said Etienne, the Clemson running back from southwest Louisiana who scored the decisive touchdown on Saturday night. “We were meant to be here.”