With the possible exception of The Masters, there’s no sport I love watching more than college football — and tonight’s championship game between LSU and Clemson has the makings of an epic. A classic. An epic-classic.
It’s the undefeated Tigers versus the other undefeated Tigers. The mascots may carry the same name, but these two teams are anything but mirror images.
Louisiana State is ranked #1 in the country and is a five-point favorite. There are good reasons for this. Their explosive offense is #1 in the country, and Heisman winner Joe Burrow is having possibly the best season of any quarterback in college football history. Other stars suiting up in purple and gold include safety Grant Delpit (Thorpe award for best NCAA defensive back) and wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase (Biletnikoff award for best NCAA receiver). This squad is loaded.
LSU may well be tired of hearing the expression “team of destiny” over the last month, but that’s what their journey has looked like all season. And It definitely doesn’t hurt that tonight’s matchup will play out in the SuperDome in New Orleans — it’s like a home game for these Tigers.
Clemson is the underdog in the story, which is incredibly ironic since they’re the defending national champions and have won 29 straight games — all under the leadership of quarterback Trevor Lawrence. He may not have pulled in the Heisman, but he’s on track to be a franchise QB in the NFL. While LSU has the #1 ranked offense in the country — Clemson is right there at #3.
The edge that Clemson may have going for it tonight is its defense, which is the second best in the country — versus LSU’s #29 ranking. There is a very old adage in football: “defense wins championships.” True or not, it’s on that side of the ball where Clemson will have to shine in order to close this deal.
Lastly, the coaching matchup tonight is another awesome storyline. Ed Orgeron played for LSU 40 years ago, coached the defensive line when he came back in 2015 and one year later started turning the program around as head coach. The Tigers were 8-4 in 2016 versus 14-0 this season. LSU lost their last BCS championships game in 2011. If Orgeron gets the ice bucket shower tonight, it will mean his guys brought home LSU’s first national title since 2007.
Across the field, Dabo Swinney is arguably the best coach in college football. He’s definitely the highest-paid at over $9 million per year. Clemson’s ROI on that insane amount has been two national titles — just since 2016. The only other one they’ve ever claimed over 123 seasons was back in 1981. Swinney is a God on that campus. If he wins his third in four years, he’ll be only the second coach to do so in the history of college football (Saban, not Bryant).
It can be easy to forget just how young these players are. I’d call them “kids” if it weren’t so condescending. They’ve been playing ball since they were little guys, and for most of them, this’ll be as close as they ever come to competing in a Super Bowl.
Team sports that play out like this on a national stage have the power and effect of bringing people together. Families. Cities. Universities. And especially alums. As the ESPN documentary series The American Game pointed out, there’s something joyously tribal about college sports. Loyalties are often handed down from generation to generation. Tonight a lot of people will end up feeling great pride, and so many others will be mired in genuine disappointment.
I’m an Indiana grad who roots every year for the Hoosiers football program to finally turn the corner. And although I taught at Arizona State for just a couple years, I bet on the Sun Devils just as often as I do IU. They both came through for me in this year’s bowl pool. Now I just need Clemson Tigers to pull off the upset tonight. Badly.
But more important, I hope we all get to see a great game tonight. The Ohio State-Clemson playoff contest two weeks ago was incredibly dramatic and entertaining down to the last minute. That kind of championship ball game is the best that we can hope for tonight.
Tigers vs. Tigers. SEC vs. ACC. South Carolina vs. Lousiana. Cut it up any way you want — this thing has all of the pre-story you could possibly ask for. Kick it.