Clemson vs. LSU: Who Has the Edge at Every Position?

Brad Shepard@@Brad_ShepardFeatured ColumnistJanuary 11, 2020

Clemson vs. LSU: Who Has the Edge at Every Position?

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    Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press

    It's almost here: The day we've all been waiting for, the battle between the nation's top two teams.

    The LSU Tigers and their high-powered offense and talented defense will battle the Clemson Tigers, their stable of elite offensive playmakers and a defense that doesn't get nearly the attention it deserves.

    LSU got here by going undefeated and embarrassing Oklahoma in the College Football Playoff semifinal. Clemson got here by going undefeated and coming from behind to beat another exceptional Ohio State team.

    Both have players on every level who are going to be longtime NFL stalwarts, and both are full of potential megastars who are already household names.

    Then, of course, there's Heisman Trophy winner Joe Burrow and dynamic sophomore Trevor Lawrence, who will be facing off in one of the best collegiate quarterback duels of the past several decades.

    So who has the advantage?

    Of course, we'll all have to wait until Monday night to find out for sure, but it's no fun to go into that game without analysis and comparisons now, is it? B/R broke down every position, so let's take a look at which set of Tigers holds the edge at each spot.

Special Teams

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    John Bazemore/Associated Press

    When you look at the specialists, the LSU Tigers appear to be better all over the board.

    Not only do they have two of their top playmakers—Clyde Edwards-Helaire and Derek Stingley Jr.—returning kicks and punts, respectively, but they've got better kickers, too.

    Edwards-Helaire only returned 10 kicks this year, and you don't really expect the kick return game to factor into this matchup, but if it does, either him or Clemson's Joseph Ngata have the ability to make a play. 

    So do Stingley Jr. (9.7 yards per return) and Clemson's Amari Rodgers (8.9 yards per return), and both should have their opportunities. LSU's Trey Palmer and Micah Baskerville also returned punts for touchdowns this year, so the Tigers have several star options back there.

    Punters Will Spiers of Clemson and Zach Von Rosenberg of LSU are interchangeable. Both have averaged more than 42 yards a punt and can do damage pinning teams back.

    The kicking advantage is held by LSU, though. Cade York has made 21 of 26 field goals this season, including an impressive four of five from 50 yards or more. Meanwhile, B.T. Potter has really struggled for Clemson, making just 12 of 20 field goals.

    If there's a weakness on Clemson's team, it's in the kicking game, and you can't feel great about their chances to make one with the game on the line. York, however, has missed four of his extra-point tries this year, while Potter has made all 77 of his. 

    Neither of these teams' kickers have been relied upon too much with the explosive offenses scoring touchdown after touchdown, but if the result is decided in the kicking game, bank on the Bayou Bengals.


    Edge: LSU

Defensive Backs

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    Richard Shiro/Associated Press

    It's hard to believe any secondary that features probable first-round picks safety Grant Delpit and cornerback Kristian Fulton along with the nation's best freshman in Derek Stingley Jr. wouldn't have the advantage.

    But LSU's pass defense numbers have been pretty pedestrian this year, ranking 56th nationally. Yes, it's got big-play ability, which is why the discrepancy isn't that great, but LSU's numbers don't bear out its talent on the back end of the defense.

    Clemson, on the other hand, has gotten the most out of its talent and ability in the secondary, leading the nation by allowing just 151.5 yards through the air per game.

    Dabo Swinney's Tigers are long and physical, rangy and exciting. Cornerback A.J. Terrell is an NFL star in the making, and with cornerback Derion Kendrick and safety K'Von Wallace back there too, there is plenty of size and strength. Tanner Muse is one of the best safeties in the nation and has probably had a better season than Delpit.

    Clemson isn't just good in yards against, though. They're third nationally with 19 interceptions and lead the nation in allowing just nine scoring passes all season. This will easily be the best secondary Joe Burrow has faced all season, with more talent and production than Alabama's.

    Coach Ed Orgeron's Tigers certainly have the elite ability to change the game with a huge play in the secondary too, but when you look at the numbers, there's really no comparison.

    If Clemson is going to win this game, it's going to have to rely heavily on its secondary slowing down Burrow and the great group of LSU receivers. But this is the best unit in the nation.


    Edge: Clemson


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    John Bazemore/Associated Press

    Both of these groups are full of electric playmakers and steady contributors who can make a lot of things happen and control the opposing team, and if you ask 100 people, you may get 50 who think the other one is better.

    They're that close.

    There's no question Clemson boasts the best linebacker on either side of the ball in hybrid Isaiah Simmons, who filled up the stat sheet with 97 tackles, seven sacks, three interceptions, one fumble recovery and two forced fumbles. NFL scouts all over the place are anxious to select him near the top of the first round.

    Beyond Simmons, the Tigers have James Skalski and Chad Smith, who were second and third for Clemson with 85 and 75 tackles, respectively, and they weren't just plodding, average gap-fillers, either. They made their share of sacks and tackles behind the line of scrimmage.

    But with the news that LSU is going to have its other quality edge-rusher, Michael Divinity Jr., to go along with K'Lavon Chaisson after Divinity was suspended for much of the season, that gives Orgeron's Tigers another guy who can get after the passer.

    In place of Divinity, LSU has placed a variety of defensive backs on the other edge, so they are fast and aggressive, regardless of who is there.

    "We're going to be some fanatics," Chaisson told the Daily Advertiser's Glenn Guilbeau. "It's going to be great."

    When you throw in strong middle linebacker Jacob Phillips, who led the team with 105 tackles this year and is one of the best run-stoppers in the country, LSU gets the slight edge with Divinity ready to play. Still, this one is almost too close to call. Both sides would argue their group is better.


    Edge: LSU

Defensive Line

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    Richard Shiro/Associated Press

    There's no question that when they play up to their ability, the Clemson Tigers possess one of the best defensive lines in all of college football.

    The only problem is the production doesn't always match the premier talent.

    For instance, Xavier Thomas has not lived up to the hype this season, registering just 25 tackles, including eight for a loss and 1.5 sacks. He was expected to be a potential All-American as a sophomore, but he simply hasn't gotten the job done. Still, he can break out at any time.

    A freshman who had the same type of instant impact Thomas had last year is defensive tackle Tyler Davis, who racked up 42 tackles, including 9.5 tackles for a loss and 5.5 sacks. He has almost single-handedly helped Clemson remain elite up front.

    Throw in guys like Justin Foster, Nyles Pinckney, Jordan Williams, Logan Rudolph and K.J. Henry, and there are enough contributors in the rotation to keep everybody fresh.

    LSU hasn't been bad at all up front, either. The Bayou Bengals are 20th nationally in rushing defense and have gotten strong seasons from guys like Neil Farrell Jr. and Tyler Shelvin. Plus, there are other possible playmakers up front who can do damage, like Glen Logan and Rashard Lawrence.

    But from top to bottom, it's hard to give anybody the edge but Clemson. As a matter of fact, expect Thomas to show up on the biggest stage in college football and give everybody reason to be excited for next season after this year's sophomore slump.

    If any team is going to make an impact up front, it'll be Clemson. LSU's pressure on the quarterback will come from the second level. Even if you considered Chaisson a defensive lineman due to LSU's 3-4 scheme, Clemson would still have the advantage.


    Edge: Clemson

Offensive Line

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    Gerry Broome/Associated Press

    You can talk about the superstars, but a group that gets overlooked for both squads is the offensive line. These may be two of the best units in the nation.

    Even though LSU did allow 30 sacks (94th in the nation), it's not awful when you consider just how much the Tigers threw the ball. Clemson was much better in sacks allowed, giving up just 16.

    Many of the top offensive lines in the nation pride themselves on being able to pave the way for the running backs behind them, and Clemson is 11th nationally in rushing offense to LSU's 60th. Of course, LSU is second in passing offense nationally, much better than Clemson's 19th.

    But even though LSU's unit won the Joe Moore Award, which goes to the nation's top offensive line, it's arguable Clemson's O-line was better, as evidenced by the numbers above.

    The Bayou Bengals don't have many bona fide stars. According to Clemson Maven's JP Priester, they have featured eight different starters, with just two players starting in the same spot throughout the season. Priester also noted, "Even more impressive is the fact that only twice did they start the same five offensive linemen in back to back weeks." LSU's is a deep, talented unit with interchangeable parts.

    Though Clemson wasn't at its best against Chase Young and Ohio State, the Tigers have been strong all season. With NFL prospects like John Simpson and Tremayne Anchrum, Swinney's unit has guys who will play at the next level as well.

    So while LSU may have the national hardware, Clemson gets the slight edge.


    Edge: Clemson

Wide Receivers/Tight Ends

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    Todd Kirkland/Getty Images

    This is where it gets fun, right?

    Sure, both of these units are made even better by the elite passers they have throwing them the football. Joe Burrow should be the top overall draft pick this year, and Trevor Lawrence has a good chance of replicating that feat next year. But their pass-catchers are better than good on both sides of the ball.

    They're awesome, and they're going to be good for years to come.

    For Clemson, junior Tee Higgins is a field-stretching, high-pointing weapon who likely will leave college a year early and be a first-round draft pick. He has enjoyed his best season for Clemson to this point and taken over the alpha role in the passing game.

    Though Justyn Ross hasn't been quite as good as he was his freshman year, he's still piled up 789 receiving yards and eight touchdowns. Dynamo Amari Rodgers can change things in the short passing game, turning short catches into huge gains. Diondre Overton and Joseph Ngata made plenty of plays, too.

    But then when you move over to LSU's side of the ball, you'll find the only stable of pass-catchers across the nation that can hang with Clemson and Alabama. 

    Biletnikoff Award winner Ja'Marr Chase had a breakout sophomore season with 75 catches for 1,559 yards and 18 touchdowns, a remarkable performance by anybody's standards. Factor in senior Justin Jefferson, who had 102 catches for 1,434 yards and 18 touchdowns, and that's a sickening duo.

    Jefferson broke out on the biggest stage in the national semifinal domination of Oklahoma, grabbing 14 passes for 227 yards and four touchdowns.

    But that's not all. Unsung sophomore Terrace Marshall Jr. piled up 43 catches for 625 yards and scored 12 touchdowns, putting up the kind of numbers that would make him WR1 on most college teams. Tight end Thaddeus Moss also gets lost in the shuffle, but he had 42 grabs for 534 yards and a pair of scores.

    These are gaudy numbers, and Burrow knows how to get them all the ball. Say what you want about Clemson's headline-makers, but LSU has the best group of pass-catchers in the nation.


    Edge: LSU

Running Backs

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    Christian Petersen/Getty Images

    You could sit and argue the supporting casts and secondary backs all you want, and there are some good ones, with Clemson having Lyn-J Dixon and LSU having Tyrion Davis-Price. 

    But this is about Travis Etienne and Clyde Edwards-Helaire.

    Etienne gets much of the national spotlight, and rightfully so. He's had as productive of a three-year career as anybody outside of Wisconsin's Jonathan Taylor. This is a kid who burst onto the scene, stayed there and wasn't afraid to put Clemson on his back at times. He's capable, too.

    Edwards-Helaire only broke out in 2019, but, boy, it's been quite the breakout. The junior has 1,304 rushing yards with 16 scores on the ground and has averaged 6.6 yards per carry. He's also a force in the passing game with 50 catches for 399 yards and another touchdown.

    Moving over to Etienne, his season has been even better. The Clemson star hasn't played a full four quarters in most games, yet has 1,536 yards and 18 touchdowns. He also has 32 catches for 396 yards and another four scores.

    So, if you're going by just this year, Etienne was better. If you're going by the career, Etienne is way, way better.

    Both of these running backs are exceptional weapons who will make plays, and both teams rely on them to carry the load. But Etienne, despite the mixed bag of NFL projections, is a fantastic collegiate running back who will go down as one of the best at his position in the past decade.

    If Clemson is in a close game, it should turn to its veteran playmaker. More often than not, he comes through.


    Edge: Clemson


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    John Bazemore/Associated Press

    Joe Burrow is the deciding factor that ensures LSU holds the edge at four positions, while Clemson has the advantage at the other four.

    Yes, it's that close, and that's not by design. It's just easy to see when looking across the board at both these teams: They're hands-down the nation's top two programs this year.

    Even though it's that balanced, though, Burrow is the player who ultimately will put LSU over the top. He's that good, and it's even arguable he had the best season of any quarterback in the modern era. Most remarkable is his 77.6 completion percentage, and on top of that, he threw for 5,208 yards, 55 touchdowns and just six interceptions.

    He was the runaway Heisman Trophy winner, and he absolutely torched Oklahoma. He's done much the same to basically everybody he's played against this year.

    Trevor Lawrence is without a doubt the second-best (healthy) passing quarterback in the country, yet he is an extremely distant second to Burrow. Lawrence can make plays, and he could even do enough to will his Tigers to a win, but don't bet on it.

    This is Burrow's year, and it's just hard to envision anybody but him hoisting that trophy when all is said and done. He's got the best receivers, he can turn around and hand the ball to a capable playmaker in Clyde Edwards-Helaire, he's battle-tested and he has elevated his game in a huge way all season.

    He has gone from a mid-round NFL draft selection to being the favorite for the top overall pick. His leadership is off the charts, and he is putting up video game numbers against basically everybody he plays.

    Clemson is going to be a huge test for Burrow, but he'll pass it with flying colors. Last year and next year are Lawrence's; this year is Burrow's.


    Edge: LSU


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