LSU Tigers (10-2 Overall; 6-2 SEC)
LSU entered the 2012 season coming off a loss against Alabama in the national championship and looking to get another shot. But once again, a loss to Alabama derailed those hopes. However, the Tigers still managed to have another 10-win season, thanks to a defense that proved to be ferocious. LSU allowed only 16.9 points per game, allowing more than 22 points only once. The defense -- led by Barkevious Mingo, Kevin Minter, Sam Montgomery and Eric Reid -- finished no lower than 11th nationally in any major defensive statistical category. Though LSU lost twice, it's important to note that those losses came to Alabama and Florida, teams ranked second and third in the BCS standings.
At Their Best. It's hard to find one key moment in the season in which LSU was at its best, because the truth is the Tigers were never really bad at any point. You can even make the argument that the best overall game for the Tigers came in the 21-17 loss to Alabama. The LSU offense managed 435 yards of offense against one of the best defenses in the country. For the sake of this primer, however, we'll go with the two-week stretch in which LSU used a fourth-quarter comeback to beat then-unbeaten South Carolina and followed that up the next week by coming back from an early 12-0 deficit in College Station to beat Texas A&M, two teams that finished in the top 10 of the BCS.
At Their Worst. While nothing hurt LSU more than seeing T.J. Yeldon take a screen pass from A.J. McCarron and go 28 yards for the winning touchdown in the final minute for Alabama, as I've said, LSU played very well in that game. The same cannot be said for the Florida loss, in which the Tigers managed only 200 yards of total offense and two field goals in a 14-6 defeat. That game featured a Herculean effort from Kevin Minter, who finished with 20 tackles despite having to miss time due to severe leg cramps.
Headliner. There are so many players that I've already mentioned on this defense that are worth your attention. But for sheer freak-of-nature status, I'll highlight Barkevious Mingo. The scariest man to ever go by the name Kiki, Mingo finished the season with 33 tackles, 5.5 tackles for loss, 4 sacks, 3 passes broken up and 12 quarterback hurries. Against an offense as high powered as Clemson's, Mingo will have to make an impact for LSU.
Clemson Tigers (10-2 Overall; 7-1 ACC)
Clemson came into 2012 looking to wipe the taste of a 70-33 loss in the Orange Bowl out of their mouths but fell short of winning another ACC title. Still, the Tigers managed to win 10 games yet again while featuring one of the best offenses in the country and scoring 42.3 points per game. Quarterback Tajh Boyd finished fourth in the country in passer-efficiency (168.53), Andre Ellington rushed for 1,031 yards and DeAndre Hopkins finished second in the country with 16 touchdown catches, giving the Tigers a playmaker at every skill position. And we haven't even mentioned Sammy Watkins. He started the season slow after leaping onto the scene as a freshman in 2011 but finished very strong over the final month.
At Their Best. When Clemson is at its best, it is lighting up scoreboards, which is what it did for a seven-game stretch in the ACC following a loss to Florida State. In those seven conference wins, the Tigers averaged 47.9 points, never scoring fewer than 38 points in any game. The most impressive effort came against N.C. State, however, as the Tigers racked up 754 yards of offense -- the fourth-highest total by any offense in 2012 -- in a 62-48 win. In that game, Boyd accounted for 529 total yards and eight touchdowns by himself.
At Their Worst. While losing to South Carolina is never fun for Clemson, the worst moment of the season came on a Saturday night in Tallahassee. It was there that the Tigers found themselves with a 28-14 lead on Florida State early in the third quarter and then a 31-21 lead with just over 22 minutes to play. And that's when Florida State reeled off four straight touchdowns to take control of the game and win 49-37. Yes, the loss to South Carolina hurts, but that blown lead against Florida State is why Clemson is in Atlanta instead of Miami.
Headliner. So many great players on this Clemson offense. But to borrow a phrase from former baseball great Reggie Jackson, Boyd is the guy who stirs the drink. He is coming off his worst game of the season against South Carolina and will face a defense that's just as tough, if not tougher, than the Gamecocks'. How he performs in this game will have a big impact on whether Clemson can knock off LSU and head into 2013 with a big notch on its belt.
What: Chick-fil-A Bowl
When: Monday, Dec. 31, 7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN
Where: Georgia Dome, Atlanta, Ga.
Line: LSU -6
Prediction: Outside of the Cotton Bowl, this is easily the best non-BCS matchup of the bowl season. In truth, it's better than a couple of the BCS game matchups. It's that classic matchup of a great defense against a great offense. But as we've seen in recent years, those great defenses of the SEC tend to win out against the offenses of the ACC. I don't see that changing in this one. Clemson's defense has not been good this season, and LSU's offense really seemed to find its stride in the final month of the year.
LSU 31, Clemson 21