Despite the plethora of success enjoyed in recent years, No. 3 Clemson enters the College Football Playoff National Championship on Monday as a near touchdown underdog. The Tigers, however, are choosing to relish in the role as they seek their second consecutive national championship and third title in the past four seasons.
For the moment, No. 1 LSU is overshadowing even those accomplishments. The home-standing Tigers have perhaps the most explosive offense in the game. They certainly have the support of a city, a region and a state.
Here are five things Clemson must do in order to pull off the upset (at least, based on the +6 point spread), win its 30th straight game and capture a national title on Monday night.
1. Brent Venables must have something special for LSU: The central question in this game is whether Clemson's defensive play-calling genius can slow down quarterback Joe Burrow and LSU's offense. Few have. But this is the No. 1 scoring offense (LSU) against the No. 1 scoring defense (Clemson). Venables has to have a big night for his Tigers to pull off the upset.
He succeeded in confusing Ohio State's Justin Fields just enough (two interceptions) in the Fiesta Bowl semifinal to aid Clemson's comeback from 16 points down. Venables threw all kinds of looks at the Buckeyes -- two rushers, stand-up rushers (the so-called "radar" defense) and a package of blitzes. This time, we're talking about slowing down the Heisman Trophy winner who has the second-most touchdown passes ever in a season (55).
The conclusion here is that Venables can slow down Burrow and Co. Winning is another thing. For the record, Burrow's worst game was against Auburn (321 yards, touchdown, interception). That day, LSU snuck by 23-20.
2. Trevor Lawrence has to deliver again: Lawrence has come up big before, obviously. If it's possible, he has been upstaged by Burrow in the run up to the game. That's hard to believe with Lawrence 25-0 as a starter. He hasn't lost at all since high school in 2017. "I lost the spring game, too, so people kind of forget about that one," Lawrence said, laughing. "It's kind of what you dream of doing."
But someone has to take second place when playing the Heisman Trophy winner. After leading the ACC in interceptions through September, Lawrence finished the season with 22 touchdowns, no picks in the final seven games. Lawrence's legs became somewhat of an X factor against Ohio State as he surprised by rushing for 107 yards and a touchdown.
3. Avoid being consumed by the ultimate home field disadvantage: It's obvious LSU is the "home" team, playing its fourth championship game of the BCS era 70 miles southeast of its campus. "We're the only one that took a plane here," Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said. "This is definitely a road game. The last one [Fiesta Bowl vs. Ohio State] was a road game. We could have just played it in Columbus, Ohio, and made it a lot easier on everybody."
"It's almost like we're in another country," linebacker Isaiah Simmons said. "We always do, like, 'Rocky' comparisons. Rocky vs. Drago. I guess we're in Russia."
For Swinney, he's in the same city he won the national championship as a player with Alabama in 1992. "Twenty-seven years ago, [I stayed] in the same hotel," he said. "It'd be nice to get the same result."
4. Make Travis Etienne a priority: Clemson's star running back is quietly coming off his worst rushing performance since he was a freshman. Ohio State limited the ACC Player of the Year to 36 yards on 10 rushes. That's ignoring the fact that Clemson adjusted nicely in the game (with Lawrence) as Etienne had a career-best 98 yards receiving, including the game-winning touchdown catch. Still, it's doubtful Clemson can get by another opponent of this caliber without Etienne's presence on the ground.
5. Use the winning streak as additional motivation: It's real, and it's spectacular. A win over LSU would give Clemson 30 in a row. Its last loss was right here in New Orleans more than two years ago against Alabama in the Sugar Bowl semifinal.
Thirty in a row would make it the longest streak since USC's 34-game streak from 2003-05. Only 13 teams would have ever won 30 in a row, and only seven schools would have won more consecutive games, ever. (Oklahoma, Yale and Penn had multiple streaks.) Oh, and it would be the ACC's longest winning streak.
"Regardless of what happens Monday night, this has been historic. This team and certainly our program is not going to be defined by a scoreboard Monday night."
As Swinney hinted, all of it isn't likely to end anytime soon. Eighty of the 120 players on the roster are freshmen and sophomores. Fifteen members of the incoming recruiting class are early enrollees.
"I think we got a good chance to be better next year," Swinney said.
Better? Yikes. First up, though, is Monday night.