NEW ORLEANS -- No. 1 LSU has been enjoying a dream season. No longer is the Tigers offense the punchline to a bad joke, its defense has become a force and it has earned the luxury of playing the College Football Playoff National Championship against No. 3 Clemson an hour down the road from its Baton Rouge, Louisiana, campus.
The challenge standing before the SEC champion Tigers are the orange-and-purple defending national champions, who have won two of the last three titles and made the College Football Playoff in each of the last five seasons. The CFP has almost become a. Will that outweigh LSU's home field advantage?
What are the keys for LSU in order to polish off its dream season and take home the game's biggest prize for the first time since 2007? Let's break them down.
1. Stay true to the new brand of LSU football: The high-octane offense has been the most important college football story of the season. Even when most conventional teams would have drained the clock, LSU has consistently stayed on brand with its pass-happy, tempo-based offense. For proof, look no further than the 61-yard catch-and-run from quarterback Joe Burrow to wide receiver Justin Jefferson on third-and-17 with 2:21 left in the Texas game in Week 2 that extended LSU's lead to 45-31.
Keep that attitude. In order to finish this thing off, LSU can't suddenly go back to its old-school, ball-control roots. It has to dictate their brand of football to Clemson and not let up. Not even for a minute. Not even when common sense says that it is the path of least resistance. Luckily for LSU, coach Ed Orgeron has fully committed to a record-setting "LSU 2.0" offense that leads the nation in scoring (48.9 points per game) and total offense (564.1 yards per game).
"I never dreamed that we would shatter all those records," he said. "But it just goes to show you, like you said, that's from a pro-style offense into a spread. That's the reason -- we have pro-style guys, but you can't score enough points in our opinion in the pro game, in the pro-style offense, so we went to the spread and look what happened."
2. Ensure DBU lives up to its moniker: LSU's defense struggled to find its identity early in the season but hit its stride by the end of the year as its defensive backfield began to resemble its self-given nickname, "DBU." Safety Grant Delpit took home the Jim Thorpe Award, cornerback Derrick Stingley Jr. won SEC Freshman of the Year after notching six interceptions, Kary Vincent added four more picks, and Kristian Fulton put together a phenomenal season in his final year in Baton Rouge. It hasn't all been sunshine and roses for DBU, though. LSU currently ranks 105th in the nation in passing plays allowed of 10+ yards with 128. Its defense can't allow the big plays on Monday night.
Tee Higgins, Justyn Ross and the rest of the Clemson wide receiving corps will pose the toughest test of the season for DBU. Higgins is averaging 19.91 yards per catch and Ross 12.93 as running back Travis Etienne finished third on the team with 32 catches. More specifically, LSU's defensive backs are going to have to win one-on-one matchups against a quarterback in Trevor Lawrence who has a firm grasp of where the ball needs to go and can get it there on time and on the money.
3. Marginalize Clemson star Isaiah Simmons: Simmons, Clemson's linebacker (by roster title) who has lined up at every position other than defensive tackle, has to be accounted for on every play. The 6-foot-4, 230-pound junior has a team-high 95 tackles, 3 interceptions, 14 tackles for loss and 6 sacks for the second-best defense in the country. The first thing Burrow has to do when he lines up the offense is find Simmons and adjust accordingly.
"I think what he does best is when they just let him roam the field in the middle and read my eyes, just get all the different throws through the middle of the field," Burrow said. "I think he's really, really good at that. He's really fast, super explosive, good tackler. He's super tough to defend when he's running that middle of the field."
LSU can't get beat by Simmons. If he demands attention and somebody else on that defense wins the game for Clemson, fine. But it can't be Simmons. Not when LSU knows going in how dominant he can be.
4. Win the punt return game: Even though this is expected to be a high-scoring track meet, football is still a field position game. That's where LSU has to do some damage. It ranks 20th in the country with 12.32 yards per punt return on 19 attempts and is taking on a Clemson special teams unit that has allowed just seven punt returns all season. If LSU can sneak in more than a first down's worth of yardage before Burrow walks on the field for the drive, it will put enormous pressure on a Clemson defense that hasn't been tested by a team like this all year.
There is a concern, though. Like Clemson, LSU has allowed just seven punt returns this season. But Clemson is far less likely to break off a big return. It has averaged just 5.97 yards per return on 31 chances -- a much larger sample size.
5. Get a big game Coach O: Clemson's Dabo Swinney is no stranger to this big stage, but Orgeron is the new kid on the block -- even though this particular block in New Orleans is in his own backyard. Every national championship game in recent memory has included a big play that has made an enormous impact on the outcome.
Alabama's Nick Saban called a perfect onside kick in the first title game matchup against Clemson following the 2015 season. Florida State's Jimbo Fisher called fake punt late in the second quarter to keep momentum in the 2014 BCS Championship Game. Saban, perhaps in desperation mode, called an ill-fated fake field goal with a backup quarterback running behind a kicker into Clemson's base defense in last season's title game.
Some decisions succeed. Others fail. But every coach has a moment or two on this stage where he considers living dangerously. Swinney has a grasp on what buttons to push and when to push them, while Orgeron has no concept of what that's like in this setting. Will he make the right calls in critical moments in the biggest game of his career on Monday night?