Why Clemson's versatile defense will provide LSU its biggest challenge of the season

NEW ORLEANS -- You couldn't script a better matchup in the College Football Playoff National Championship. No. 1 LSU will stroll into the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on Monday night with a home run offense that leads the nation in plays of 10+ yards. Standing opposite quarterback Joe Burrow and his slew of superstar playmakers will be a defense for No. 3 Clemson that is second in the country in defensive yards per play (4.16) this season.

The key to Clemson's defensive success has been a new-look front that has changed from years past. Gone are linemen Christian Wilkins, Clelin Ferrell, Austin Bryant and Dexter Lawrence. In their place, Xavier Thomas, Nyles Pinckey, Tyler Davis and Logan Rudolph have led a defensive line that ranks third in the nation with 111 tackles for loss.

"I just couldn't be more proud of our guys and how they've bought in and worked and believed when really nobody else did -- probably me included," said defensive coordinator Brent Venables. "I didn't know, to be honest with you, how we would grow up and develop and those types of things."

How can Clemson do what hasn't been done so far this year? That is getting LSU's offense off of its game and off the field.

By getting crafty, of course.

"Listen, you're playing one of the -- from a baseball analogy, you're playing one of the best hitters ever, and if you're just throwing a fastball, I don't care if you're throwing it 110 or whatever, he's going to hit it, and he's going to hit it a long way," said Clemson coach Dabo Swinney. "So you'd better be a little more Greg Maddux, work the plate a little bit. You'd better have some different pitches. Keep them off base just enough, probably still going to hit it, but maybe it's not a grand slam."

The Clemson defense rarely gives opponents the same look twice. That philosophy has been personified this year by linebacker Isaiah Simmons -- the 6-foot-4, 230-pound Swiss Army knife who has lined up at every position other than defensive tackle this season. His versatility has the full attention of an LSU offense that has to be ready for everything.

"I'm going to have to look him off," said LSU star quarterback Joe Burrow, the 2019 Heisman Trophy winner. "I'm going to have to find him every play. Depending where they put him, they do a lot of different things. So you got to know where he is all the time to know what defense they're trying to do, where they're trying to move him to do different things."

The only defense that has slowed LSU down this season was that of Auburn's, which was led by defensive linemen Derrick Brown and Marlon Davidson. But LSU adjusted at halftime and racked up 508 yards by the time it polished off a 23-20 win in late October 2019.

"Them big dudes up front disrupted everything," Swinney said. "Those guys did a great job, man. We're built a little differently right now than Auburn, but we're similar in some ways, too. And they did do a great job. ... Those guys, they really were disruptive up front, did a great job. And then they picked their spots. You can't just sit there and play zone or just sit there and play man. I thought they were smart and creative and mixing things up."

To continue the baseball analogy, Clemson can bring the heat like Yankees closer Aroldis Champman with its new-look defensive front. But Venables will call those knee-buckling curveballs and nasty circle change-ups more than any other coordinator in this country -- especially with this roster than has a mastery of every pitch.

College Football Writer

Barrett Sallee has been a member of the sports media in various aspects since 2001. He is currently a college football writer for CBS Sports, analyst for CBS Sports HQ and host for the SiriusXM college... Full Bio

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