4:00 PM EST, ESPN – Line: LSU -13.5, Over/Under: 75.5
Finally, the wait is over, folks, for the College Football Playoff is once again upon us, as the No. One LSU Tigers battle the No. Four Oklahoma Sooners in the first of two National Semifinals, this one from Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, Georgia. As the Regular Season came to it’s conclusion, it became increasingly evident that no team in the country possessed a more impressive CV than Louisiana State (13-0, 9-0 in SEC), who in emerging as the champions of the Southeast Conference, managed to knock off quite the string of formidable opponents. Seriously, Ed Orgeron’s charges knocked off not one, not two, not three, not four, but five teams ranked in the Top-10, the only outfit to own that distinction this season. While nobody would argue the Tigers’ place in the Playoff, there was indeed a valid debate as to where they fit in, with many pointing to the No. Two Ohio State Buckeyes as a more convincing candidate for No. One Overall. While we will concede that the Buckeyes are arguably a more balanced football team, the discussion ended once LSU pummeled then No. Four Georgia in the SEC Championship Game in a 37-10 rout, ultimately solidifying their position as the top-seeded club in the Playoff. Though the odds were certainly tilted in their favor (thanks to the relative health of the Bulldogs), the West Division Champions went about handling their business with ruthless efficiency. There was nothing close about this one, folks, for the eventual League Champions dominated the box score, outgaining their opponent 481-286, ran the ball for 132 Yards on Thirty-Six Carries, while Heisman-winning Quarterback, Joe Burrow (77.9%, 4,715 YDS, 10.7 Y/A, 48 TD, 6 INT), continued his assault on the record books in Baton Rouge, deftly completing 28-of-38 Passes for 349 Yards and Four Touchdowns. Then again, this is what we’ve come to expect of the Senior this season, for no player in the country has seen their stock rise higher than the native of Athens, Ohio. To think that this kid was an afterthought at Ohio State, prompting his transfer to Louisiana State, where he didn’t necessarily set the world on fire in first season with the program. In 2018, Burrow completed 57.8% of his Attempts for 2,894 Yards on 7.6 Yards per Attempt, with Sixteen Touchdowns in comparison to Five Interceptions. A modest showing indeed, though all of that would change following the most understated acquisition of the Offseason: Orgeron’s hiring of Assistant Coach, Joe Brady. With the Offense continuing to stall under his tenure, the Head Coach went to his NFL counterpart, Sean Payton of the New Orleans Saints for help, prying away the young Brady, who would join his Coaching Staff as something akin to a Passing Game Coordinator. Simply put, the Offense has been a revelation in 2019, averaging a prolific 47.8 Points per Game (3rd Overall) on a staggering 554.5 Total Yards, with Burrow posting dramatic increases across the board, completing 77.9% of his Attempts for 4,715 Yards on 10.7 Yards per Attempt, Forty-Eight Touchdowns and just Six Interceptions, with those first three figures all standing as school records. With that in mind, it was no surprise that he took home the Heisman, though few could have seen that it would by a record disparity in votes. Furthermore, he’s become the consensus top pick in the 2020 NFL Draft, exhibiting an excellent grasp of Brady’s pro-style Offense, executing the Gameplan with precise passing reminiscent of Drew Brees. To put up those statistics in the SEC alone is very telling, and the fact that he performed as well as did against the some of the best teams in the nation further only further builds his legend; against the likes of Florida, Auburn, Alabama, and Georgia, Burrow completed a surgeon-esque 78.3% of his Passes for an average of 339.0 Yards with Eleven Touchdowns opposed to One Interception. Anytime a Quarterback is this prolific, there’s bound to be playmakers surrounding him, and at Louisiana State, that’s generally true, with three different Receivers hauling at least Ten Touchdowns, with Ja’Marr Chase (73 REC, 1,498 YDS, 20.5 Y/R, 18 TD), Justin Jefferson (88 REC, 1,207 YDS, 13.7 Y/R, 14 TD), and Terrace Marshall Jr. (37 REC, 545 YDS, 14.7 Y/R, 10 TD), reaping the rewards from their outlet. Only a Sophomore, Chase has been the most electrifying of the group, leading the Receiving Corps in both Yards (1,498) and Touchdowns (18) averaging a healthy 20.5 Yards per Catch, while the healthy return of Marshall, who missed three games in the middle of the campaign, made this attack even more difficult to prepare for. However, arguably the most important cog in this machine is the versatile Clyde Edwards-Helaire (197 CAR, 1,290 YDS, 6.5 Y/C, 16 TD), who really became a matchup nightmare out of the Backfield for the Tigers. When you think the aforementioned Payton’s tenure with Saints, his Offenses always made excellent use of a Tailback that could run routes and catch the football, which is where the Junior has really raised his profile in 2019; in addition to rushing for a career-high 190 Yards and an SEC-best Sixteen Touchdowns, Edwards-Helaire also reeled in Fifty Receptions for 399 Yards and another score, easily the most Catches by a Running Back within the league. Unfortunately, we may not get to see him in action tonight, for he suffered a pulled hamstring in practice last week, leaving his availability in the air. Earlier this week, Orgeron was rather coy, stating that he has “has a chance to play Saturday”, though if he does, it’s unknown just how effective he will be. And speaking of effective, it will be interesting to see how effective the Tigers’ Defense will be against the always-explosive Oklahoma Offense. This hasn’t been the most staunch Defense that the faithful in Baton Rouge have seen over the years, certainly in comparison to it’s immediate predecessor, but it is not short on talent, and really started play better down the stretch. LSU allowed just 12.3 Points on a paltry 253.0 Total Yards over the final three games of the season, including the only time that they managed to relegate their opposition below 300 Total Yards in back-to-back games. Sooners’ Quarterback, Jalen Hurts (more on him in a bit), is no stranger to Orgeron and his Staff, so this Defense should be prepared for the former Alabama Transfer.
Meanwhile, for the third consecutive year, Oklahoma (12-1, 9-1 in Big XII) finds themselves in the College Football Playoff, though this time they no doubt have designs on advancing past the National Semifinal, where they’ve met defeat in each of the previous two campaigns. Granted, some folks out there may consider the Sooners fortunate to even be in the Playoff, particularly given how they performed over the last third of the season, in which they were far from dominant, and rallied back on a number of occasions to secure yet another Big XII Championship, their fifth consecutive honor. While the first three spots in the Playoff were etched in stone, the final one was the subject of intense debate for weeks before the Selection Committee unveiled their choices at the beginning of the month. As Big XII Champion, Lincoln Riley’s charges were firmly in the discussion, though they were in competition with both Georgia and Utah, both of which entered their respective Conference Championships ranked ahead of them. As the Sooners grinded out a 30-24 victory against No. 8 Baylor that required Overtime to decide a champion, Utah was stunned by Oregon in the Pac-12 Championship, while Georgia was humbled by LSU in the SEC Title Game as we detailed earlier. Basically, this handled their business and trusted the Committee, who rewarded them with today’s affair with the Tigers. For the second time in a month, Oklahoma won a close one against Baylor, though this time they wouldn’t have to rally from 25-Point Deficit; the Sooners started quickly, establishing a 10-0 lead in the First Quarter, and would never trail in the contest, despite the Bears’ many attempts, squaring away the score on two occasions. Leading 23-13 midway through the final stanza, their opponent scored twice inside of the final ten minutes to force Overtime, though matters wouldn’t linger as Junior Tailback, Rhamondre Stevenson (65 CAR, 516 YDS, 7.9 Y/C, 6 TD), barreled into the End Zone for a 5-Yard Touchdown to seal the deal. Upon looking at the Box Score, it’s rather remarkable that this affair ever managed to make it an extra period; Oklahoma outgained their opponent 433-256, racked up Twenty-One First Downs to Baylor’s Eight, and outrushed them 146-35. The equalizer though was Turnovers, with the eventual champions committing two. It was the fifth time in the last six outings that they found themselves embroiled in a game decided by one score, which is why they are considered the weakest out of this crop of Playoff Selections. Yes, this Offense remains as prolific as ever under Riley’s watch, even with the aforementioned Hurts (71.8%, 3,634 YDS, 11.8 Y/A, 32 TD, 7 INT) at the controls. Three years and three different Heisman Finalists at Quarterback for Oklahoma, with Hurts acquainting himself nicely after the likes of Baker Mayfield and Kyler Murray, who both walked away from Norman carrying the sports most prestigious award. On the season, the Senior has completed 71.8% of his Attempts for 3,634 Yards on 11.8 Yards per Attempt, with Thirty-Two Touchdowns and just Seven Interceptions, while also serving as the team’s leading rusher, with 1,255 Yards and eighteen more scores. Coming from an Offense that stood in stark contrast to that of the Big XII outfit, some wondered just how proper of a fit that the former Crimson Tide trigger man would be, but it’s clear that Riley has proved adept at tailoring his scheme to whomever he has in the shotgun; the Sooners averaged a prolific 43.2 Points per Game (6th Overall) on a whopping 554.4 Total Yards, with Hurts accounting for a staggering 376.1 Total Yards per Game, or in other words roughly 67.8% of the Offense. To put that in perspective folks, that’s more production than about a quarter of the teams that are competing in a bowl this winter. As is the case with his counterpart tonight, there is plenty of talent surrounding him, particularly in the case of Junior receiver, CeeDee Lamb (58 REC, 1,208, 20.8 Y/R, 14 TD), who hauled in 1,208 Yards on a healthy 20.8 Yards per Attempt and Fourteen Touchdowns. No Receiver in the country has been more dangerous after the catch, with Riley oftentimes using him in a variety of ways that have further confounded opposing Defenses. However, they may need to rely upon more than ever in this particular matchup, for there is plenty of uncertainty in the Backfield, as their top two Tailbacks, Kennedy Brooks (145 CAR, 976 YDS, 6.7 Y/C, 5 TD) and the aforementioned Stevenson, are at risk, with the former dealing with a lingering neck injury that has limited him in practice for weeks now, and the former subject to a suspension for violating team rules, along with two other players. Indeed, it appears that Hurts will be carrying an even bigger responsibility offensively than usual, which may leave him a target against the Tigers’ Defense, which he is very familiar with; in his time in Tuscaloosa, Hurts was 2-0 against LSU, though he had for more success as a rusher than as a passer, completing a miserable 48.8% of his Passes for 145.0 Yards per Game a Touchdown and Interception, while rushing for 158 Yards and a pair of scores on Thirty-Four Carries.