“Being here two years now and playing in a few games, you just see how much it doesn’t really matter who’s the favorite, and I think we as a team really understand that,” Lawrence told Sports Illustrated. “Not necessarily that we take offense to it, it’s just like it really doesn’t matter who the favorite is. You’ve got to go play the game.”
It might appear that all that experience doesn’t apply to the Tigers’ defense: Three star players on last season’s defensive line, Clelin Ferrell, Christian Wilkins and Dexter Lawrence, were taken in the first round of the 2019 NFL draft, with cornerback Trayvon Mullen and defensive end Austin Bryant selected in the second and fourth round. Yet not only is this season’s unit one of the best in the nation, it’s Clemson’s best hope of winning another championship.
Heading into Monday’s national championship game in New Orleans, Clemson’s defense ranks No. 1 in the country for points allowed per game (11.5), No. 1 for passing defense per game (151.5 yards), No. 2 for total defense per game (264.1 yards allowed) and No. 2 for yards allowed per play (4.2). It also forced one out of every five opponents’ drives to end with zero or negative yards, the fourth-highest mark in the nation.
Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables faces a significant challenge in trying to slow down the LSU offense, starting with quarterback Joe Burrow, the Heisman Trophy winner and prospective No. 1 pick in this year’s NFL draft.
Clemson has pressured opposing quarterbacks on more than 43 percent of their drop backs but Burrow has stood tall in the pocket when pressured, completing 74 percent of his passes for 1,556 yards and 19 touchdowns, both best in the nation, with just two interceptions, per data from Sports Info Solutions.
The key for Clemson will be its defensive leader, Isaiah Simmons. This year’s Butkus Award winner as the nation’s best college linebacker was used in a variety of situations. He’s been the team’s strong outside linebacker (“SAM”), a spy prowling the line of scrimmage and has also been dropped back in coverage as a safety. Simmons rewarded Clemson’s faith by producing 97 total tackles (14 for losses), 14 quarterback pressures, six sacks, six passes defended and three interceptions. Pro Football Focus called him college football’s most versatile player.
“They use him the right way, I mean built ready for all parts of the field, he’s long, he’s athletic and he has speed and he’s disruptive,” LSU Coach Ed Orgeron told reporters Wednesday. “You don’t know where he’s at, it’s not like they’re playing him as a base linebacker or up field. They play him in the middle of the field, they rush him and I think they use his skills very well. We need to know where he’s at all times on the field.”