The latter reinforced the idea that when No. 1 LSU plays No. 3 Clemson on Monday night in the national championship game in the Superdome, on display will be a form of confidence seldom seen in sports, a form that turns common daunts into uncommon certainty. When Clemson stood just two points behind against Ohio State yet so far from scoring that many might have wished to rent a helicopter — facing a Buckeyes team that ranked first in total and yards-per-play defense — well, let wide receiver Amari Rodgers describe it.
“I had certainty in my soul,” he said that night in a jovial locker room.
In that locker room, wherever it may be, the air of certainty feels palpable, from defensive coordinator Brent Venables standing at length amid his defenders while looking back over the hurdled obstacles of a magical night to a row of wideouts saying, as Diondre Overton did, “We definitely have that type of drive in our DNA.”
If LSU can cement maybe the most fun season anybody has ever had by toppling that force and all the five- and four-star Clemson talent that muscles it to reality, LSU of 2019-20 should secure an unusually bright spot among the storied teams in the long history of football played by collegians.
Of course, Clemson already rates as storied. A win in the Superdome, the site of its most recent loss from long, long ago (January 2018), would bring the streak of non-bummers to 30. Clemson would stand alongside another storied bunch, the Texas wishbone-runners of 1968-70, who in post-World War II days are behind only Oklahoma (47, 1953-57), Toledo (35, 1969-71), Miami (34, 2000-02), Southern California (34, 2003-05) and Oklahoma again (31, 1948-50).
The LSU confidence is towering — what coach views a third-and-17 success in Game 2 in early September and surmises he won’t lose all season? — and the Clemson confidence is something else. It became apparent in 2015-16, elite in 2016-17 and something beyond all measure in January 2019 when it showed the capacity to ransack Alabama by four touchdowns.
Across those past five seasons, Clemson has lost only four times out of 73, and those four are easy to recollect as outliers: 45-40 to Alabama in the national title game of January 2016, when Watson drove Nick Saban half-mad and an onside kick turned the tide to the Crimson Tide; 43-42 to Pittsburgh at home in November 2016; 27-24 at Syracuse in October 2017; and 24-6 to Alabama in the Sugar Bowl national semifinal of New Year’s Day 2018.
By late 2019, four plays and 94 yards — Trevor Lawrence to Justyn Ross for 11, Lawrence running for 11, Lawrence to Rodgers for 38, and Lawrence to running back Travis Etienne for 34 — ended a decade few forecast. Clemson went 6-7 in Coach Dabo Swinney’s second full season in 2010, losing the Meineke Car Care Bowl, 31-26, to South Florida, before going 10-4 in 2011 and losing the Orange Bowl, 70-33, to West Virginia. It has gone 101-11 since, starting with the 11-2 of 2012 that ended with a 25-24 win over LSU.
“The last decade?” Swinney said to reporters Sunday morning. “Transformative. Is that a word? We’ve transformed Clemson, and the next decade is the Roaring Twenties. . . . I heard those are great.”
By now, any notion that Clemson’s roaring Tigers won’t spend those Twenties as lead actors in the annual national fall theater would qualify as lunkheaded. So as those Twenties begin, it’s fetching to American eyeballs that they already have tossed Clemson an opponent with its own micro-whoosh of a story.
“No, I couldn’t have written [the story]; there’s no way,” LSU Coach Ed Orgeron told reporters at media day Saturday.
It involves a secondary or tertiary choice in LSU’s coaching search of November 2016: Orgeron, a head coach who could reflect Sunday on a year (2014) that sits blank on his college-and-NFL résumé.
“I didn’t get the job at USC [after being the interim for eight games]. I realize now it was for a reason. It was to come home [to Louisiana]. I got to spend a whole year. I had never seen my kids play. I went to every practice, every game. Cooked a lot of food in the backyard. Had a blast and then was very fortunate that Coach [Les] Miles hired me [as defensive line coach], and for that I’m forever grateful.”
Then, after seasons of 9-4 and 10-3, he presides over this astonishing purple flourish of 2019, with an offense that seems delivered specifically for fans who had spent years lamenting LSU’s strategic muddle. A passing game coordinator (Joe Brady) comes in from the New Orleans Saints, an offensive coordinator (Steve Ensminger) has the humility to welcome that passing game coordinator, and a transfer quarterback (Joe Burrow) goes from good to otherworldly, with 55 touchdown passes smothering six interceptions and a Heisman Trophy standing out amid all the gaudy numerals.
Come January 2020, there’s Burrow, amid reporters, at media day, providing that rare explanation for how things can blossom so: “So last year our tight end was attached to the core all the time. We had two tight ends sometimes, a fullback, and that just brings more [defenders] into the box, makes it difficult to decipher where the blitzes are coming from. Now we can be empty [in the backfield], three by one, detached. It makes the defense really declare themselves for me. I think that’s been a big difference-maker for us as far as getting blitzes picked up.”
In a country forever starved for good blitz-reading, the ensuing LSU storm deluged a proud string of foes, from Texas to Florida to Auburn to Alabama to Georgia to Oklahoma. Now, if LSU can add one more titan, it would have defeated people who operate with a rarefied level of certainty among a species noted for fallibility. To defeat such people is to become storied for good.