NEW ORLEANS (AP) — No. 1 LSU has been unstoppable this season but the top-ranked team in the nation hasn't faced Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables this season.
It is a given that in prepping for the College Football championship game Venables spent plenty of long, dizzying nights in his meeting rooms dissecting the heart of LSU's offense. He has been looking to uncover ways to impede LSU's offensive juggernaut that's been led by Heisman Trophy winner Joe Burrow and a bevy of NFL-ready receivers.
“They do a great job of spreading you out and making you defend every patch of grass on the field," Venables said Saturday. “I'm so sick of seeing" LSU's playmakers.
He'll see them a final time Monday night when No. 1 LSU (14-0; No. 1 CFP) plays No. 3 Clemson (14-0; No. 3 CFP) for the title.
Venables faced a challenge this season just getting his own group up to speed after losing seven starters, including four defensive linemen — All-American tackles Christian Wilkins and Dexter Lawrence and end Clelin Ferrell were all first-round NFL draft picks.
But relying on a talented, versatile back seven led by Butkus award winning linebacker Isaiah Simmons, Venables created a tough-minded, hard-hitting group that's allowing fewer yards than the 2018 national champs.
And in the few moments when Clemson has been pressed, its defense has not panicked. Faced with a two-point try at North Carolina in September in the final minutes that would've surely ended this title run, Clemson stuffed the run to escape with a 21-20 victory.
Clemson's defensive improvement was demonstrated again in the Fiesta Bowl as Ohio State moved into the red zone three times in the opening half, but had to settle for field goals each time. With the Buckeyes driving at the end for a go-ahead score, it was safety Nolan Turner (beaten for a touchdown earlier) who had the interception to clinch things for Clemson.
LSU will score, but like Ohio State, just not enough against Clemson's revamped defense to prevent the Tigers from South Carolina from wrapping up their third national title in four seasons.
Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said Venables is friendly and personal off the field, but that changes when preparing for an opponent.
“It's fourth and one every day," Swinney says, “and everybody's out to get him."
Some other reasons Clemson will beat LSU:
Clemson has a championship-proven leader on offense in quarterback Trevor Lawrence. The sophomore hasn't lost a game in college and doesn't plan to start now. Lawrence said that he and coach Dabo Swinney joke how the rule book never says “you have to lose." Lawrence hasn't since he arrived, a perfect 29-0.
Clemson tailback Travis Etienne thought he would be thrilling LSU fans on the field one day instead of making them angry. The Jennings, Louisiana native seemed a perfect fit for the Bayou Bengals coming out of high school. But LSU took a different route and Etienne went to Clemson. In three seasons, he's twice been the ACC player of the year and a game-changing back looking for a second national title.
WIDE OPEN WIDEOUTS
The focus this week has been on LSU's trio of standout wide receivers and their ability to impact the championship game. Clemson has a couple of receivers, too, who know how to make big plays. Tee Higgins and Justyn Ross are tall, talented and highly regaded just like LSU's La'Marr Chase, Justin Jefferson and Terrace Marshall Jr. As a freshman Ross caught three TDs in Clemson's 44-16 beatdown of Alabama. He and Higgins have combined for more than 1,900 yards and 21 touchdowns this season.
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