Monday night’s LSU-Clemson title game is a heavyweight bout in every since of the word. The Tiger Tussle. The Dual of Death Valley. One team rides in on a 29-game winning streak looking for its second straight national championship and its third in four years, and the other is possessed by its own manifest destiny, breaking free of a decade’s worth of close-but-no-cigars, carrying a whole state on its back while trying to win a title in that state.
In the best quarterback showdown we’ve had since Heisman winner Sam Bradford vs. Heisman winner Tim Tebow for the 2008 title, Heisman winner and future No. 1 pick Joe Burrow will go throw for throw with future Heisman winner and future No. 1 pick Trevor Lawrence.
But that’s not the excited I’m most excited to watch. Not exactly.
Burrow and his slew of pass-catchers staring down Clemson’s pass defense might be the best matchup in college football history — or at least that I can find.
For starters, LSU enters the Superdome with the nation’s top scoring offense, averaging 48.9 points per game. Clemson’s scoring defense is also the best, at 11.5 a game. I reached out to ESPN Stats & Information to see if any championship game had pitted the No. 1 scoring offense against the No. 1 scoring defense… and they never got back to me. But I can say it hasn’t happened in the game’s Championship Era, dating back to 1998. I was able to go back to 2000, and here’s the closest we’ve come:
|Season||Scoring Offense||Scoring Defense||Result|
|2018||No. 3 Alabama||No. 1 Clemson||Clemson, 44-16|
|2009||No. 3 Texas||No. 2 Alabama||Alabama, 37-21|
|2008||No. 1 Oklahoma||No. 4 Florida||Florida, 24-14|
|2003||No. 3 Oklahoma||No. 1 LSU||LSU, 21-14|
|2002||No. 4 Miami||No. 2 Ohio State||Ohio State, 31-24|
As you can see, defense beat offense every time. Those offenses, every one of them averaging more than 40 points per game, averaged 16.2 points in those five losses.
Dig even further and the matchup gets even juicier.
Here is a breakdown of Burrow’s rank in selected passing numbers, against Clemson’s corresponding defensive rank.
|372 ypg||2nd||Passing||1st||151.5 ypg|
|10.9||2nd||Yards Per Att.||1st||5.5|
|81||1st||20+ Yd. Comps||1st||24|
— In by far its biggest test of the season, Clemson limited Ohio State’s Justin Fields to his worst game of the season. Having entered the Fiesta Bowl with an out-of-this-world 40-to-1 touchdown-to-interception ratio, Fields went 30-of-46 for 320 yards (7.0 yards per attempt; he averaged 9.2) with one touchdown against two interceptions. The resulting 122.13 rating was 26 points lower than his next-lowest game and 33 percent below his season average.
— Should Clemson limit Burrow to 67 percent of his season averages, he would still go something like 20-of-37 for 278 yards with three touchdowns and an interception. The resulting 138.5 quarterback rating is roughly 33 percent off Burrow’s 204.6 average… and would still be in the top half nationally if spread across an entire season. Fields’ 122.1 rating put him down in the 90s.
— Burrow’s worst game to date this season was LSU’s 23-20 win over Auburn on Oct. 26. He went 32-of-42 (76.2 percent) for 321 yards (7.6 per attempt) with one touchdown and one interception. He recorded a 143.49 rating. It’s the only time he’s been held under 9.1 per attempt, his only game this season without multiple touchdown passes, and the only time he hasn’t thrown more touchdowns than interceptions. In fact, the only other team to “hold” Burrow under three scoring strikes was Northwestern State, and the only team to swipe more than one Burrow pick was Ole Miss.
— Clemson’s toughest opponent from a pass defense perspective was a Wofford team that threw all of 10 passes out of a triple option attack. Not exactly analogous to LSU. Its next toughest opponent was North Carolina, who played the Tigers to a 21-20 decision back on Sept. 28. UNC QB Sam Howell went 15-of-27 (55.6 percent) for 144 yards (5.3 per attempt) with two touchdowns and no interceptions, good for a 124.8 rating. It’s one of two times Clemson has surrendered multiple touchdown passes and the only time Clemson has left a game with a negative ledger on the touchdown-to-interception scale.
— Burrow has hit at least 80 percent of his passes four times, and hit 79.5 percent twice. Clemson has held eight opponents to under 50 percent completions.
— Burrow has averaged at least 11 yards per attempt six times, and gone over 12 four times. Clemson has limited six opponents to under five yards per attempt.
— Collectively, LSU receivers have recorded 16 100-yard games, plus a 99-yard game. Clemson has allowed one.
LSU vs. Clemson is very much the college football equivalent of Ali vs. Frazier or Tyson vs. Holyfield, but the fight within the fight will be Steve Ensminger and Joe Brady vs. Brent Venables.