Kim Klement-US PRESSWIRE
Clemson has gone 20-6 since the start of the 2011 season. That is very, very good. But the Tigers folded late against both of the good defenses on their 2012 schedule ... and now they get to take on LSU in a packed, intense Georgia Dome. 7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN.
5 Players To Watch
DeAndre Hopkins (WR, Clemson, Jr.) and Sammy Watkins (WR, Clemson, So.). Perhaps you've heard of them? Rarely can an offense step to LSU's defense and offer a competitive number of playmakers. Typically LSU can take some defensive risks knowing that it has more big-time athletes than you do. But against Clemson, that is not necessarily the case.
We'll see how the Clemson line holds up against LSU's dynamic front four, but between quarterback Tajh Boyd, running backs Andre Ellington and Roderick McDowell, and these two receivers, Clemson has more playmakers than most defenses can handle. Despite missing Watkins to both suspension and injury (he missed three games and was less-than-full-strength for one or two others), Clemson ranked 12th in Off. F/+; the Tigers' run game is decent (25th in Rushing S&P+), but CU separates itself with both its ability to pass (third in Passing S&P+) and its ability to bail itself out of jams (fifth in Passing Downs S&P+).
With Watkins struggling to meet enormous expectations, Hopkins (1,214 yards, 11.5 per target, 65 percent catch rate) took over as a No. 1 receiver of sorts and thrived. The junior scored 16 touchdowns and connected on 21 receptions of 20 yards or more. He is a rare mix of explosiveness and efficiency, and he does something pretty incredible: He makes Watkins a luxury. At 10-2, Clemson has shown it can win games without major production from Watkins. And while LSU's pass defense is perfectly fine, it bears mentioning that, while steady veteran Tharold Simon is around to match up with either Hopkins or Watkins, true freshman Jalen Mills will spend a lot of time matched up versus the other. Mills held his own this season, but he will probably be facing off against the best No. 2 receiver in the country ... whether that is Hopkins or Watkins.
Zach Mettenberger (QB, LSU, Jr.). LSU head coach Les Miles and offensive coordinator Greg Studrawa really, really trust Zach Mettenberger behind center. How can you tell? Because of this: While LSU is as run-heavy as ever on standard downs -- the Tigers run 69 percent of the time on such downs, 15th-most in the country, and will hand to some combination of Jeremy Hill, Kenny Hilliard, Michael Ford and Spencer Ware (mostly Hill and Ware of late) about 34 times per game -- the Tigers take quite a few more risks on passing downs this fall than they previously did. LSU runs just 26 percent of the time on passing downs, 101st in the country. On second- or third-and-long, they ask Mettenberger to make a play (or at least not make a huge mistake), and he comes through quite a bit.
Despite throwing a disproportionate amount of the time on passing downs, and despite a receiving corps that is sometimes hands-challenged, Mettenberger managed to completed a reasonably decent 59 percent of his passes (this improved to 62 percent in November) and, more importantly, threw just six interceptions all season. His arm is as strong as just about any in the country, but he harnesses it pretty well, and he knows when to simply throw the ball away and lean on the defense. LSU's success typically depends on how well it is running the ball, but Mettenberger can bail the Bayou Bengals out of some jams. (Just ask Alabama.)
And it goes without saying that, though the Clemson defense improved a bit in Brent Venables' first season as defensive coordinator, the pass defense is stil quite lacking. They will bail your offense out of some jams. If LSU can keep sophomore pass-rush specialist Vic Beasley (eight sacks, eight pressures in just 279 snaps) off of Mettenberger, he should find some open receivers downfield. And they might even catch the passes he throws them!
Kevin Minter (MLB, LSU, Jr.). Stud ends Sam Montgomery and Barkevious Mingo (combined: 17.5 tackles, 11 sacks, 15 hurries, five passes defensed) justifiably get a lot of attention from both pundits and offensive coordinators. But you probably already know about them. Their prowess distracts from the wonderful season Minter has put together; the junior leads the team in tackles (79.5) and tackles for loss (13.5), is third in sacks (3.0) and has even defensed six passes. Making a ton of tackles as a middle linebacker is not, in and of itself, amazingly impressive. Making plays, however, is always impressive; and Minter makes a lot of them.
As a whole, LSU is getting a solid number of plays from its linebacking corps this season. With the departures of star defensive backs Morris Claiborne (planned) and Tyrone Mathieu (unplanned), the linebackers were asked to do a bit more than they had to last season, and a young unit (juniors Minter, Tahj Jones and Lamin Barrow are backed up by nothing but true freshmen) has responded. Getting A-grade contributions from Minter hasn't hurt.
Tharold Simon (CB, LSU, Jr.). Simon had the unenviable task of succeeding Claiborne as LSU's shutdown corner, and while he probably hasn't been Claiborne-level good, he has still been quite strong. LSU ranks 10th in Passing S&P+ and third on passing downs, and Simon has picked off four passes and broken up another eight. He should hold his own against either Hopkins or Watkins, but really, he will need to do more than just hold his own. Clemson is nearly unstoppable if both Hopkins and Watkins are playing at a high level, and considering aforementioned freshman Jalen Mills (or redshirt freshman Jalen Collins) will be lined up against one, Simon will need to do very, very well against the other.
4 Reasons To Watch
1. Really? You would think about not watching a game between two fast, fun teams, played inside a dome in front of fans perhaps as passionate as those who filled the same dome for the SEC title game a few weeks ago? You don't need me to tell you to watch. One would hope that you have already decided to on your own.
2. See Reason No. 1.
3. See Reason No. 2.
4. Bonus football. Bonus football! And intense, high-quality football at that.
3 Key Factors
1. Tajh Boyd vs. a great defense. In all, you can force mistakes out of Clemson quarterback Tajh Boyd. The junior's upside is enormous -- for the season he completed 67 percent of his passes for 3,550 yards and 34 touchdowns, and he rushed for 675 pre-sack rushing yards and nine touchdowns. He had 26 carries of at least 10 yards and 57 completions of at least 20 yards. He is a dual-threat, and he leads one of the most explosive offenses. But ... he has also thrown 13 interceptions and taken 26 sacks, and in Clemson's two losses (against Florida State and South Carolina, easily the only two defenses on Clemson's schedule that can approximate LSU's speed and proficiency), Boyd completed just 52 percent of his passes with three interceptions and eight sacks. When his team has the athletic advantage, he is marvelous. When it doesn't, however, he still struggles. He won't be allowed many mistakes against LSU.
2. Can Clemson's defense get off of the field? On standard downs, the battle between LSU's offense (30th on standard downs, 12th in Rushing S&P+) and Clemson's defense (49th on standard downs, 39th in Rushing S&P+) should be relatively competitive. LSU holds an edge, but not an enormous one. Clemson should expect to force some passing downs along the way, but the CU defense has just been an abomination on passing downs, ranking 94th on such downs, 101th versus the pass. A change in defensive coordinators has not yet solved this enormous issue. LSU's offense is far from spectacular on such downs, but it could still make Clemson pay for its overall lack of pass rush or aggressive pass defense. If Clemson is allowing LSU to dig out of holes on second- or third-and-long, it is difficult to see how Clemson wins this game.
3. Uncle Mo. Motivation and momentum play such enormous roles in bowl games. Not in-season momentum -- that ends when the regular season ends and everybody stops playing for a few weeks -- but in-game momentum. The Chick-fil-A Bowl crowd will be one of the better of the bowl season and is guaranteed to get loud with every big play, no matter which team makes it. And one big play could build on another. But what about motivation? LSU was a preseason Top 5 team that has had a good season (10-2 with wins over South Carolina and Texas A&M), but not a great one. Clemson, meanwhile, fell apart late against both Florida State and South Carolina, which kept the Tigers from a second straight BCS bowl bid; plus, they will either face extra motivation or extra stigma based on last year's awful Orange Bowl performance versus West Virginia.
Because of that last point, you could almost add a fourth key factor here: the first quarter. If Clemson comes out strong and proves itself capable of matching LSU's athleticism for the most part, then the motivation of last year's blowout loss to West Virginia could push CU over the top a bit, especially in the face of their late-game struggles versus Florida State and South Carolina. But if the Tigers struggle early, the "Here We Go Again" effect could take hold in a major, major way.
F/+ Pick: LSU by 10.5.
Bill's Pick: LSU by 14. I really want Clemson to make this a game, and I think they can ... but they have to prove it to me.
1 Shutdown Fullback
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