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Old 01-13-2020, 08:20 AM
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Hot & Not - Title Game Angles
Matt Blunt

The wait between the semifinals and national title game this year is gigantic, but that's probably exactly how Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney wants it. Can you imagine the type of rhetoric he'd spew if he were in the Big 10, and had just a week to prepare for a ranked Big 10 team like say Michigan, and then followed that up a week later with a game against a ranked Big 10 team like Wisconsin, as Ohio State had to do this year. There is little chance Clemson would even sniff a winning streak like the one they've currently got going, and the absurdities coming out of Swinney's mouth would be hysterical.

Instead, the guy who continually complains his program gets no respect, gets to cruise through a eight-game conference schedule (opposed to nine games for nearly every other conference) in the weakest Power 5 conference there is, and then parlays that into multiple weeks to prepare for Ohio State, and then multiple weeks to prepare LSU in this title game. One, that Clemson may not even be in had they not been given a gift of an overruled fumble return TD that would have likely put the hole they were in against the Buckeyes too deep to come out of...

You've got to give it to Swinney though, as his rhetoric is highly persuasive for those that seemingly can't see through it, and who knows, maybe one day soon we will see either a nine-game ACC schedule for the conference, or multiple ACC teams crack a Top 25 ranking when they face the Tigers in regular season play. That way, Clemson won't spend 75% of their football season feasting on cupcake opponents and can't parlay that into routine playoff appearances and absurd rhetoric from Swinney.

But in the interest of fairness, Clemson did beat who was put in front of them (again, something Swinney has a hand in), and find themselves with a chance to win 30 straight games and be the first college football program to defend their College Football Playoff national title. The breaks they have gotten might be outrageous, but you've still got to be a good football team to get to this point, and Clemson has been here two years in a row.

And while a month ago I did lay out this piece and this piece, outlining past stats and trends to keep in consideration for the CFB Playoffs, it doesn't hurt to do one more now that the two teams playing for the title are set. And in the interest of fairness, I'll outline situations/stats that work both for and against each team involved.

Who's Hot

In favor of LSU – Teams in the National Title game that finished the regular season with a worse turnover margin per game are 5-0 ATS in the championship game during the playoff era

In terms of outright winners, Alabama's the only program to win a national title with a better turnover margin per game then their opponent, as they did so when they beat Georgia and Clemson in this game. But the latter two teams there did cover the spread as underdogs in those games, to go along with Clemson being on the lower end of this stat line in their two national championship wins, as was Ohio State in the inaugural playoff.

This year's game sees Clemson – who finished +1 in turnover margin per game in the regular season – going up against LSU – who finished +0.8 in turnover margin per game in the regular season -puts this historical edge on the side of the Bayou Bengals.

Who knows, maybe it has been a case of the turnovers drying up against elite competition for these strong turnover margin teams, but while the angle of “the Heisman winner never wins the national title” likely getting spewed to death this week, this is an angle that does favor LSU and quarterback Joe Burrow's squad.
In favor of Clemson – National title teams that finished the regular season with more rushing yards per game are 4-1 SU in playoff era
Not only a stat that suggests taking the points with Dabo Swinney's crew, but one that points to them defending their title as well.

College football is something where talent definitely matters, as the better teams have the better players, and because of that, they can often play “bully ball” against lesser foes and just simply beat them by running the ball down their throat. That mantra doesn't necessarily apply to a national title game, but what it does help in this case, is letting the team that's ultimately more confident and more reliant in their running game to establish some rhythm, dictate the tempo, and possibly wear down the will of their foe.

I'm not sure the latter will happen here given that LSU's defense did face stiffer tests on a weekly basis with their SEC schedule, but if Clemson can use their rushing attack (239.1 yards per game in regular season) to sustain long drives and potentially let a layer of rust form on Burrow and that LSU offense, a repeat champion is what we could end up seeing.

Who's Not

In favor of Clemson – Backing the team with a worse opponent yards per play number has you 1-4 SU in national title games during the playoff era

Clemson finished the year tied with Ohio State atop the country in opponent yards per play at 3.7. LSU managed to post a 4.9 opponent yards per play number this year which was 25th in the country. Historically, that's a good spot for Clemson to be in, but I'm not entirely sold on this trend this season as I would have been in year's past. And it speaks to the quality of competition these two teams faced this year as well as how their games played out.

Not only was Clemson able to rack up great defensive numbers against the offensively challenged ACC, but LSU's numbers are likely skewed a bit worse then they should be given how many times they packed it in in the 2nd halves of games they firmly had in control. That's on top of LSU facing much better competition overall. Clemson had plenty of time for their second stringers in games they had firmly in control as well, but even those second stringers were much better then the starters they were up against most of the time in ACC play, so it is what it is for Clemson here.

But the saying “defense wins championships” always has some level of truth to it, and Clemson did hold an Ohio State team that averaged 6.8 yards per play this year to just 5.8 yards per play in that semi-final game. Again, that overturned fumble return completely flipped the momentum of that semi-final game, so who knows how things would have been different if that had stood, but this was info found and something that is a solid piece of supporting evidence for those already looking at the Clemson side. I'm just not sure I'd put that much weight into it this year.

In favor of LSU – National Championship teams that lost the time of possession battle in their semi-final game are 0-2 SU in the title game during the playoff era
Again, another stat that doesn't hold extraordinary weight here, especially since it's only occurred twice – Oregon in 2014 and Georgia in 2017 – and the ATS record for both of those sides is split at 1-1 ATS. It's also something that can be highly relative to the opponent faced in the semis, and without question, Clemson had the harder test in getting by Ohio State, compared to LSU's contest vs Oklahoma.

Clemson did lose the time of possession battle 33:27 to 26:33 in that semi-final game, while LSU won the ball control game against Oklahoma with a 32:58 to 27:02 edge. Every single national champion in the playoff era won the time of possession battle in their respective semi-final game, so for those that may be looking at potential ML plays, this is a check that goes LSU's way.

Final point

Going back to this piece from a month ago, I discussed how every past national champion in the playoff era did finish the regular season with at least 5 ATS defeats. That works in LSU's favor for this game, and let's not forget the second point I made in that ATS record section of that piece:
The team with the best regular season ATS record has been the runner-up in each of the last three years and four of the five playoff seasons overall.
We will have to wait and see if that holds true once again this year, as it would with an LSU outright win. Clemson and their 10-3 ATS record during the season could end up following in the footsteps of those past programs to come up short in this game.

The point-spread is always the great equalizer though, and with this year's number holding relatively steady at LSU -5.5 since it opened, could we see the same scenario that we have in the odd numbered years (as to when season started, not date of title game) of these playoff games in the past – the favorite wins the game outright but the underdog covers....
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