The teams competing for a national title have two of the top quarterbacks, two of the top running backs and the luxury of rest.
The Clemson football team has won 29 games in a row. Excuse its performance in the last one.
“I’d give it a B-minus,” Coach Dabo Swinney said of his team’s College Football Playoff semifinal against Ohio State on Dec. 28. “We did some dumb things, had some missed opportunities.
“But,” he continued, “the beautiful thing is we still won.”
The Tigers will need their A game on Monday night when they travel to New Orleans for the national championship game, which is being played at the Superdome, about 80 miles from the campus of their opponent, top-ranked Louisiana State.
Those Tigers seemed to barely break a sweat in dismantling No. 4 Oklahoma, 63-28, in their semifinal matchup, also on Dec. 28. L.S.U., with the No. 1 offense in the country and an improving defense, has already beaten six teams ranked in the top 10 this season. With each one, it looked more and more like a team of destiny.
But the same could also have been said about Alabama last season.
Here is a look at some of the keys to the title game:
L.S.U. safety Grant Delpit said he thought his team had a phenomenal offense at training camp this season. At least, that’s what he hoped he was seeing.
“Either they were going to be really good or we were going to be bad,” Delpit said about his team’s offense and defense, “because they were putting up a lot of yards on us in all the scrimmages.”
L.S.U.’s offense wound up leading the nation with 564.4 yards per game, led by quarterback Joe Burrow, who won the Heisman Trophy. He looked better than ever against the Sooners, scoring eight touchdowns (seven passing, one rushing).
L.S.U. has modeled its offense after the one used by the New Orleans Saints. L.S.U.’s passing-game coordinator, Joe Brady, spent two years with the Saints as an offensive assistant. L.S.U. has a dizzying assortment of talented pass catchers, including tight end Thaddeus Moss, the son of the Hall of Fame receiver Randy Moss, and running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire, who caught 50 passes this season out of the backfield.
But Clemson has a championship-proven quarterback, Trevor Lawrence, who had another incredible season as a sophomore, even if it did not meet the early Heisman Trophy hype. That was mainly because he threw eight interceptions in the first seven games.
Most of them were meaningless — Clemson won by over 30 points in all but one of the games in which he tossed an interception. But in the final two months, Lawrence has flipped a switch. Entering Monday, he has made 202 consecutive pass attempts without getting picked off, a team record, with 22 touchdown passes in that span.
Burrow, the L.S.U. quarterback, gets rid of the ball quickly, and getting to the quarterback has not been a strength for Clemson this season, as it was last season.
“They just shred everybody, and it starts with him,” Swinney said of Burrow. “And it’s not just his ability to throw the ball. He’s made great plays with his legs, too.”
But the Clemson secondary showed why it might be the most talented one Swinney has fielded. In the Playoff semifinal, Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields threw two interceptions after entering the game with only one for the season. And Clemson’s defensive coordinator, Brent Venables, has been creative about crafting deceptive blitzes, so if there is anyone who can throw Burrow off his game, it might be him.
Alabama was averaging nearly 46 points per game last season before it was humbled by Venables, whose defense held the Crimson Tide to 16. Three defensive linemen from that team wound up being drafted in the first round by the N.F.L. But Clemson still managed to allow the fewest points per game (11.5) in the nation this season.
Travis Etienne can make a solid claim as the best running back in Clemson history: He was the first Clemson player to be named Atlantic Coast Conference player of the year in back-to-back seasons since quarterback Steve Fuller in 1977 and 1978.
And it almost never happened. A Jennings, La., native, he was an L.S.U. fan growing up. He was ready and willing to be recruited by the university in 2017. But L.S.U. Coach Ed Orgeron, who was an L.S.U. assistant at the time, came around too late. Etienne was committed to Clemson.
“Every time I see him having success, I’m sick to my stomach,” Orgeron said.
Etienne, a former high school track star, seems to come up with big plays when Clemson needs them most, like his galloping 53-yard touchdown reception on a screen pass in which he knifed right through the middle of the Ohio State defense. He made only three catches against the Buckeyes, but they went for a total of 98 yards.
A Long Layoff
It has been an unusually long layoff between the semifinals and the championship game. Neither team is complaining.
Edwards-Helaire, the L.S.U. running back, was questionable to take the field against Oklahoma because he injured a hamstring in early December; he wound up touching the ball only twice. It was easy to keep him out because the game quickly turned into a blowout.
Edwards-Helaire has called his recovery “miraculous.” After a 16-day layoff, he is expected to be 100 percent on Monday night.
Clemson, which played its semifinal game near Phoenix before flying back to South Carolina, is also relishing the extra time to recover. After the Ohio State game, Lawrence, the quarterback, said he had never felt so sore. That was not surprising. He finished with more yards rushing than Etienne, including a 67-yard touchdown, and absorbed some brutal hits in the process.
Lawrence has shown the grit to win. In his Clemson career, he has yet to experience the soreness after a loss.