On Monday night in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans, La., the 2019-20 college football season will come to a close with the crowning of a new national champion. However the thrilling conclusion of the College Football Playoff will play out, history will be made with either No. 1 LSU capping off one of the most incredible campaigns in the sport’s history or with No. 3 Clemson cementing their modern dynasty with a second straight title and third in the last four years.
But how did these two sets of purple-shaded Tigers get to this point? How did each program arrive on the precipice of greatness this season? The answer started long before summer camp for the 2019 season got underway as a pair of coaches went from little acclaim to the top of their profession and a host of both high-end and overlooked recruits blossomed into stars.
You can start with the reigning champions, who enter Monday with a 29-game winning streak and the opportunity to reset the current gold standard in the sport. Head coach Dabo Swinney is no stranger to holding up the trophy in the final game of the year but was once an overlooked former Alabama receiver who was surprisingly given the interim job in 2008 when Tommy Bowden resigned midway through the season. After a few up and down first couple of seasons, the program hit a turning point in 2012, hiring Brent Venables as defensive coordinator among other changes. Since then, the results speak for themselves with just 11 losses since and double-digit wins each year.
Of course, the stellar coaching has been one thing and the players on the roster have been another. While Clemson has always recruited well, their rankings have steadily climbed with recent classes and the result is a depth chart stocked with four- and five-stars. The senior class alone has a chance to become the winningest in college football history (current record: 55-3) and are supplemented by an extremely young and talented roster from there.
Quarterback Trevor Lawrence is undoubtedly the headliner for the team, living up to his billing as the No. 1 prospect at the position out of high school by winning last year’s title as a true freshman and playing a central role in the current winning streak. The likely No. 1 overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft was phenomenal in the Fiesta Bowl win over Ohio State and has a terrific supporting cast around him to make the No. 4 scoring offense in FBS click. That includes Louisiana native and tailback Travis Etienne and wideout Tee Higgins. Former five-star Jackson Carman mans the left tackle spot while veterans like John Simpson solidify things in the middle. The Tigers’ growing national recruiting reach has been impressive to watch unfold and a good reason why the program sits in the top 10 of the 247Sports’ Team Talent Composite Rankings.
Their opponents have a strikingly similar profile entering yet another championship game in their own back yard. Head coach Ed Orgeron made the most of his own interim stint after Les Miles was fired in 2016 and elevated to the full-time role later that year. He’s made it a point to assemble a top-notch staff around him and has done so by fighting off numerous suitors to retain defensive coordinator Dave Aranda, plus bringing back offensive coordinator Steve Ensminger. None of those moves produced the spark that was the hire of former New Orleans Saints assistant Joe Brady, however, with the latter introducing a variety of new concepts to propel the team to the top of nearly every FBS offensive category. Brady was named the winner of the Broyles Award as the country’s top assistant for his efforts.
The man making everything operate at historic levels is somebody who grew up far from the bayous that dot the landscape south of the school in Joe Burrow. The quarterback was originally a four-star recruit out of the Buckeye state, where his dad was defensive coordinator for Frank Solich at Ohio. He was recruited to Ohio State in the wake of that school’s own national title and spent the next couple of seasons backing up J.T. Barrett. Eventually, he lost out on the starting job to Dwayne Haskins and was a celebrated grad transfer who considered Nebraska, North Carolina and others. Eventually, he found a home in Baton Rouge and, after a solid start in 2018, has set a host of LSU, SEC and FBS records this season on his way to a historic Heisman Trophy victory in December.
Long considered to have one of the best rosters in college football, that sentiment hasn’t changed under noted high-end recruiter Orgeron. While they do have the most outstanding player in the sport running the show behind center, the talent around Burrow is similarly impressive. That includes five-star cornerback tandem Derek Stingley Jr. and Kristan Fulton, wideouts Terrace Marshall and Biletnikoff Award winner JaMarr Chase and defensive tackle Rashard Lawrence. The staff has also done a good job of developing talent too, turning three-star Baton Rouge native Clyde Edwards-Helaire into a productive threat out of the backfield and seeing lightly recruited Justin Jefferson turn into the star of the Peach Bowl win over No. 4 Oklahoma. That’s not even mentioning Thorpe Award winner Grant Delpit, who has turned into the defensive leader the last couple of years after arriving from prep powerhouse IMG Academy and has proven to be key in the team’s second-half surge on that side of the ball after the safety recovered fully from an ankle injury.
All told, the two teams share the same number of 247Sports Composite five-star recruits on their rosters while LSU edges Clemson in four-stars by a 44-33 margin. Despite this, the average rating per player overall on the depth chart is negligible.
Add it all up and it certainly should be a doozy in the Big Easy when kickoff rolls around as two of the most talented teams of the playoff era meet with plenty of history on the line. An LSU win would only add to the incredible amount of hardware the team has brought home this season, while a Clemson victory would be the first back-to-back titles of the Playoff era and put them within striking distance of the modern era win streak.
It’s been an uneven road at times for both programs to reach this point, but now that both are here; just 60 minutes separates a great season with immortality. So let’s go: Tigers vs. Tigers. Death Valley vs. Death Valley. Purple and gold vs. Purple and orange with everything on the line. Even fans of rivals have to sit back and enjoy this matchup because it’s been years in the making and has a chance to go down as one of the best ever.