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Mulvena: What we learned from the National Championship

| Tuesday, January 21, 2020

LSU’s historic season was capped last week by yet another commanding win, one in which the Tigers proved themselves, without a reasonable doubt, to be the best team in the nation. Clemson’s 10 point lead in the second quarter, although an impressive margin over a team which prided itself on substantially outscoring its opponents, never truly felt like a threat.

Of course, one probably would not have expected Clemson star quarterback Trevor Lawrence to play the remainder of the game as he did. Lawrence played abysmally on the big stage. Perhaps his low level of performance was accentuated by the fact that he has been phenomenal in his college football career thus far, but 18-37 with 234 yards in the National Championship just won’t get it done. But I don’t think many people would walk away from that game saying Lawrence was exposed. He is no doubt a fantastic quarterback, and now that Joe Burrow will be heading off to the NFL, he is likely the best quarterback in college football.

But I think we did learn a lot from LSU’s victory. The Tigers’ championship season ought to be a telling example to elite college football programs, especially in light of the recent back and forth between Clemson and Alabama. So, what did we learn from LSU this season?

Recruiting is king. 

Much has been said of Coach Ed Orgeron and his revival of LSU’s program. His unique voice and conspicuous mannerisms are likable, and by all accounts he is primarily responsible for the establishment of this championship team. But it’s no secret, and I’m sure Coach O would admit it himself, that Ed Orgeron is not an Xs and Os mastermind. He never has been. Whether it be in the interim head coach position at USC or as the head coach at Ole Miss, it was clear that Coach O was not an offensive or defensive mastermind. But what has become clear in his time at LSU is the fact that Coach O is the king of recruiting. His ability to inspire and motivate young college football players is unmatched. Everyone loves to talk about LSU’s new offensive “system,” but let’s not lose sight of the fact that LSU’s talent is unbelievable. Orgeron managed to convince Burrow, who as it turns out is a stud, to join his program. Running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire, who was not a top 100 player in his recruiting class, finished the season with 1,414 rushing yards on 215 attempts, averaging 6.6 yards per carry. But Coach O must have seen something in Edwards-Helaire as a member of his new system down the road. You could go on and on about LSU’s deep wide receiver corps or talented linebackers, but in any case, the Tigers proved that recruiting is the key to building a powerhouse in the long run, however influential superb coaching may be. As Texas A & M head coach Jimbo Fisher once said, “I’ve never seen anyone win the Kentucky Derby with a donkey.”

Know your personnel.

If you’ve watched any interviews with coach Orgeron, it’s likely you’ve heard him mention Joe Brady, former LSU passing game coordinator. Orgeron brought him on in 2019 to run the passing game, and boy did it work. Quarterback Joe Burrow threw for 5,617 yards on the year, and the team averaged an absurd 406.1 yards per contest with a 75.1% completion rate. Those are staggering numbers. To expect any team to throw for 400 yards in a game, assuming the opponents are somewhat evenly matched, is just wild to think about. Coach O has also mentioned offensive coordinator Steve Ensminger, the other key to LSU’s new high powered offensive system, on a number of occasions. The point is that Coach O continually credited his key personnel, and more importantly, he exhibited an immense amount of trust in that personnel. After all, bringing LSU from the ground game focused days of Les Miles to the high powered aerial attack of Joe Brady and Joe Burrow could not have happened without trust in a number of channels.

Defense wins championships…? 

We like to think that we can rely on a staunch defense, especially late in the year, when it matters most. For some reason, there is this anxiety that comes with relying on a high-powered offense all year. What if they have an off day? It feels like if the defense has an off night, the offense can make up for it, or you can hope the opposing offense has an off night. But LSU’s offense debunked this whole construct. If you wanted to beat the Tigers, you simply had to keep pace with their scoring for four quarters. They could just beat you from any angle, and no one in the power five could replicate their pace. And LSU’s defense in the first half of the season was a bit shaky, whereas the offense was always their rock. This high-powered offense proved that offense can win championships, and in some cases, it might prove more reliable to have than a stout defense.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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