By The Numbers: Previewing the National Championship Game
Welcome to By The Numbers, a series in which I plan to preview upcoming games using numerical analysis. I hope to make this a regular feature starting next year. Since there are innumerable games to cover in a given year and only one of me, I am looking for people who may be interested in contributing to this type of column. So if you like to write about college football analysis and this is a format that interests you, hit me up in the off-season!
It's hard to believe, but we're finally here. It's the culmination of the 2019 season as the Tigers from Clemson face off against the Tigers from LSU for the inaugural national title of the decade. And it should be a great one by all indications. Coming into bowl season, there was not much debate on who the top three teams were. Most of the debate centered around who should get the 4th spot in the College Football Playoff and which of the top three teams would face off in a semifinal matchup as the 2nd and 3rd seeded teams.
LSU was awarded the top seed and breezed past Oklahoma on the shoulders of their Heisman Trophy winning quarterback. Defending champions Clemson started off the season slow and there were questions about their strength of schedule in a notoriously weak ACC. They erased any doubt by outlasting an Ohio State team considered by many to be the best put out by the Buckeyes in nearly 50 years. Both teams are undoubtedly worthy to raise the championship trophy and we are less than 24 hours away from finding out who will come out on top.
What the models are saying
General consensus has LSU favored in this one. There just seems to be slight disagreement as to how much. One complicating factor seems to be how to account for the game's location. Per usual for national title and other playoff games, this is a neutral site game but that neutrality is only nominal. The game will be taking place in New Orleans, deep in the heart of LSU territory. True, Clemson does seem to travel well, but will it be enough to drown out a potential home field like atmosphere for LSU?
Vegas appears to be the most committed to the LSU train at the moment, with lines converging around LSU -6.5. Analytical models think the outcome will be closer. Bill Connelly hasn't updated his SP+ since before the bowl season, at which time LSU would have been favored by about a FG (-2.5) on a neutral field. My own SRS ratings have LSU favored by about 4.5 points. While LSU is the general consensus favorite, not all models are unanimous in that. Brian Fremeau's FEI ratings actually favor Clemson to win by 1.6 points.
|Vegas||LSU -6.5||LSU 65%|
|SP+||LSU -2.5||LSU 56%|
|FEI||Clemson -1.6||Clemson 53%|
|SRS||LSU -4.5||LSU 60%|
When LSU has the ball
This goes without saying if you have been following along at all this year, but LSU has perhaps the most formidable offense across FBS this season. One of their huge strength is being able to avoid passing downs. The Clemson defense isn't any slouch, either, as is also in contention for that best unit nationally on that side of the field.
LSU's offense doesn't experience many passing downs and has largely been able to stay ahead of schedule by finding success on nearly 60% of all standard downs. The Clemson defense, meanwhile, has been very stout in passing down situations. It really feels like Clemson's best hope on defense is forcing LSU into passing downs, something no one has been able to do thus far.
The Clemson defense is actually forcing negative EPA per play this season. Impressively, this holds true even when breaking plays down into passes or rushes. Looking at the chart, you can also really get a sense of from where the LSU offense draws its strength - in the Joe Burrow let passing attack. LSU has been averaging just north of 0.6 Expected Points Added per passing play, which is a fantastic number. This is really a situation where strength goes up against strength and should be a great match-up.
LSU's offense passes on about 55% of plays. Compare that to Clemson's offense which features a slightly more balanced attack, rushing on around 52% of downs. It really seems like the key to when LSU is on offense is to keep staying ahead of schedule and avoiding passing downs, which is where the Clemson defense has excelled. And again, nobody has been successful to forcing LSU into passing downs situations this season. Is Clemson up to that task?
When Clemson has the ball
While the LSU offense versus the Clemson defense should be an interesting battle to watch, don't sleep on the other side when the Clemson offense goes up against LSU's defense. The LSU defense has been labeled the "weak link" at various times this year, if it's even fair to say that LSU has a weak link. The Clemson offense may not be as prolific this season as LSU's, but it still features plenty of playmakers in it's own right including a potential #1 overall NFL draft pick in QB Trevor Lawrence.
Looking at success rates, this side of the ball is a much more even match-up. Clemson finds themselves in passing downs more often than LSU. On the other hand, LSU is allowing a near 40% success rate on standard downs. What does the EPA chart say?
What we said about Clemson's offense in comparison to LSU is equally true about LSU's defense - it is not nearly as prolific as Clemson's. Teams have been basically breaking even against LSU in both phases. Generally, a positive rushing EPA is good for an offense whereas an average passing attack will be right around what LSU's defense is allowing. Meanwhile, Clemson has been pretty solid in both the air and on the ground. Remember the chart we looked at in the previous section looking at rush/pass breakdowns? Clemson's offense is very balanced and runs slightly more often than they pass. They have a lot of ways to attack the LSU defense.
In the Trenches
One potential area of weakness for the Clemson defense is in power situations, where they're allowing a success rate just shy of 60%. A power situation occurs on 3rd or 4th down when two or less yards are needed for a first down or a TD. LSU's offense has been converting over 70% of their power opportunities. The Clemson offense has been even better, converting over 80% of theirs while the LSU defense is allowing around a 50% conversion rate in these scenarios. One the flip side, the LSU offense has been getting stuffed on about 20% of their rushing plays. A stuff occurs when a run is stopped at our before the line of scrimmage. Clemson has been stuffing nearly 25% percent of opponent rushing plays. Sounds like a smart strategy for LSU would be to keep the ball in the hands of their Heisman-winning QB.
Clemson's offensive line has been fantastic on the ground, generating over 3.5 yards per rush. It should be no surprise that Clemson has also found success in the second level and in the open field. Expect to see Clemson seek to establish their ground game in this one.
Let's start with the QBs. It's not often you see a matchup between two names as big as these. Joe Burrow has been electric this year, culminating in winning the Heisman Trophy by a historical margin. Trevor Lawrence has yet to lose a game as Clemson QB. This is his second national championship game in as many years on campus. Will he be headed into his Junior year still undefeated?
The above chart looks at a 100 play rolling EPA average for passing plays. You can see that Lawrence started the year off a little slowly, but is peaking at just the right time in the passing game, pretty much on par with how Burrow has been playing as of late. It's important to note that Burrow sees much higher usage in the passing game as Lawrence, making his numbers all the more impressive. Lawrence call also hurt you on the ground, as evidenced in the semifinal game against Ohio State. Few teams also boast as running back as productive as Travis Etienne, which brings us to our next chart.
When I said few teams boast a running back as productive as Etienne, I should have mentioned that LSU happens to be one of those teams. Clyde Edwards-Helaire has been on fire this season and is one of the few RBs in the FBS that outpaces Travis Etienne in both usage and EPA per rush. While a lot of talk has been on the QBs, don't sleep on these great backs. This should be a fun one. Now let's look at the various weapons in both teams' passing attacks.
Both teams have clear-cut top two options. For Clemson and Trevor Lawrence, those weapons are Tee Higgins and Justyn Ross. Higgins has the most efficient EPA per reception of any other player in this game, averaging around 1.4 EPA per catch. However, there's been a decent gap in usage between Higgins and top target Justyn Ross, though Ross' efficiency leaves a little bit to be desired. Few teams boast a receiving duo as efficient as Ja'Marr Chase and Justin Jefferson and it's easy to see how they have played a large role in Burrow's success this season with both averaging just over 1 EPA per reception.
It's also interesting to look at running back usage here. Edwards-Helaire is targeted more often in the passing game than Etienne, though Etienne has done more with his touches through the air. One other thing of note, both Chase and Jefferson exhibit usage higher than Lawrence's top target, Justyn Ross. It's clear that Clemson likes to spread the ball around a little bit more than LSU. But then again, with a receiving due like Chase and Jefferson there's not much opportunity for other targets on the LSU side.
Man, I don't even know. Obviously the numbers aren't everything here, otherwise there would be no point in playing the game. One thing is for certain, this has all the makings of a classic. The LSU offense versus the Clemson defense should be pure strength against pure strength. Though in this era of college football, elite offense seems to typically win out over elite defense. And no one has yet found an answer for Joe Burrow, who has been playing his best football as of late.
Here are my predictions, which I expect to be comically wrong:
- The Clemson D is unable to slow Burrow down.
- Trevor Lawrence picks right back up where he left off against Ohio State with another spectacular performance, including with his legs.
- Clemson's ground attack finds success against the LSU D
Both teams are playing some of their best football. If this game goes as expected, this should be the best postseason so far in the College Football Playoff era. Stay tuned, we're in for a hell of a ride.
LSU by 3