5 Takeaways From the CFP National Championship

What a game. What a season. The college football season came to a conclusion as LSU completed a historic season with a 42-25 victory over #3 Clemson, snapping a 29-game winning streak in the process. After a surge in the second quarter, LSU maintained their lead, pulling away in the fourth quarter. Joe Burrow tossed six touchdown passes, bringing his total to 13 TD passes and one rushing TD in the two-game playoff. They were historic numbers that capped the best season ever put forth by a college quarterback. And without getting too ahead of ourselves, we’d like to extend our best wishes to Joe Burrow in turning around the Cincinnati Bengals, as that is likely his next task as the #1 pick in the upcoming draft. 

But, as fun as it is to pour over the LSU Tigers’ historic season from every angle, we’ll discuss 5 other takeaways from the CFP title game.. 

Takeaway #1: The Targeting Call

If I had to rank every factor that impacted the results of the College Football Playoff, my list would probably start with Joe Burrow, with targeting calls close behind. In each playoff game, there was a targeting call and ensuing ejection. Now the targeting call in the LSU-Oklahoma, where Clyde Edwards-Hilaire was blindsided by a brutal hit from behind, was not very controversial, and I don’t believe anyone really questioned that call. Nor did it really affect a game which LSU was already beginning to control and ended up winning by 35 points. 

However, the other two calls? They were both controversial and definitely affected the game in a major way. Ohio State’s Shaun Wade was called for targeting for his sack of Trevor Lawrence. The sack was a big play that should have ended a Clemson drive and kept the score 16-0 Ohio State. Wade was called for targeting on the play, leading to his ejection, 15 yards and a first down for the Tigers, who later scored and turned around the momentum of the game. 

By the rulebook, what Wade did was targeting, but that is horrible. Targeting, especially if it results in an ejection, should be reserved for clearly dirty hits that had the intent of injuring a player, or unnecessary violent acts in the game. Wade was making a football play and  the fact that in the rulebook what he did merited an ejection is awful. At the very least, they need to have seperate targeting penalties, one for plays that were questionable but not ejection-worthy and then penalties, like the one in the LSU-Oklahoma game, that qualify for ejection. 

In the title game, Clemson was the victim of a weak ejection, as stud linebacker James Skalski was tossed for a hard hit in the third quarter. Again, what Skalski did, by the rulebook, was targeting, but by no means was it excessively violent or even unnecessary. While he led with his head, Skalski did not make head-to-head contact, and his extra effort was enough to stop any further gain from LSU receiver Justin Jefferson. At the time of the call, Clemson was down 28-25 and had stopped LSU on consecutive drives. Without Skalski, the Tigers struggled and never seriously threatened again. 

Between the two targeting calls, the team who had a player ejected was outscored 43-7 after the penalty, clearly demonstrating a major impact on the game. Neither of these plays were made with dirty or violent intent, and during the flow of play, they looked like normal football plays. Targeting is becoming far too controversial; the rule has to be fixed. 

Takeaway 2: Pass Interference Is Still Unclear

This is a major problem at every level of the sport, and it was evident again last night. Clemson was first the beneficiary and then the victim of horrible pass interference calls. First, LSU cornerback Kristian Fulton made a great play, jumping a route by Justyn Ross and making an interception. The pick was a likely dagger, as it would have handed the ball back to a red-hot Joe Burrow with a chance to make the lead three possessions. But instead, Fulton was called for an extremely questionable pass interference call. Replay indicated that Fulton may have caught a small fistful of Ross’s jersey in his hand, but the contact seemed to neither affect the receiver’s movement or his balance as he stayed on his feet and appeared unimpeded. Yet after the pick, Ross began pleading for a flag, and the refs obliged, taking away a potentially game-winning play from the LSU defense. 

However, once again, Clemson was victimized by a play that had earlier saved them. Down 42-25 and likely needing to score on every remaining possession, Trevor Lawrence unleashed a deep ball to Tee Higgins. He caught it and waltzed into the end zone only for a flag to deter his celebration. The official closest to the play deemed Higgins’ contact with his defender merited an offensive pass interference that not only negated the touchdown, but slapped Clemson with a 15-yard penalty and a 1st and 25 at their own 36. The Tigers punted soon after, and the game was never in doubt. Replay cast a lot of doubt on the call; LSU cornerback Kary Vincent Jr. made lots of contact with Higgins throughout the route, and when Higgins used his physicality to gain position, never extending his arms, Vincent either demonstrated horrific balance or exemplary acting and flopping skills, as he splayed out on the sideline, allowing Higgins to make the catch unimpeded. 

Put it this way: If that was offensive pass interference…we definitely need to replay the Saints-Vikings OT possession, because what Tee Higgins did was not even close to what Kyle Rudolph did. There was contact on the play. Higgings kept his balance, and Vincent did not, yet Higgins was penalized. The call was not only horrible but also likely cost the game a lot of viewers as a potential 10-point game with ten minutes to go turned into a 17-point game with the winning team in possession. Game over. Thank you refs. 

Clemson’s last gasp was stifled by a questionable pass interference penalty against Tee Higgins. (Alika Jenner/Getty Images)

Takeaway #3 The SEC is the best conference in football

OK, we probably already knew that. But as a Notre Dame fan and Maine resident, I’ve often considered myself an SEC-hater and usually needed extra-convincing when regarding any positive take on the conference. But last night’s title game left no doubt; for one, the SEC put their third different team into the title game in the Playoff era – no other conference has more than one, and the Big 12 is yet to have a representative. That was impressive, but what was arguably more impressive was that Monday’s title game was not LSU’s biggest test of the season. 

I would argue it was their third toughest game of the year, ranking their matchups with the Florida Gators and Auburn Tigers #1 and #2 on that list. The Gators were the only team to lead LSU at any point in the second half, leading the Tigers 28-21 in the third quarter. LSU played Alabama, Georgia, Clemson, Texas, and Auburn; none of those teams ever led LSU in the second half. Clemson may have had a 10-point lead, but they ultimately never surpassed LSU’s halftime score, and they finished three points shy of what Florida put up on the scoreboard.

 Meanwhile, Auburn put up the stiffest defensive resistance to LSU’s historic offense. Outside of this game, LSU never scored less than 36 points in a game. Against Auburn, they scored 23. Heading into the title game, I felt this was evidence that LSU’s offense could be stopped and Clemson could replicate Auburn’s performance. After the title game, I’m left with only one possible takeaway: the SEC is simply better than every other conference. Auburn was probably the 4th or 5th best team in the SEC and they were 20 points better than Clemson on the defensive side of the ball. Clemson put up a good fight last night, but they simply did not push LSU to the brink like Florida or Auburn did. 

Takeaway #4: The ACC (and the rest of the country) should be very scared about facing Clemson next year

Trevor Lawrence has lost two football games as a high school and college quarterback. Last night, and his final high school game. The high school loss broke a 41-game winning streak, and Lawrence responded by opening up his college career with 29 straight wins. Whether you’re Notre Dame – Clemson’s top non-conference opponent – or the ACC, I would be extremely scared to be facing Trevor Lawrence. It’s his last college season before he declares for the draft, and you better believe he has one goal in his mind. The Tigers have already been declared 2020 national championship favorites – thanks to the departure of Joe Burrow -, and this team will come out ready to roll over their opponents next season. I would not look forward to this matchup if I’m on their schedule. 

Walking away from this scene will certainly motivate Trevor Lawrence in 2020. Gerald Herbert/AP/Shutterstock

Takeaway #5: LSU Playmakers Boost Their Draft Stock

I could focus on the LSU receivers, but quite honestly, I don’t believe much happened today that was particularly shocking or eye-opening based on their previous play this season. Assisted by Joe Burrows’ precision passing, LSU wide receivers continue to put up gaudy numbers and win a ridiculous number of 1-on-1 battles. Many of them will be Day 1 and Day 2 draft picks when they declare, but I don’t think the National Championship particular boosted them excessively. 

I would also praise Burrow for proving once more that he can throw and deliver under pressure. LSU’s offensive line did not have their best game and allowed Burrow to be pressured frequently, but the Heisman winner still delivered a near-immaculate performance. He didn’t really elevate his draft stock, as the Bengals were picking Burrow #1 no matter what happened on Monday, but they probably enjoyed watching him succeed under pressure, given the state of their own offensive line. The two offensive playmakers I thought truly boosted their draft stock for LSU was Thaddeus Moss and Clyde Edwards-Hilaire. 

Moss often played second fiddle in the LSU receiving corps, and he never put up eye-popping numbers. But on Monday night, Moss hauled in two touchdowns and five receptions for 36 yards, proving himself capable of taking on a critical role, particularly in a red zone offense. Tight ends who can dominate in the red zone can elevate an offense to another level, and Moss proved that, along with his physical build and speed, he has the ability to be a difference maker near the end zone, and that will have a lot of teams anxious to take him, likely on Day 2 of the draft. 

Edwards-Hilaire became a focal point of the LSU offense after their stagnant start on Monday’s game; once LSU adjusted to Clemson’s gameplan, their running back became a key cog of their performance, taking screens and short passes in the backfield and the flat, but also keeping Clemson off balance by churning out five or six yards per carry when necessary. The all-purpose back but up 164 yards and, after dealing with a nagging hamstring injury, proved his ability to be both versatile and physical. Not the fastest back in the upcoming draft, Edwards-Hillaire likely jumped up a few draft boards with his title game performance.