ATLANTA - Just over 24 hours before their teams face off in the Chick-fil-A Bowl, Dabo Swinney and…
The Final Breakdown
WHAT: No. 14 Clemson vs. No. 8 LSU WHERE: The Georgia Dome (73,000) - Atlanta, Ga. WHEN: Monday, Dec. 31 (7:30 p.m.) SPREAD: LSU by 6.5 TV: ESPN CLEMSON PASS ATTACK VS. LSU SECONDARY/PASS RUSH If there's a spot that Clemson will be able to attack the LSU defense, it's through the air. Not that it's any different than any other game against a quality opponent like LSU, two things will have to happen for this matchup to swing Clemson's way. Tajh Boyd has to be given ample time to find his favorite targets despite a fierce pass rush from LSU. (Roy Philpott) First, Tajh Boyd must have time to find his favorite targets, including DeAndre Hopkins, Sammy Watkins and tight end Brandon Ford. LSU is tied for 29th in the country with 2.5 sacks per contest. Leading the Cajun Tigers in that department are ends Barkevious Mingo and Sam Montgomery. The duo has combined for 11.5 sacks this season. Although that figure may not be all that impressive, it's an edge rushing duo that is still a force to be reckoned with on Monday night. If they're not enough, there's also Lavar Edwards, Montgomery's backup, who is second on the team with 4.5 sacks. Brandon Thomas will draw the matchup with Montgomery while Gifford Timothy will square off with Mingo. If T&T are able to keep M&M at bay, Boyd could have a big night. And, second, Boyd will have to take care of the football. Over the last two years, Clemson is 15-2 in games that he throws one or fewer interceptions. When he throws two or more, the Tigers are 4-4. So, if Boyd's upright and not completing passes to players in the LSU secondary, it's going to be a good night in the air for Clemson's offense. Despite their No. 19 national ranking against the pass, LSU has shown signs of weakness. The Cajun Tigers have given up over 300 yards through the air in the last three games of the season -- Mississippi State, Ole Miss and Arkansas. LSU did, however, intercept those three teams a total of five times. Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel was intercepted three times by LSU, but he passed for 276 yards. Keep these two notes in mind, too. Although he had four interceptions in the final three games of the season, Boyd also threw for over 900 yards and had nine touchdown passes. Hopkins and Watkins will also be working against a group of cornerbacks that includes five freshmen among its top six players. Clemson gets the nod here. ADVANTAGE: LSU PASS ATTACK VS. CLEMSON SECONDARY/PASS RUSH If Dylan Thompson can pass for over 300 yards against Clemson, who's to say Zach Mettenberger can't do the same, or at least come close? Like they were against South Carolina, Clemson will be without its best three cornerbacks. And you know the story by now. Zach Mettenberger has passed for 2,489 yards with 11 touchdowns and six interceptions this season. (Getty Images) Taking a redshirt in 2012, Martin Jenkins hasn't played all season. Darius Robinson and Bashaud Breeland went down with injuries against Virginia Tech. And though Breeland tried to return, he was eventually shut down before the South Carolina game. The injuries have left veteran Xavier Brewer to work alongside two previously unproven players, Garry Peters and Cortez Davis. While Brewer is at his best, most natural position, he can only cover one man/so much space at a time. Fortunately, for the Clemson secondary, LSU is a run-first team. The Cajun Tigers have executed over 500 running plays this season. They've gone to the air just 333 times. Mettenberger has passed for 2,489 yards with 11 touchdowns and six interceptions. His favorite two receivers are Odell Beckham Jr., who has a team-high 673 yards and Jarvis Landry, who leads the way with 52 receptions. Aside from Beckham and Landry, no other LSU receiver has caught more than 25 pass this season. However, LSU has gone to the air with plenty of success over the final third of the season. Mettenberger passed for over 250 yards twice, both of which were after the calendar turned to November. He topped the mark against Alabama and Ole Miss. And, despite the lack of production across the board from LSU's receivers, the Cajun Tigers recruit some of the best players in the country. So, they do have plenty of skill. ADVANTAGE: LSU RUN GAME VS. CLEMSON FRONT SEVEN The word that can best be used to describe the LSU run game is powerful. This season, the Cajun Tigers have utilized a four-headed backfield of Jeremy Hill, Kenny Hilliard, Michael Ford and Spencer Ware. Hill, a freshman, is listed as the starter. He's first on the team with 130 carries for 631 yards with 10 touchdowns. Spencer Ware is one of four powerful running backs LSU head coach Les Miles has to use at his disposal. (Getty IMages) Hilliard has 456 yards and six touchdowns Ford is third with 393 yards and three scores while Ware has 358 yards and a score. All three have at least 69 carries. Their lead blocker is a 6-foot-1, 280-pound load of a fullback named J.C. Copeland spends, who most of his time blowing up linebackers. But, when he carries the ball, it's in short-yardage situations. This season, Copeland has 67 yards on 21 carries and four touchdowns. LSU averages almost 180 yards rushing per contest. Three of the Cajun Tigers' five biggest rushing outputs [over 200 yards] were against North Texas, Washington and Idaho. The numbers may look a bit inflated, but stopping the run has been an issue for Clemson. Auburn had 180 yards in the season opener in the Georgia Dome. A week later, Ball State picked up 252 and three scores. Florida State rolled up 287 and five touchdowns and Virginia Tech also had 199 yards and a score. Clemson's front seven did show signs of improvements against the run before stumbling into the end of the regular season. Although South Carolina's 134 yards rushing doesn't necessarily look great on paper, Clemson certainly struggled to slow down the Gamecocks' ground game, which was without its starting quarterback and running back. Though the advantage certainly leans towards LSU, look for the Clemson front seven to have a respectable showing. Fifteen practices, many of which were physical in nature, will have the group ready for Monday night's challenge. ADVANTAGE: CLEMSON RUN GAME VS. LSU FRONT SEVEN It certainly helps that big, nasty defensive tackles grow on trees in the state of Louisiana. But evidence of LSU's success on the recruiting trail is most noticeable when scoping out the defensive line depth. Running lanes could be tough to come by against the nation's No. 10-ranked run defense. (Roy Philpott) The interior starters, Josh Downs and Bennie Logan, are backed by a pair of younger players who could have more natural talented. Anthony Johnson was the No. 1 defensive tackle in the class 2011, according to Scout.com. And Ferguson was a four-star prep school prospect in the 2010 class. Behind those defensive tackles is a quality group of linebackers, coached by defensive coordinator John Chavis. Leading that group from the middle is Kevin Minter, who was voted as the team's Most Valuable Player by his teammates. Minter is first among LSU tacklers and tied for third in the SEC with 111 total tackles. To the weak-side of Minter is Lamin Barrow, who is second on the team with 92 tackles. It's always a good sign when your two best linebackers are your leading tacklers. It's an indication that the defense is getting it done against the run, and doing it the right way. LSU's national statistical rankings back that up. They're giving up just over 100 yards per game on the ground -- 101.8, to be exact. That's ninth-best in the country. Though Clemson has a reputation for its high-flying passing attack, the ground game ranks among the best in the country, too. The Tigers are currently 34th nationally with an average of 198.7 yards per contest. Leading the way is Andre Ellington, who has 1,031 yards and eight touchdowns. In year two under Chad Morris, Boyd has emerged as a legitimate dual-threat. Boyd's emergence as a runner has given the Clemson offense an extra boost this season. His 492 yards are second-most on the team. He leads the Tigers with nine scores on the ground. LSU's defense is very well-aware of Boyd's ability to make plays with his feet, just like they were for Manziel. The Heisman trophy winner rushed for over 1,000 yards this season. His 27 net rushing yards were easily the fewest he had all season. So was the 50 total [before sack yardage was subtracted]. Long, gashing runs will be hard to come by for Clemson. Those won't be nearly as easy as it was the first time they played in the Georgia Dome this season. We've got to go with LSU here. ADVANTAGE: SPECIAL TEAMS LSU will be without All-American punter Brad Wing, a redshirt sophomore from Australia. Chandler Catanzaro has turned out to be one of the most consistent kickers in Clemson history. (Roy Philpott) Over the last two seasons, the Aussie has been one of the most productive punters in the country. He finished fourth in the SEC in 2012 with a 44.8 yard average. Wing was second in the conference in 2011 with a 44.4 average. He landed 21 punts inside the 20-yard line this season after finishing last season with 27. Wing will also be missed in the Cajun Tigers' field goal operation, where he serves as the holder for Drew Alleman. So, that's something to keep an eye on when LSU is kicking field goals and extra points. They've also got one of the top return duos in the country. Beckham has 300 punt return yards and two touchdowns on 31 returns. Ford has 458 kickoff return yards on 18 returns. After giving up lots of kickoff return yards over the final couple of games of the season, Clemson has made a few personnel changes to the kickoff team. The Tigers hope that will pay dividends, because this phase of the game could make the difference in what Las Vegas thinks will be a close one. LSU is solid when defending kickoffs. The Cajun Tigers are 13th in the country with and 18.3 yard average. The contrasting success there is enough to give the edge to LSU. ADVANTAGE: PREDICTION: LSU 27 Clemson 17
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