Oh what a marvelous college football season this has been.
Every weekend seemed to provide new narratives and storylines. It has been a magical and memorable fall. While some fan bases want to purge those memories, dozens of others want to savor them.
We are finally at the end of the ride. The College Football Final between the Clemson Tigers and LSU Tigers has all the dressings of an instant classic. Clemson could solidify themselves as a new dynasty with three titles in four campaigns. LSU behind its white-hot offense and recalibrated defense could crash the party and be the new kid on the block with a win.
For our analysis, I don’t think it’s worthwhile to examine these offenses against the Poop States of the world. We’re talking about the title for Golden-Flake’s sake! So, we need to see how these offenses have responded against their most challenging opponents. I charted each offense against their four hardest defenses faced per ESPN’s SP+ metric (that’s way more comprehensive as a rating tool that what a bunch of sportswriters think) along with their performance in the CFP Semifinal.
Clemson’s slate includes Texas A&M (24), North Carolina (54), South Carolina (29), Virginia (44), and Ohio State (1). LSU’s includes Florida (7), Auburn (4), Alabama (6), Georgia (2), and Oklahoma (36). Enough filibustering. The championship is upon us. Time to take the deep dive into these offenses to see who has the edge.
Clemson’s Offense at a Glance
Shortcomings were hard to come by for Dabo Swinney’s squad this season. They check a lot of boxes at a glance statically and from a roster standpoint. The Tigers rank inside the Top 4 nationally in Scoring Defense, Scoring Offense, Total Defense, and Total Offense. Furthermore, ESPN’s SP+ metric - that applies further context to these volume numbers - has Clemson with Top 6 units on both sides of the ball.
Their lead back was the ACC’s Most Outstanding Offensive Player, a pair of dynamic wideouts are further cementing Clemson’s reputation as “Wide Receiver U”, their defense is fantastic at generating takeaways, and the Tigers are quarterbacked by a “generational talent” with silky blonde hair. Clearly, Clemson hasn’t been challenged much this season, but they aced their hardest test of the year against Ohio State; or at least got a B-minus per Swinney.
Still if Clemson’s Offensive Success Rate against their five toughest opponents per ESPN’s SP+ was averaged out over the course of the season, their 49% clip would comfortably rank third in the SEC. Furthermore, the Tigers’ “Relative Scoring Offense” - or how much an offense scores compared to what its opponents usually allows - was the weakest of the playoff teams against the meat of their schedule. Clemson’s RSO of 165.3% shrunk to 144.5% against Texas A&M, North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia, and Ohio State. No other contender had a clip below 155% against their hardest opponents this season. (Note to calculate RSO: Points Scored vs. Team A divided by Team A’s Average Points Allowed). Also for what it is worth, every other playoff contender’s RSO increased against their top ranked foes.
Common sense tell us we should expect some kind of regression against quality opponents compared to playing cupcakes. But the backsteps occur in other areas outside of RSO. Basic aspects like Clemson’s average Yards/Pass and Yards/Carry dip in these games as does overall success and limiting Havoc.
Because they haven’t been able to bully those teams like the others on their schedule, Clemson has had to pass much more against better defenses. Consider on the year, Clemson has a raw Pass Rate of 35.5%. That clip shoots up to 57.6% versus their five top ranked opponents. You’d think because of TLaw’s perception as a polished passer that the Tigers would see more rewards in that department. That isn’t the case. While not off-putting by any means, a 45.5% Passing Success Rate on 7.71 Yards/Attempt is just okay through the air.
Defenses have been content limiting Clemson’s backs and making Lawrence beat them. Despite averaging 8 Yards/Carry on the year, Clemson’s best defensive opponents have limited Travis Etienne to a 4.65 average on a 43.5% Success Rate (Of SEC backs with at least 40 designed carries, this would rank 31st and 22nd out of 41, respectively). They’ve been much more concerted in their efforts to start series. The Tigers still have a very healthy 1st Down Run Rate - in fact their clip in this span is essentially the SEC average over the course of 2019. On firsts, Etienne’s Success Rate drops to 34.1% on a 4.43 Yards/Carry, which are clips you do not want. Remember in order for a first down play to be successful, it must gain at least 50% of yards to gain. When you average less than that threshold, it’s never a great benchmark.
Lawrence has been asked to do more when his backs fail. In our five game sample, he has 60 pass attempts when behind the chains on 2nd or 3rd Down. (Despite playing more snaps and passing more on average, Joe Burrow only has 48 such attempts). When behind the chains against quality defenses, Lawrence’s Passing Success Rate is only 40% and his Interceptable Pass Rate is 8.33%, which is nearly double his rate when facing pressure.
With defenses applying more pressure on early downs and with Lawrence not being so great when backed up, a fifth of Clemson’s offensive drives have been Three-and-Outs against their five toughest foes. While still above average in terms of SEC offenses, Ole Miss had a better rate on the year than the Tigers in that five game sample.
Still, while they are prone to punt after a few plays more than other elite offenses, Clemson is still fantastic at moving the chains on early downs and not relying all that much on thirds. Their Early Down Conversion Rate of 74.1% versus their hardest opponents would rank 3rd in the SEC if averaged out over the course of the year (and is better than LSU’s against their elite competition). When Clemson gets to a 3rd Down, even quality defenses have allowed the Tigers to post a 50% Success Rate.
Even with a good, not great passing efficiency against better teams, Clemson’s passing offense shows the flashes that make them a hard team to bet against. Versus their hardest opponents, 12.6% of Lawrence’s passes have gained at least 20 yards. Sure. Lawrence plays his part, but Tee Higgins has been instrumental stretching secondaries and making big plays downfield. If his play against his five toughest opponents were averaged across the 2019 season, he’d rank 1st in Yards/Target (15.5), 4th in Success Rate (67.6%), 3rd in Explosive Catch Rate (26.5%), and 1st in First Down+Touchdown Rate (61.8%) within the SEC.
Plus, Higgins did all this on a 14.4 Average Depth of Target and on chances with higher degrees of difficulty. I think its safe to say Higgins has showed he is a prototypical big play threat. As you can tell by his Catch Chart above towards the right, Higgins hauled in 16 of his 20 targets over ten yards downfield.
Justyn Ross is far less flashy but comfortably leads the team in targets against their top foes. Essentially a third of Clemson’s targets have gone his way in these spots. Ross has received 16 more targets than Higgins in the five game sample size but only has two more catches. You don’t necessarily need a statistics degree to know his efficiency is far worse off than his counterpart.
Both his Catching Success Rate (46%) and Yards/Target (7.98) versus his five hardest opponents would below the SEC average if averaged over the course of a season. In these games, Ross showed his is just as likely to drop a target than be on the receiving end of an explosive pass. Per has Catch Chart above towards the left, Ross has found most of his production on short and intermediate targets. Versus quality defenses, he has failed to consistently be a dangerous man deep.
With an extra emphasis to make his job harder when he drops back, defenses have seemingly opened the door to allow Lawrence beat them in other ways. While not a particularly good team targeting their outlets, Clemson runs a Run-Pass Option on 27% of their plays and are successful on 54.2% of them versus the meat of their schedule (This clip is 5 percentage points higher than their Overall Success Rate). Over a fourth of Lawrence’s attempts in these games have been either a RPO pass or a screen attempt. In the SEC, only Auburn’s Bo Nix and Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa and Mac Jones had lower Dropback Pass Rates than TLaw.
Lawrence as a runner has been the secret sauce for this offense against its better opponents. In the five game sample, he had 28 designed rushing attempts. Lawrence had 12 alone against the Buckeyes in the CFP Semifinal. TLaw’s chances on the ground in these games if averaged out over the course of the season would rank 1st in Rushing Success Rate (64.3%), 4th in Explosive Run Rate (21.4%), 4th in First Down+Touchdown Rate (35.7%), 1st in Rushing Touchdown Rate (10.1%) and only trail Paul Hornung Award Winner Lynn Bowden in Yards/Carry (7.86).
This is where I will step in and point out that Lawrence has averaged more per designed carry than per dropback versus the meat of Clemson’s schedule. All the while, he has only had one negative run that was a designed carries in the five game sample.
And when zeroing in on the plays were he was the primary runner - like on QB Counters or Draws - he’s been even more special. Take for instance these runs against Ohio State where he posted a 100% Success Rate on 6 carries for 18.2 Yards/Attempt. And that was against a defense that averaged letting up only 2.98 Yards/Carry this season.
While LSU did a fantastic job patching up its run defense - particularly against mobile QBs - the last three games, Lawrence’s numbers simply cannot be ignored. If the Ohio State game was any indication, TLaw’s ability to run within the structure of the Tigers’ offense can help tilt a close contest in Clemson’s favor.
Clemson’s change-of-pace back has also been able to take advantage of his opportunities. As crazy successful as Lawrence has been running the ball on designed runs, Lyn-J Dixon has been even better in his spot carries with a 68.9% Success Rate. Much of that is due to the fact defenses just haven't respected him as much as Clemson’s other weapons.
Dixon has averaged 4.8 yards before contact, which almost doubles the SEC average of 2.5. For what it’s worth, Etienne averages 2.26 yards before contact. Dixon has a knack for stealing yards and popping off explosive runs. One of every five touches of his on average goes for 10 yards or more with 41.3% of them gaining a First Down or a Touchdown.
Even with Etienne’s volume carries not getting particularly desirable results, Lawrence and Dixon have tag-teamed as second options and been able to carry the standard in terms of rushing efficiency against Clemson’s best opponents.
While many in the analytics community are fine-tuning their algorithms that best predict outcomes of games, simple metrics are often the reason. Turnover Margin, Big Play Margin, and Touchdowns (as opposed to settling for field goals) have been best at determining winners in college football. Only one defense has generated more takeaways on the year than Brent Venables squad.
Clemson’s Offensive Turnover Rate versus their best opponents is 0.66%. No SEC offense had a rate under 1% this season across their entire schedule. The Tigers are excellent tipping the tide in this fashion to gain extra possessions and win efficiently. Clemson’s Points/Drive (3.4) and Explosive Play Rate (15.9%) are exactly what LSU’s offense has done versus their elite foes. So despite averaging nearly a touchdown less than LSU per game and having a fair worse Relative Scoring Offense, both offenses are equal on a drive-by-drive basis in terms of scoring points per this figure.
Clemson’s Core Concepts
While far more inclined to pass against better defenses, Clemson is still rooted in an inside zone scheme like the vast majority of college offenses. Versus their five hardest opponents, Inside Zone Slam and Bluff Reads have received more calls than any other concept. It’s their identity. It’s how they like to ease into things and set up their vertical passing game.
Inside Zone Slam Reads - often paired with route tags - are far and away the most common play in today’s game. They are the foundation for most rush games regardless of conference. So it shouldn’t really be that much of a shock Clemson leans heavily on these to win inside the tackles more times than not.
Clemson’s execution on these looks decline but still have put up laudable statlines by anyone’s standards. Versus their hardest defenses faces, the Tigers still averaged 5.13 yards/carry and were successful on nearly 52% of their reps. But against Ohio State only one of its seven tries were successful.
Inside Zone Slam Reads are their favorite play across all downs in the five game sample. Overall, Clemson has repped 54 of them with 31 of them on 1st Down. There, their efficiency has been ”Jeff Fisher mediocre” - or slightly below average - by SEC standards at 41.9% Success Rate despite an uptick to 5.42 yards/carry. Limited yet receiving more reps than any other look against their hardest opponents, Slam Reads have a 80% Success Rate on its five tries on the money down.
Travis Etienne has mostly been contained on 1st Downs in the five game sample. His Rushing Success Rate is 34.1% to start a set of downs. But on all Inside Zone Read reps, it climbs up to 41.7%. While Etienne takes the early poundings, Lyn-J Dixon slides in and works the defense when they are tender. Posting a 50% Success Rate, 10 of his 18 carries have come on Inside Zone Reads on firsts.
Even Sunshine has failed to find room to run when he pulls it on his reads in these spots. On 1st Down Inside Zone Read reps, Sunshine averaged a mere 2.5 yards/carry on a 33.3% for a grand total of 16 yards in the five game sample.
Production on Bluff Reads are responsible for a portion of those numbers good and bad. Though receiving far less overall reps, Bluff Reads have received 16 overall with nine of them to start a set of downs. Like their concept counterpart, Bluff Reads have exhibited lesser returns on firsts.
Overall, Bluff Reads have a 62.5% Success Rate versus a 44.4% clip on 1st Downs against the meat of Clemson’s schedule. Mostly an early down play, Bluff Reads are not among the eight looks that have received at least three 3rd Down tries by the Tigers against their five hardest opponents. -- For what it’s worth, LSU only allowed a 21.4% Success Rate on 3.21 yards per pop in their sample defending Inside Zone Reads.
As you might suspect from a team that calls a bunch of read options and uses RPOs on 27% of their snaps, Outlet Screens have gotten a fair amount of targets. In fact Bubble, Tunnel, and Swing Screens from RPOs combine to account for the third most of any concept for the Tigers against their toughest opponents. The vast majority of them have been tagged off Clemson’s two inside zone reads looks.
But it’s a damn shame Clemson sucks at getting production from them. And I am not being hyperbolic. On their combined 14 targets, Outlets Screens average 3.04 yards/play on a 21.4% Success Rate. And like the core run concepts to which they are usually attached, they are bad on 1st Downs. Only one of the six targeted outlets screens on firsts has been successful while averaging 1.86 yards per pop.
While we are talking about screens, True Screens get their fair share of love from Swinney too. Clemson has called a combination of 13 of these bad boys. While overall only a third of them have been successful, their running back Slip Screen and Middle Screens have been their best averaging 10.6 yards/target on a 50% Success Rate.
But the Tigers on o-fer on their Convoy - or Jailbreak - Screens in terms of success. With a decent share of screens on their script, its easy to see why Lawrence has a relatively low Dropback Pass Rate.
But speaking of dropback patterns, Clemson likes to get vertical. Their fourth and fifth most called concepts against their hardest opponents are natural compliments in the passing game. All Verts and All Curls are their passing staples. Sending a number of guys deep or on short to intermediate curls fundamentally is simple.
But when you have manbeaters like Tee Higgins or TLaw’s accuracy versus zones, these basic plays can be successful versus a number of coverages as Clemson calls these out of a variety of formations.
Ohio State against these - like versus Inside Zone Reads - completely shut them down in the semifinal. Only one of the All Verts found its mark and none of the All Curl patterns ended in success. Still, their overall numbers are sturdy against the rest of their schedule. A favorite off play action and with or without max protection, All Verts have a 64.3% Success Rate with All Curls having 53.9% clip overall versus their five hardest opponents.
Best not underestimate Clemson one:one in these spots. They are as good as they come. But like the Buckeyes showed last week, they can be neutralized aerially when you can win on an island. Clemson likes to bet their guys can reign supreme one-on-one. All Verts are responsible for the second most yards only behind Slam Reads with 228. I should mention LSU has only allowed three of the 16 combined All Vert of All Curl patterns its faced versus their top ranked opponents to be successful.
Smashes allow Clemson to attack the sideline using a high-low. The Tigers call an old-fashioned outside hitch, inside corner Smash that has been one of their best yardage gainers. Versus their top ranked foes, Smashes have gained 111 yards, good for third most of any look. But they have been more than just a volume play; 60% of Smashes have been successful. The one True Smash Clemson against Ohio State ended in success as did a “Corners” wrinkle that gained 23 yards. Smashes are one of Clemson’s most favorite plays on 3rd Down. Only Slam Reads and Pivots have received more reps against their hardest opponents.
Sail Variations are another sideline-attacking high-lo concept. Known as a strong flood that overloads a side of the defense, Sails have a vertical and deep outbreaking route towards out of bounds. Most have a short route to the flat or checkdown underneath on the same side of the formation.
Clemson gets a little playful with some of their Sails, but a common variety in the games I charted called for an outside streak, middle hitch, and inside deep out. When all the varieties are combined, only four of the ten targeted sails have met their situational goals. Half of their successful reps have occurred on the money down where - like Smashes - are among Clemson’s most repped concepts.
But the element that has emerged lately for this offense is QB designed runs. In a read-heavy scheme Lawrence already has a decent amount of opportunities to tuck it and run. But Swinney has started to put Lawrence into more situations where he is the guy running the ball; no questions asked.
QB Counters have gotten the same amount of calls as Smashes and Sails versus their hardest opponents. Seen across all downs, these have posted a good Success Rate despite a underwhelming yards per attempt. Six of the ten QB Counters have been successful despite only averaging 3.7 yards in the process.
In the four games I charted before the College Football Playoff, I didn’t catch a single QB Draw out of Clemson. I caught plenty of QB runs, but not one draw play with Lawrence. So I was one of many who were surprised to see a few draws have such a vital impact on the semifinal. Because of his chunk gains on those three draws, Lawrence made that concept responsible for the second most yards of any run concept versus their five hardest opponents with 94.
All three of them were successful against the Buckeyes. So if you are keeping track at home, Lawrence has a Success Rate of 69.2% on when he’s the primary ball carrier. Being a big lug to tackle and an antelope in the open field, Lawrence’s running ability offers a lot for Clemson’s offense. LSU has been spotty defending mobile QBs all year. But the last two they faced, Texas A&M’s Kellen Mond and Oklahoma’s Jalen Hurts, were completely ineffective on the ground. Lawrence in space offers a different kind of challenge to tackle.
To offset the heavy zone action with their backs, QB Counters and Draws are one way of offering up optical variety to the defense. Combining the read techniques of their zone scheme with the hard-nosed desire to play power football , Clemson gets value out of their Counter Reads. While a far more sporadic look than the others, they can show up to start a set of downs from time to time.
Seven of the looks’ eight reps have occurred on firsts where they have delivered tip-top numbers. Averaging over 8.1 yards/attempt, five of the seven Counter Reads on 1st Downs have been successful. So LSU has to be mindful that Lawrence isn’t the only Clemson ball carrier that can beat them with power stuff.
And as we saw in the semifinal, Swinney is prepared to play cloak and dagger. Having success a number of times with QB Counters that call for the back to act like a lead blocker, he decided to call an opportune Pop Pass off this design. I’ll circle back to speak more on this element in a minute.
Occasionally, Dabo can get tricky. Outside of that clutch Power Pop Pass versus Ohio State, Clemson has called a number of gadget plays in the games I have scouted. I’ve seen two reverse passes, a reverse, a flea flicker, and a fake screen. While the special passes outside of the Power Pop Pass all failed to work, you can bet the Tigers have something up their sleeves.
Clemson runs more on early downs and passes more on later downs. Typical old way of doing things. Despite this, Lawrence’s best passing down has been on firsts with thirds being his worst. Only 39.5% of his attempts on 3rd Downs have moved the chains. The run game has the same inverse effect. They are at their worst on firsts and considerably better on subsequent downs.
In fact, 85.7% of Clemson’s 3rd Down runs have been successful against their hardest competition. While you can’t get made at their overall efficiency much, they do play from behind the chains a lot for an elite offense. It’s a dangerous way of playing but if they can win on later downs more power to them.
LSU’s Offense at a Glance
”Flipping the script” has been a major theme writing about LSU’s offensive turnaround this season. The general status quo, which LSU used to blindly follow, is for offenses to run to set up the pass. In order to establish the run, you need to dedicate a good amount of your early down play calling to pound the rock on the ground.
Last season, LSU had the definition of an average Pass Rate by SEC standards across all downs. Outdated not only in scheme but also in tactics, LSU’s early down Pass Rate was 43.3%, which was also right at the conference average. Their Success Rate in those spots was 41.1% -- third worst in the SEC. Like a good deal of Tiger offenses over the last two decades, talent was in its ranks, but LSU failed to make the most of it.
Then things started to look up -- literally. Coach O made the call to switch towards an Air Raid scheme and the rest is history. Sure running the Air Raid means more than just throwing the ball a lot, but that is still a big part of it. No other offense in the SEC is as pass-happy as LSU. Challenging the status quo, LSU now uses the pass to set up the run. In 2019, their early down Pass Rate is 59.4% and 56% of these plays have been successful, which also is tops in the SEC this season.
With the increased chances through the air, LSU has been able to pick their battles on the ground. As a result, the Tigers’ ball carriers have been able to be more advantageous. Year over year, LSU’s early down Rushing Success Rate increased from the conference’s second worst 40.2% clip to 50.2% this season; only Alabama’s 53.2% has been better in the SEC.
Despite the Air Raid aura, LSU also sports an explosive rushing offense of the title contenders. You read that right. Over 22% of LSU’s carries have resulted in a gain of 10 or more yards against their best opponents. Ironically, the Tigers’ passing offense loses a bit of its big play ability versus better defenses.
While some plays versus Oklahoma said otherwise, only 11.9% of their passes have netted 20 yards or more. While not terrible by any means, this clip is exactly what Tennessee’s Explosive Pass Rate was over the course of the season and 2.5 percentage points away from their overall clip.
Another aerially inclined aspect that has aided LSU’s run game has been calling more route tags on top of its read options. Perhaps you have heard of these referred to as Run-Pass Options, or RPOs if you sit at the cool table. In 2018, no SEC team used fewer RPOs in its script than the Bayou Bengals; less than 10% of their play calls were labeled as RPOs a year ago. In terms of Success Rate, LSU was the only team in the conference with a figure south of 40%. LSU struggled mightily to make these looks worthwhile.
Fast forward to today and nearly a quarter of LSU’s script is composed of RPOs, and their Success Rate is about 10 percentage points higher -- good for the SEC’s fourth best clip.
While Joe Burrow remains adverse to throwing on them relative to the rest of the SEC, half of LSU’s run plays have been off of RPO designs. While their receivers have helped open up run lanes by commanding attention via their outlets, runs without RPOs attached own a Success Rate of 58.2% compared to 46.9% of ones with them despite RPO-linked carries averaging about two yards more per attempt on average.
The routes on these RPOs might help spur longer runs, but they are far less consistent down-to-down for the Tigers. Against their elite competition, however, the Tigers have found desirable efficiency. Runs off RPO looks have been successful on 50.8% of reps compared to 47.6% of ones sans pass tags. Their coaches seem to be aware of this tilt as RPO runs consist of 60% of LSU’s ground plays against their top level competition. Clemson’s 27.5% RPO Rate slightly edges out LSU’s 26.7% clip. So here’s for keeping your options open come the final.
Flipping the script has lead to a fantastic offense that not only can march down the field but also one that lights up scoreboards. Even their best opponents haven’t been able to really be effective in disrupting the Tigers’ new identity. While Clemson saw noticeably slumps in a number of areas when facing increased competition, LSU’s declines were minimal.
Overall in 2019, LSU’s Passing Success Rate and Rushing Success Rate were 58.1% and 51.8%, respectfully. They averaged 5.54 yards/run and 9.76 yards/pass. But against the likes of Florida, Auburn, Alabama, Georgia, and Oklahoma, their yards/run was the exact same and their yards/pass shrunk only by about a half of a yard. The Tigers’ Rushing Success Rate dropped a few points to 48.9%, but Burrow’s Passing Success Rate climbed slightly to 58.5%. In case you forgot, four of the five defenses in this sample finished Top8 in ESPN SP+ rankings with another two in the Top 4. Burrow seemingly is always on his A-game against his top level opponents.
Their better foes have also struggled preventing LSU from scoring points. Speaking in terms of “Relative Scoring Offense” - or how much more you score than what your opponent usually allows, LSU is simply on their own level. Over the course of the season, their RSO was a sturdy 190.6%. But against elite competition, that figure shoots up to 237.6%. Of the title contenders, their RSO was 28 percentage points higher than the next closest team.
(NOTE: dummy equation for calculating Relative Scoring Offense: Team A scored 28 points against Team B who usually allows 14. Team A’s RSO would then be 200% (28/14 x 100). But if that’s too much for you, averaging 41.2 points/game versus their best opponents means something too, I guess.)
LSU is built to nickel and dime down the field. Like most Air Raid philosophies, they want to overwhelm the weakest parts of the defense, get the ball out quickly, and maximize their changes with five outlets. I want to stress that Burrow is not a game manager. Still, he’s been very smart taking what he has been giving and gobbling up green grass with his targets.
Against elite competition, Burrow has thrown the ball five yards or less downfield on about 54% of his attempts. While it’s easy to label him as a “Checkdown Charlie” because of this, Burrow remains one of the least reliant RPO passers and most accurate downfield throwers. On deep passes particularly, Burrow has been on target on half of his throws and netted 550 yards - seven percentage points and 62 yards more than Lawrence has versus his best foes.
Burrow, however, has a considerably lower average depth of target and average yards to gain than Lawrence versus top ranked opponents. Since LSU has been a better 1st Down team in these spots, that makes some sense. But, its apparent Burrow is adverse to pressing. When a number of short concepts litter you script, a QB can’t exactly go rogue and hot route some shots on the reg. Burrow has been so good, it simply hasn’t matter. Again, Burrow’s Passing Success Rate rises against his harder foes.
With literally a handful of future pros going out for routes, LSU loves to increase their odds and send five outlets downfield regularly. On the year, Burrow averages the least amount of blockers per pass at 5.54 in the SEC. John Rhys Plumlee was the next closest SEC passer at 5.78.
Maximizing their outlets allows mismatches to quickly appear and can drown a number of coverages. What they’ve done all season offensively is a testament to that. None of the Tigers’ five main options have a Catching Success Rate below 53% against their hardest defensive foes. FYI, the SEC average in this regard is 45.4%.
Perhaps no set emphasizes this point more than when LSU goes “empty”. Empty formations with only the QB in the backfield and five options wide is straight-up out of the Air Raid tutorial. Spreading out defenses and looking to get the ball out quickly is what it’s all about. On the year, 11.5% of LSU plays have been out of empty sets, good for fourth most in the SEC. Against elite competition, their Success Rate from these formations takes a slight dip to 52% compared to LSU’s 54.8% clip overall, but the Tigers have been far more explosive going five-wide.
Versus their best foes, LSU’s average yards/play increases from 8.08 to 9.82 and their overall Explosive Play Rate of 15.9% is bumped up to 24%. But with Burrow exposed with minimal protection, he has found himself under fire quite often in empty sets. His Pressure Rate increases from 23.1 to 31.3% and this offense’s Broken Play Rate nearly doubles. To this point, Burrow has managed to limit the bleeding when his pocket gets punctured. He’s only taken two sacks in the five game sample out of empty.
Receivers Justin Jefferson, Ja’Marr Chase, and Terrence Marshall Jr along with TE Thaddeus Moss and lead back Clyde Edwards-Helaire unabashedly populate numerous stat categories within the conference. LSU has three players inside the Top 10 in Yards/Target, four inside the Top 10 in Catching Success Rate, two inside the Top 8 in Explosive Catch Rate, three of the Top 4 in First Down+Touchdown Rate, and three of the Top 4 in raw Catch Rate.
Moss has lived up to his name sake. Really coming on this season as a underneath safety outlet and as a weapon when split out, he caught 22 of his 23 targets against LSU’s elite competition on a 78.2% Success Rate. Of any target playing in the final, his rate of success is higher than anyone else’s. But, the sure-handed junior only has three targets beyond ten yards downfield. A well-targeted option on Sticks and other short concepts, Moss has been vital in LSU’s methodical offensive approach.
Moving Jefferson to the slot this season noticeably helped open things up. Unlike the old scheme that often aligned him on the outside on an island, the plan this year has gotten him closer to the QB and matched up with linebackers and safeties more. While not particularly flashy against quality defense (again the Oklahoma game says otherwise), Jefferson routinely makes consistent plays and get a fair amount of looks.
Jefferson’s Target Share in these games is 29.7% and the next closest Tiger has a 23.6% clip. His 61.1% Success Rate and 11.2 yards/target justify his ample chances. Jefferson as a go-to is apparent when LSU is behind the chains or need a 3rd Down completion. Of his 54 targets, 20 have occurred in these spots. No other Tiger target has over 9. As you can tell from his Catch Chart above, Jefferson has been a high catch rate even with the volume.
Chase and Marshall are clearly the big play options on the outside. These dudes have been simply devastating even against elite competition. Over half of their catches in these spots have resulted in either a first down or a touchdown and over a quarter have gained at least 20 yards.
Chase in particular has 11 Explosive Catches in the five game sample and leads the team in Yards/Target at 12.4. Per his Catch Chart, nine of those 11 were off deep targets. Marshall owns a sexy 70% Catching Success Rate despite an average depth of target just under 16 yards. The increased degree of difficulty hasn’t deterred him much. Marshall has been especially exceptional coming down with tough chances in the Red Zone where he’s hauled in five TDs in just as many games in our sample.
This duo generally has a smaller margins of error operating deep downfield than the underneath options. While they can play part in LSU’s nickel and dime approach, they are best suited to take the top off of defenses.
Edwards-Helaire is great as a receiving threat out of the backfield. Again his Success Rate is nearly 10 percentage points higher than the SEC average despite a low low 1.65 average depth of target against LSU’s best opponents. For an offense that is aggressive attacking all levels of the defense, having a back like this is crucial. As a hot route, a tool to pick on backers, or as a checkdown, CEH has proved to be a hard back for which to prepare. And that’s before talking about his ability to pound the rock.
CEH on the year was one of the most successful and hardest ball carriers to corral in the SEC. No SEC rusher had a higher Broken Tackle Rate than his 47.7% and only Alabama’s Najee Harris and TAMU’s Kellen Mond had higher Rushing Success Rates. Getting him back healthy makes all the difference for this offense. While LSU’s Havoc Rate Allowed is rather average and nothing of a great concern, nearly a third of their rushing attempts have faced a form of Havoc against their five best foes.
It should ease some concerns that even though CEH is less successful and breaks less tackles against premier opponents, LSU’s offensive line has increased his average yards before contact and facilitated a better Explosive Run Rate in these games. Plus, it’s not like a 54.1% Success Rate or 36.5% Broken Tackle Rate is bad against four Top 8 defenses now is is?
This offense marches, explodes, and scores points. They average 3.43 points/drive and ten explosive plays per game with only 15% of their series ending in a Three-and-Out. And, they have vastly eliminated turning the ball over in these games. Their 0.62% Turnover Rate is even better than Clemson’s 0.66% from the five game sample.
While Burrow and CEH have managed to excel when a play breaks down, you should know 13.6% of LSU’s plays have been “broken” in these games. That’s a lot and a dangerous game to keep assuming nothing bad will arise when defaulting to backyard ball. Sure, Burrow has been one of the best around improvising and finding guys when a design collapses and its top notch facing pressure. Clemson might be okay with that notion, so long they can make a couple of big plays.
LSU’s Core Concepts
Even with their recent proclivity to dropback and pass, two of LSU’s most called plays are runs. All year long, LSU has unapologetically whittled their run game into two predominant looks: Inside Zone Slam Reads and Duo Dives ; one a zone play and the other a gap look. Both are designed to attack the B-Gap between the tackle and guard.
A year ago a number of hard-nosed power looks were featured regularly in addition to run-of-the-mill zones aimed to hit holes all over. Six run plays possessed at least a 3% play share and an additional four others owned at least a 2%. Last season, LSU was firmly cemented in the old ways of doing things of letting the run set up the pass. With the conference’s third-worst Rushing AND Passing Success Rates in 2018, it’s safe to say the run-first approach didn’t work at all. A ground-heavy approach with concepts by committee yielded little foundation for fruitful gains.
While LSU certainly calls more than just a pair of runs, Slam Reads and Duo Dives are the only ground looks with at least a 3% play share this season. Versus their toughest competition, Slam Reads and Duo Dives have made up just under 30% of LSU’s offensive plays. LSU has a 62% Pass Rate in those games, which leaves roughly an 8% play share to the remainder of their ground looks.
Year over year, the Tigers’ Rushing Success Rate is up 10 percentage points. LSU went from the SEC’s third worst to second best in this regard. Plus, their two favorite run plays are natural compliments to one another schematically. By balancing the calls between the two, defenses are forced to guess more often. Again since they are blocked differently, defenses can’t defend the two designs the same way effectively.
Out of bunch sets, especially LSU has executed these plays well. With the set naturally making double teams easier towards the strength and potentially creating wider zone paths on the backside should the front overcorrect towards the bunch, LSU simply just has to line up and see where there is greater opportunity. The blocking is the exact same between Slam Reads and Duo Dives upfront, which is almost never the case out of other formations.
The bunch side of the formation set hard edges with the majority of the line blocking a zone flow. The orientation of the back will help diagnose whether its a Slam or a Dive. If he immediately gets north towards the bunch, it’s a Dive as he is attacking the hard edges or looking to bounce. If he crosses the QB’s face, its a Slam as he’s working towards the typical zone scheme with the bunch sealing the backside of the formation. The versatility of running out of this particular set has been a major aspect to keep defenses off-balanced when LSU has turned to the ground this season.
From a bunch set or not, LSU has repped 61 Slam Reads and 29 Duo Dives in the five games against their elite competition. Overall, both have been rather successful. Slam Reads posted a 49.2% Success Rate with Duo Dives sporting a 55.2% clip and both are number one and two in terms of accumulating yardage with 298 and 184, respectfully.
Slam Reads are at their least efficient on 1st Downs. There, the inside zone look’s Success Rate dips to 41.7% on a pedestrian 4.58 yards per pop. The exact opposite is true for Duo Dives. On 1st Downs, LSU has been terrific executing them to the tune of a 66.7% Success Rate averaging over 9 yards/carry.
But on 3rd Downs, Slam Reads are the standard bearer both in number of calls and success. Their 11 reps are more than double the next closest look and their 72.7% Success Rate is the highest of any run concept with multiple tries.
Tosser - a dual or all slants pattern - is a favorite concept of the Tigers to snatch yards in the underbelly of defenses or against sagging coverages. It’s not really a big secret that the Tigers have feasted on Slant Variations this season, but the Tosser design has been their most targeted. Against their elite competition, LSU has targeted 30 slant plays with 16 of them being the Tosser concept.
While not as potent versus these foes, Tosser connections have routinely delivered moderate gains. A good deal of LSU’s opponents this season have been weary of letting the Bayou Bengals winning deep. This has yielding more cushion underneath for slants to thrive. Overall, Slant Variations have posted a 56.7% Success Rate. Tosser has put up a slightly worse clip at 56.3% on a 6.81 yards/target. But any team would be happy with those results for such a low-risk design.
Stick Variations are another short passing staple that LSU utilizes on early downs to steal cheap yards. Against their hardest opponents, LSU runs four variations (technically they run 5 but I’m not getting into it) of Sticks. Out of trips, they like the Air Raid Stick where the middle and inside options run hitches/outs with the outside receiver getting vertical. It is highly common to see this design as a route tag on RPOs. Over half of the Tigers’ targeted Sticks have been of this variety.
From balanced, condensed sets, LSU likes a wrinkle that sends the inside receivers to the flat with quick hitches by the outside ones. Plus from those formations, you will see a pattern than asks for hitches from the inside options and quick outs on the outside. LSU has targeted Sticks from condensed sets five times. An additional two targets have gone the way towards Outside Sticks. These kinda sort act like the Spot concept. The only difference, of course, is there is no overtop corner like you’d get in that look. Only a sit hook by the outside receiver with a flat route by the back.
All in all, 80% of targeted Sticks have met their situational goals against LSU’s elite foes. A go-to early down play, nine of the play’s 16 attempts have occurred on 1st Down where they have sport a sensational 88.9% Success Rate. Not to be redundant, but the Tigers have done a really, really good job at making their defensive opponents pay for playing soft coverage. Whether via Slants, Sticks, or Levels, LSU is more than happy to nickel and dime as long as the defense has porous pockets.
LSU’s vertical passing game often calls for mirror routes from their outside receivers with middle bends and shallow crosses from the middle ones. Using core Air Raid principles, LSU has been able to deploy a variety of looks with minimal schematic adjustments. Plus, play action and heavy protection aren’t entirely uncommon on these looks. A good amount of LSU’s chunk plays have come from these concepts whether in the structure of the design or by backyard ball.
Comebacks are basic patterns but are effective at winning against man or finding pockets against zones. The outside receivers will run 12-15 yard comebacks with the inside receivers streaking down the seams. Eight of the 11 targets this look has received have happened on firsts where they have sported a 75% Success Rate. Though at their best to start a set of downs, Comebacks still post an admirable 54.6% Success Rate overall versus LSU’s five hardest opponents. All the while, these plays have produced 129 yards - good for fourth most of any look.
Modern Air Raid offenses are all about All Verts. Nothing says pass-happy offenses more than sending four or five guys deep on the reg. While LSU prefers to chip with their TEs and mostly send three downtown, All Verts have gotten a fair amount of reps all year long from this offense. While above average in terms of success, premier competition has limited this homerun hitting pattern’s production.
A good deal of these attempts have resulted in broken repetitions. This concept just hasn’t yielded desirable numbers heading into the championship. Despite being a Top 6 repped look, its no where near the Top 8 in terms of accumulated yardage.
Ironically, a design schemed to hit a drag route has been the Tigers’ most incendiary concept. Shallows - named for a drag and dig combo that head opposite directions - have consistently been the Bayou Bengals’ best play. As aforementioned, LSU often asks their outside receivers to run the same route on their vertical oriented patterns. The main Shallow combo is often paired with dual comebacks, outs, curls, or streaks on the outside. These complimentary routes have often been targeted versus their top ranked opponents.
Regardless of what route is thrown the ball, Shallows have a 80% Success Rate and average 15.2 yards/target in the five game sample. All seven of their 1st Down reps have been successful. Thanks to their knack for netting big gains, Shallows have racked up 152 yards, which is the most of any pass concept and only trails the two core run concepts overall.
Going to back their power run roots while still staying spread, LSU has been able to incorporate Iso/Wham/Split-Zone Inserts looks to bash fronts inside the tackles. On average, about one or two of these have been called per game against the elite defenses LSU has faced. Definitely meant as a change-of-pace play rather than a volume look, these Iso runs have a 72.3% Success Rate and average 11.5 yards/attempt. In terms of overall yardage, Isos have combined for the fifth most.
Daggers were a favorite of this offense last year. Though seldom used this fall, this deep clearout pattern saw three reps against Oklahoma in the semifinal. All four of this look’s reps against elite competition have occurred on the money down and all four have moved the chains while averaging 22.3 yards per target in the process.
Versus Oklahoma, LSU gave the Sooners a taste of their own medicine. While an overly eclectic scheme, a common combo I noticed while charting Lincoln Riley’s offense was coupling a Mesh with a Dagger. All three of the Daggers the Tigers called combined those two concepts. That was something they hadn’t done all season long. It remains to be seen if this design will be seen in the final. But with Daggers receiving the third most calls on thirds for the Tigers, we need to at least be aware of this look.
Chip Kelly’s rendition of the Mesh play is their second most favorite money down look. Due the the great number of intersecting routes creating rubs, these are nearly impossible to stop in short yard situations. Towards the strong side of the play, the outside receiver will run a sit hook overtop the crossing shallow routes with the back running a flat/wheel.
What the other outside receiver does on the opposite side of the formation varies. To further accentuate the aging process on defensive coordinators, LSU sometimes line up its primary slot receiver, Justin Jefferson, in the backfield with their back in his stead. Four of its five targeted reps have resulted in a conversion averaging 11.4 yards in the process. These didn’t get any reps against Oklahoma. Probably because they didn’t need to go to it.
While LSU doesn’t get too quirky with its X’s and O’s, they aren’t afraid to dial up a shot. Portland Shots like Portland, Yankee, Shotput, and Shot Floods are often off heavy play fakes with max protection. The former two aim to create an open deep post and the latter two aim to hit a deep corner with another route towards the middle of the field. Three of the four of these plays have been successful against the meat of LSU’s schedule on 22.5 yards/attempt.
Other Shots like slot fades and the Divide combo combined for 11 reps. While neither has been overly fruitful, Divide has a healthy 17.5 yards/target clip. Switches Variations like Wheelie - Wheel + Post/Dig combos - and Vertigo - intersecting vertical routes - have been phenomenal in their limited reps. I cannot stress the lack of reps enough but on these four reps versus some of the best defenses around, LSU has averaged 34.5 yards/attempt on a perfect 100% Success Rate. Seldom used sure, but these are the wrinkles deep in the playbook - much like that nifty R Sail/Scissor play - that can often create a big play in a close contest.