LSU-Clemson Matchup In Chick-fil-A Headlines Pre-New Year's Bowls
Some would say that the true bowl season doesn't begin until the smorgasbord that is New Year's Day - after all, teams usually point to making a January bowl a goal. However the December 31 Chick-fil-A Bowl in Atlanta's Georgia Dome has risen up the bowl rankings in recent seasons, some years being the best non-BCS bowl game on the schedule. Reports are that it will also be included in the upcoming rotation for the college football playoffs starting in 2014.
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There can be no argument that this year's Chick-fil-A Bowl between No. 8 LSU and No. 14 Clemson is the best of all the postseason games that take place before 2013. It's a battle of Tigers who each happen to play in a Death Valley. The only other bowls with two teams ranked in the Top 15 of the BCS standings are the Orange Bowl between Northern Illinois and Florida State, the Fiesta Bowl between Kansas State and Oregon, the Cotton Bowl between Texas A&M and Oklahoma and the National Championship game between Notre Dame and Alabama. All of those take place after the New Year.
While it's a great matchup, both LSU and Clemson had BCS bowl expectations as recently as November. LSU (10-2, 5-7 ATS) was the preseason No. 1 team in the nation, at least until star cornerback Tyrann Mathieu was kicked off the team. LSU's chances of returning to the national title game took a hit with a 14-6 loss at Florida on October 6, but the Tigers still were in the hunt when they hosted Alabama on November 3 in a rematch of last year's national title game. LSU outplayed the Tide for the most part but succumbed to a final-minute touchdown for a 21-17 loss in one of the games of the year. That all but ended LSU's chances of winning the SEC again and relegated them to a non-BCS bowl.
Clemson (10-2, 8-4 ATS) was considered a decent national-title contender this year and right behind Florida State to win the ACC. The Tigers' chances of repeating as conference champions essentially vanished on September 22 when they blew a 31-21 lead at No. 4 FSU midway through the third quarter and lost 49-37. Clemson still had a good chance for an at-large BCS bowl heading into its regular-season finale against South Carolina, in which the Tigers were 6.5-point favorites. However, the Gamecocks shut down Clemson's high-powered offense on the way to 27-17 win.
LSU is currently a four-point favorite for the bowl and the total at 58.5. There will be live play-by-play betting at the book. The two teams are vastly different. Clemson is all about offense, running an up-tempo scheme led by quarterback Tajh Boyd, the ACC Offensive Player of the Year. The Tigers broke nearly every school offensive record, ranking No. 6 nationally in points (42.3). They scored at least 37 points in every game but two: against South Carolina and in the season-opening win over another SEC team, Auburn (at the Georgia Dome).
LSU, meanwhile, wins with defense, ranking in the Top 11 nationally in total defense, rushing, passing and scoring (16.9 points per game). The Tigers had just one game this season against an FBS foe in which they allowed more than 21 points. It held six to 14 points or fewer. While Clemson didn't beat a ranked team in 2012 (losing its only two games), LSU beat three ranked teams and barely lost to Florida and Alabama.
Dealing with the SEC has long been a problem for the ACC, which hasn't finished a season with a winning record against the SEC since 2003. This year, the ACC went 1-5. Saturday, November 24, was a disaster, with Georgia Tech being routed by Georgia 42-10, Florida State losing 37-26 at home as a favorite against Florida, Vanderbilt crushing Wake Forest 55-21 and Clemson's upset loss at South Carolina.
LSU, which is 5-0 all-time in this bowl and 9-1 in the Georgia Dome, hasn't faced Clemson since 1996. LSU also hasn't lost to an ACC team this century (5-0). Clemson is 11-12 versus the SEC in that same time span. The two common opponents between the schools this year were South Carolina and Auburn. As noted, the Gamecocks beat Clemson 27-17 but lost at LSU 23-21. Clemson beat Auburn 26-17 in that season opener. LSU, then ranked No. 2, escaped 12-10 at Auburn on October 22.
Clemson is looking to end a two-bowl losing streak and was embarrassed 70-33 by West Virginia in last season's Orange Bowl. That led to the hiring of new defensive coordinator Brent Venables, and that unit did improve in 2012. Clemson has covered in just one of its past seven bowl games. LSU has won five of its past seven bowls and covered the same number in that stretch.
There is some relevant player news for the game. Clemson receiver Martavis Bryant is suspended for the game. He had only 10 catches this year but for 305 yards and four touchdowns. That yards per catch leads the nation. Former LSU starting guard Josh Williford will be ready for the first time since suffering a concussion in early October. However, Les Miles said he wasn't planning to mess with his starting offensive line, meaning redshirt freshman Trai Turner should stay in Williford's spot.
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