The national championship game is almost here, and I have just one request: Can somebody remind me who’s in it?
Not to say it has been a while since LSU and Clemson played, but the date was Dec. 28. The 12 days of Christmas came and went, and we’re still waiting for two sets of turtledoves – two sets of Tigers, actually – to have at it. The teams arrived here Friday for Monday’s final, one band of Tigers not requiring an airplane.
When finally the Tigers collide, they’ll have gone 15 days between games, which not even the NFL asks its Super Bowl teams to do. This after having waited three weeks for the semifinals. If you’re keeping score, both Tigers will have played once in 36 days come Monday night.
The reasons for this are the same reasons for everything terrible about college football – TV and commerce. The first College Football Playoff had its semifinals on New Year’s Day, the final on Jan. 12. That was an 11-day gap, but it was in keeping with what the CFP said it planned to do, which was take back New Year’s. (Take it back from what? The NHL’s Winter Classic?) Ratings for those first semis exceeded even ESPN’s expectations, which I believe constituted a takeback.
Two years later, the semis were played on New Year’s Eve. Ratings did not meet expectations. Pressure built – this was only Year 3 of the CFP – not to air marquee games at a time when most of the country was watching Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve between sips of ginger ale. The CFP, knowing on which side Bill Hancock’s bread is buttered, bumped back four sets of semis, this year’s among them.
Trouble was, this year’s final had been set for Monday – the final is always on a Monday – the 13th. The CFP sought to bring it forward to Jan. 6, but it ran upon a significant impediment. This city being a big convention destination, that long weekend was booked. The NFL faced a similar issue when, in 2002, its NOLA Super Bowl was delayed a week by the postponement of games in the wake of Sept. 11. Being the NFL, it flexed its mighty muscles and made do, but bigwigs and media types were scattered all over town. (I fondly remember my week in the Warehouse District.)
So there, regarding the late date of this final, is your why. Contrast this year’s playoff with that of two years ago. Georgia played and beat Oklahoma in the Rose Bowl on Jan. 1; seven days later, the Bulldogs played and almost beat Alabama for the national championship at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Our president attended at least some of the game and demonstrated his mastery of some of the words in our national anthem. The same president is scheduled to drop Monday.
Before the semifinal, LSU offensive coordinator Steve Ensminger expressed concern over the layoff between the SEC Championship game and his team’s date with Oklahoma. As we saw, it didn’t appear to hamper those Tigers, who scored 49 points in the first half. The other Tigers, however, spotted Ohio State 16 points before rallying to win. Prediction: If LSU scores 49 points in 30 minutes again, Clemson won’t win. Another prediction: LSU won’t score 49 points in 30 minutes against Clemson.
Every Clemson-Alabama final – there were three in four years – has been a delicious matchup. On paper, this seems better still. Clemson hasn’t lost since Jan. 1, 2018, and is your reigning champ. LSU hasn’t lost since Nov. 24, 2018, and features the current Heisman Trophy holder. Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence was the preseason favorite for that trophy, but his semi-sluggish start – two interceptions against Georgia Tech! – and Joe Burrow’s ascendance meant the pride of Cartersville must wait until next year. (When Justin Fields of Kennesaw might snatch it from him.)
Two unbeaten teams. Two great quarterbacks. Two breeds of Tiger. Two programs that play home games in a Death Valley. A coach known as Dabo (Alabamian for “that boy”) and another who goes by Coach O. The first talks so fast he hyperventilates in midsentence; the other’s voice recalls the dulcet tones of a cement mixer.
Not going to lie. I love this final. (No Alabama, for one thing, not that I have anything against Alabama. But variety should be the spice of every life, perhaps not including Nick Saban’s.) When last LSU played for a title in the Superdome, it managed no points and 92 yards against Saban’s minions, which led to former Saints/Falcons quarterback Bobby Hebert essentially calling then-LSU coach Les Miles an imbecile in the postgame presser. Laissez les bon temps rouler!
If this game is still scoreless in the third minute, something will have gone wrong. It has been no fun sitting around for two weeks, the highlight of that hiatus being the arrival of Mike Leach, who fancies himself a pirate, in that noted nautical town of Starkville, Miss. If you listen close enough, you might just have heard Saban say, “Shiver me timbers.”
But enough. It’s nearly game time. Only – only – three more days. Toe and leather cannot meet a moment too soon.
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