LSU’s miraculous year will be cemented in history, remembered as perhaps the greatest single-season team in NCAA history. Their glory, propelled by an offense unlike anything we’ve ever seen at the highest level of the sport, will shine for years and years before there is another squad that can stack up to this one. And yet, in the present, all that’s left after the confetti drop is the loom of another season. College football’s march doesn’t stop for anyone, not even its champion.
So where does LSU — and their defeated opponent, Clemson — go from here?
For as dominant as LSU’s offense was, they won’t be setup to replicate that dominance in 2020. Losing quarterback Joe Burrow, who is expected to be the first overall pick in the draft, is a heavy enough loss itself, never mind the slew of skill players that may leave. Wide receiver Justin Jefferson is likely to declare at some point and it would be a shocker if he were the only underclassmen from that offense to declare.
LSU can retool at the skill positions, though. They always have and they always will. The Tigers have produced wide receiver and running back talent for decades, just as they have offensive line talent. It’s quarterbacks who have often eluded them, save for Jamarcus Russell’s mid-2000s run and Burrow’s 2019 campaign.
As such, replacing Burrow requires some large shoes to be filled. Burrow’s accuracy was on such an unreachable level for any reasonably talented quarterback that it would take a player the likes of Trevor Lawrence, Justin Fields, Tua Tagovailoa, etc. to allow LSU to pick up where they left off at the position. LSU have seldom shown they can sustain success at that position the same way they have at other positions, though.
Myles Brennan, who threw 40 passes in clean-up duty this season, is the presumptive replacement for Burrow. A redshirt junior in 2020, Brennan has ridden the bench and played in limited capacity over the past three seasons. Brennan came to LSU in 2017 as a four-star recruit and top-10 pro-style quarterback in his class, according to 247 Sports, but sat behind senior Danny Etling in 2017 before redshirting behind Burrow in 2018 and backing him up in 2019. While Brennan was a fantastic recruit and proved himself to be capable in limited action in 2019, it’d be foolish to project him as anything close to what Burrow was in 2019. It’s an unreasonable bar for any first-year starter to reach, but especially so for a recruit who was not a clear-cut elite star such as Lawrence, Fields, etc.
LSU could also dip into the transfer portal the way they did with Burrow, but there do not seem to be many options like that around this year. Former Houston QB D’Eriq King is the most proven transfer quarterback on the market right now. King is nothing like Burrow, though, and certainly is not nearly as accurate, so the dynamics of the offense would have to change. Assuming LSU’s offensive staff remains intact, that may work out just fine, but it’d require an adjustment period and reasonable expectations for the offense to not reach the heights it did in 2019. Aside from King, unproven or questionable starters such as Jack Allison (West Virginia), Anthony Brown (Boston College), K.J. Costello (Stanford) and Feleipe Franks (Florida) are the best of the rest. Costello, if anyone, probably gives LSU the closest approximation to Burrow and his offense.
The assumption of LSU’s staff remaining intact is a generous one, though. Joe Brady, who came over from the New Orleans Saints this season, is going to be a hot name on the coaching market now that the season is finished. NFL teams and NCAA teams alike will be aiming to make Brady one of the highest paid coordinators in the sport. Granted, it’s unlikely Brady finds that much better of a college opportunity than the one he has, but if he has the itch to go back to the NFL, plenty of doors will be open to him.
The same goes for defensive coordinator Dave Aranda. While 2019 was not his best season as a coordinator, Aranda is still one of the brightest defensive minds in the country, particularly with respect to the way he can play games up front. Aranda’s blitz and pressure packages are often among the most devastating in the country. Down the stretch of this season, the LSU defense started to finally gell as guys became healthy again, and they put forth a strong finish to a slightly disappointing year by holding Lawrence to fewer than seven yards per pass. Only two other defenses accomplished the same feat this season, and both of those games were before November.
With the pull LSU and head coach Ed Orgeron have now, replacing coordinators may not be the toughest thing in the world. The school has shown they are willing to pay up and the job is now more appealing than it’s been in at least a decade. Finding a way to replace Burrow and his production, however, is an improbable task that will bring the Tigers back to earth. They should still be plenty competitive enough to fight for another SEC title, but barring another unforeseeable developmental jump like Burrow showed in 2019, the Tigers will not sport college football’s most devastating offense again.
It’s best we cherish this perfect 2019 LSU squad for what it was while we can. That LSU can’t replicate this next season is not an indictment of their staff or players — it’s a testament to how god-sent their 2019 squad was.
Despite being the losers, Clemson are likely the ones who feel better about the upcoming season. Of course, being the losers, Clemson have had more time and reason to look ahead to the future rather than revel in the present, but security in the future regardless of a championship win or loss is the benefit of building a dynasty, just as Alabama has experienced over the past decade. Clemson aren’t going anywhere but back to the playoffs.
The key to their eventual return is — surprise — quarterback Trevor Lawrence. Though he is coming off one of his worst career performances against a stout LSU defense, Lawrence is still among the top-three quarterbacks in the country and has a clear shot at being the first-overall pick when he becomes eligible for the 2021 NFL Draft. And even in his middling performance, Lawrence did not throw an interception and still added plenty of value as a runner. Granted, none of that sounds relieving right now as the pain of a championship loss still stings, but it does shed some light onto what the absolute floor for this Clemson squad is: competitive against an all-time great team.
On offense, Clemson is losing its usual share of skill talent. Wide receiver Tee Higgins is leaving for the NFL and has a good shot at being a top-50 pick. Running back Travis Etienne is in the same boat and may even find his way into the first round, potentially being the first running back off the board. Losing both players is obviously painful, but as Clemson have come to do, they should be able to replace them fairly well.
For one, Clemson still have Justyn Ross at wide receiver and many would assert him as the team’s best pass-catcher anyway. More important, however, is the expected rise of Joe Ngata, who will be a true sophomore in 2020. Ngata was a high four-star recruit in 2019 with a 6-foot-3, 205-pound frame and ridiculous knack for bringing in passes no matter where they are directed, just like Higgins. Higgins’ success made it tough for a similar, younger player in Ngata to find proper playing time, but with Higgins set to leave, Ngata should step up and replace him rather seamlessly.
The issue for Clemson on offense is their offensive line. The Tigers are losing four of their five starting offensive linemen, with only their left tackle sticking around for the 2020 season. The four departing players were all seniors in 2019, including eventual NFL draft pick Tremayne Anchrum, who bookended the right side of the offensive line. No team, not even a dynasty the likes of Clemson, can fully handle losing four of five offensive linemen in one offseason. The Tigers are going to be playing with an inexperienced group in 2020 and they will need plenty of time to come together, and it's no guarantee that they ever do. Lawrence is going to need to show off his legs and be a play maker outside of the pocket in 2020 more than he has ever needed to be in the previous two seasons.
On the other side of the ball, Clemson have a handful of players they will need to replace, but none more important than Isaiah Simmons. Linebacker, safety, nickel corner, whatever you want to call Simmons, his value to the Clemson defense is incalculable. Simmons' versatility enabled defensive coordinator Brent Venables to play from unique packages, formations, and coverage calls over the past two years. Without a player like Simmons, it's tough to do some of what Venables liked to do, even if he is still a brilliant DC who will figure out some sort of remedy regardless.
No longer having Simmons will put a massive burden not only on Venables to re-arrange his defense a tad, but on the players to pick up the slack to cover some of the holes Simmons was able to cover all by himself. Losing a player like Simmons is like LSU losing Tyrann Mathieu, Florida State losing Derwin James, or Alabama losing Minkah Fitzpatrick: maybe they can re-tool with another talented player, but there is no 1-to-1 replacement for what those special players provide. Clemson should still have a top defense anyway, but they may finish with a top-ten-ish defense rather than the third-ranked SP+ defense (trailing only Ohio State and Georgia) they finished with in 2019.
In all, Clemson should still be a great team. Dynasties do not just collapse, especially when they are returning an elite quarterback such as Lawrence. However, the instability of an almost entirely new offensive line and the need to replace a do-it-all, schematic skeleton key in Simmons on defense leaves room for Clemson to fall off from great to very good — and very good will not win them the national championship in 2020.