The first quarter set the tone for what would prove to be an exciting College Football Playoff National Championship. NFL talent laced each sideline as the two teams battled in New Orleans. In the end, the No. 1 LSU Tigers were crowned national champions with a thrilling 42-25 win against No. 3 Clemson.
There is no doubt that this 15-0 LSU team will go down in college football history as one of the greatest teams ever. But big stakes also were being played out in the stands and scouting boxes, where NFL Draft evaluators were sizing up who did what. Here is a look at five key story lines to emerge Monday night that could define the next three-plus months of draft buzz:
1. QBs Joe Burrow and Trevor Lawrence are worthy of the hype
Burrow threw for five touchdowns, pushing him towith 60 on the year. He was everything that fans had come to expect and more. The Ohio native showed toughness, great downfield accuracy and a little speed along the way, finishing with 463 passing yards (31-for-47) plus 58 rushing yards (on 14 attempts) and a sixth TD by foot.
The Cincinnati Bengals will have an opportunity to work with Oregon’s Justin Herbert at the Senior Bowl, sure, but they do not need to overthink their No. 1 overall selection: It is Burrow. He is no longer the consolation prize to a team desperate for a franchise quarterback. Instead, he has silenced all criticism and shown that he is worthy of being the third quarterback taken No. 1 overall.
Burrow’s counterpart at Clemson, 20-year-old sophomore Lawrence, has a bright future, but it was not enough. He still has a lot of room for growth, but NFL fans will be hearing his name soon. The Georgia native has ideal size, arm strength and the mind capable of making quick reads. Lawrence, along with Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields, figure to be two of the top prospects regardless of position for the 2021 NFL Draft.
2. Do not exclude Tee Higgins from the elite WR prospects in 2020
Who is the top receiver prospect in the 2020 NFL Draft? Oklahoma’s CeeDee Lamb? Alabama’s Jerry Jeudy? The conversation has been hotly contested in recent months, but do not sleep on Clemson’s Higgins.
He has battled injuries at various points in the season, including in both College Football Playoff games. Fans witnessed how valuable he is as he scraped out three catches for 52 yards plus the above 36-yard rushing touchdown on an end-around. There was more confidence in the team’s ability to move the ball downfield with him available. The Tigers were creative getting him the ball early and it paid big dividends. Higgins also was the recipient of a controversial offensive pass interference penalty early in the fourth quarter that cost him a touchdown.
3. Isaiah Simmons is destined to be an NFL star
It is difficult to put the Clemson star defender, who had seven tackles (two for loss), in a box. He will have to be listed at one specific position leading up to the 2020 NFL Draft, but he can fulfill a variety of roles. Simmons is a special talent and will hopefully not be wasted in the wrong scheme. The Kansas native is one of the top five talents available regardless of position. His coverage is second to none from the linebacker level. He has grown as a pass rusher, but his most endearing quality is his open field tackling. If Simmons is within range of a ball carrier, he is bringing that player down. The New York Giants, Detroit Lions and Miami Dolphins could all use him.
4. Highly-regarded CBs Kristian Fulton, A.J. Terrell struggled
Fulton has high grades from scouts, but there’s reason to be skeptical. The talent is evident, but there are too many examples of him not trusting his technique and getting handsy downfield. The Louisiana native has a great frame but shows no interest in tackling, though he does a great job mirroring receivers. Fulton, who had six tackles and one pass break-up, was exposed for most of the game but he was the victim of a pretty tacky pass interference call late in the third quarter. A no-call could have drastically changed the game. He isat this stage.
Criticism of Terrell — and there was a lot on social media — was probably a little overblown. He actually had really great coverage on one of the Ja’Marr Chase touchdowns as he finished with five tackles and one break-up. When descriptions such as “record-setting” or “historic” are attached to a passing game’s performance, it’s never pretty for the defense, and Chase had that kind of night. The wide receiver finished with nine receptions for 221 yards and two touchdowns. Terrell is a likely Day 2 selection.
5. LSU, Clemson boast three of the next great WR prospects
The focus has been on the present, but the future is bright for each of these programs. Lawrence has already been discussed, but let’s consider some of the pass catchers on each sideline. Chase is a likely first-round pick in the 2021 NFL Draft. His speed and ability after the catch are tremendous. Entering the National Championship game, he had 18 touchdown receptions. The Louisiana native padded his stats with two more Monday night. And LSU teammate Terrace Marshall (three catches, 46 yards) made one of the more impressive plays with a jump-ball touchdown early in the fourth quarter.
Clemson sophomore Justyn Ross (five catches, team-high 76 yards) is in a similar boat to Chase. He would contend for a first-round selection in the 2020 NFL Draft if eligible. The Tigers’ offense had so many mouths to feed in 2019 so individual statistics are not as significant as they would be otherwise. Ross’ upside is almost as high as his hair. He is a big, special player.