Sorry, Ohio State and Clemson, but LSU is the true No. 1 in a loaded CFP field

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There was a time — a month ago, in fact — when LSU‘s defense was bad.

It wasn’t a crazy narrative. Ole Miss — before mimicking dogs or firing coaches or hiring Lane Kiffin — put up a mind-boggling 614 yards on LSU’s defense. Sure, the Tigers won easily, but boy that defense. No way this was the No. 1 team in the country.

And now?

Derek Stingley‘s second interception of the game in Saturday’s SEC championship (a 37-10 LSU win) sealed what was assuredly one of the most impressive defensive performances of the season for a College Football Playoff contender, an utter dismantling of Georgia’s entire game plan in which Jake Fromm, the same QB who nearly upended Alabama in each of the past two years, looked overwhelmed.

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Tigers freshman Derek Stingley Jr. becomes first player with two interceptions in the SEC championship since 2000.

That bad LSU defense has now given up only 42% completions, 2.6 yards per rush and racked up 12 sacks in the three games since the Ole Miss debacle. Yes, this is probably the country’s No. 1 team.

Meanwhile Saturday, Ohio State made the case a bit easier for the committee, too. The Buckeyes had dominated Wisconsin in the teams’ previous meeting this season, but they looked lost in a woeful first half that ended with a 21-7 Badgers lead and a flurry of analysts wondering what this all means. But, of course, Ohio State is still Ohio State, and for another year, the committee dodged a bullet. There are no worries about whether Ohio State still deserves its bid or whether Wisconsin might get in with two losses or even whether the Buckeyes should remain atop the poll.

For yet another year, the committee’s job is pretty simple.

What awaits in the playoff is a mystery. There are at least three very good teams moving forward, and that makes for an interesting field.

What happened Saturday, however, tied up the regular season quite nicely.

Is Joe Burrow the easy Heisman vote? Answer: Absolutely. Burrow was dominant against a tough UGA defense, and the Heisman trust might as well start polishing his trophy now.

Is LSU’s defense good enough to win it all? Answer: For sure. There’s an adjustment period for any defense when the offense starts scoring the way LSU has this season. The tempo changes, the approach changes, the foundation of what LSU wanted to do defensively changed. But Stingley is still a superstar, Grant Delpit is still a first-round NFL talent and Dave Aranda still knows how to coach ’em up. The Tigers are hitting their stride at just the right time.

Is Ohio State No. 1? Answer: Nope. That’s no knock on the Buckeyes, but their game Saturday showed flaws we hadn’t seen before. It showed strengths, too, to come back and erase that Wisconsin lead to pull away with what was ultimately a fairly easy win. Still, this is nitpicking time, and comparing the résumés of Ohio State and LSU requires a magnifying glass to parse. The slow start against Wisconsin is enough to push LSU — with its wins over Texas, Florida, Auburn, Alabama and Georgia — into the top spot.

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Trevor Lawrence says Clemson is ready for the College Football Playoff and to prove the Tigers are the best team the country.

Is Clemson still a real contender? Answer: No doubt about it. The Tigers couldn’t have looked much better as Trevor Lawrence and Tee Higgins offered a prime-time reminder that, yes, this is still the team that destroyed Alabama less than a year ago to win a national championship.

Does anyone want the No. 4 spot? Answer: Oklahoma by default. The Sooners’ win Saturday wasn’t their most dominant, but it was a win — and that’s all that matters thanks to Utah’s loss on Friday and Wisconsin’s second-half slump Saturday. Oklahoma will not be favored entering the playoff, but Jalen Hurts has been here, the defense has made strides and the No. 4 seed has more titles in the past five years (2) than the No. 1 seeds (0).

Saturday’s theatrics mean Sunday will have little drama. The committee has four clear-cut cases. That’s a good thing because there’s a strong case to be made that this is, in fact, the best four-team playoff field we’ve had yet.

Who wants Clemson?

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Virginia has no answers for Tee Higgins who goes off for 182 yards and three touchdowns in Clemson’s 62-17 win. Trevor Lawrence finishes with four TDs and 302 yards in the win.

There are two facts that have largely dictated the narrative surrounding Clemson all season. The first is simple enough. The Tigers are the defending champs, and it’s awfully hard to doubt a team filled with players who just won it all less than a year ago. On the other hand, with the Tigers’ 62-17 evisceration of Virginia on Saturday — and the ensuing likelihood UVa falls from the top 25 as a result — Clemson will not own a win against a ranked opponent.

Ask Dabo Swinney about those two narratives, however, and he’ll argue with both of them. Last year, he has said repeatedly, is over. This is a new team. Clemson isn’t defending anything, but rather trying to win a new title. But listen to Swinney complain about the media, the committee and the voters over the past week, and it’s pretty clear he’s not a fan of anyone doubting Clemson because of that weak schedule, either.

What is perhaps the most relevant talking point on Clemson was the one on display Saturday. Trevor Lawrence, after some early-season hiccups, threw for 302 yards and four TDs and now looks every bit as dominant as he was during last year’s playoff run, perhaps even better. Travis Etienne, who ran for 114 yards against Virginia, is still the country’s most explosive back. Tee Higgins put on a performance Saturday that rewrote the ACC championship game record book. Xavier Thomas, Justyn Ross, Isaiah Simmons — they’re all still quite good.

So while Clemson’s dominance Saturday meant, once again, there was little drama in the ACC championship game, there was assuredly some nail-biting among Ohio State and LSU fans who would much rather not see the Tigers on Dec. 28.

Heisman Five

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Joe Burrow puts defenders on ice skates and completes a 71-yard pass to Justin Jefferson which eventually leads to an LSU touchdown.

1. Joe Burrow, LSU

How do you put an exclamation point on your Heisman résumé? How’s four TDs and 390 yards versus one of the best defenses in the country in a dominant win in the SEC championship game? Yes, that’ll do nicely. It might not have been the guy everyone was talking about preseason, but for the third straight year, the Heisman will go to a transfer QB.

2. Justin Fields, Ohio State

He looked shaky in the first half, but whatever Ryan Day told the team at halftime certainly worked for Fields, who finished Saturday’s come-from-behind win with 299 passing yards and three touchdowns. It’s not enough to overtake Burrow, but Fields is more than deserving of runner-up status.

3. Trevor Lawrence, Clemson

It was Deshaun Watson’s unfortunate fate, too, that his Heisman campaigns in 2015 and 2016 only heated up late, and so it is for Lawrence, who might have a real shot to win if the voting were done after the postseason. As it is, his past six games: 76% completions, 11.14 yards/attempt, 22 total touchdowns and no turnovers.

4. Jalen Hurts, Oklahoma

Seven turnovers in his final five games probably ended Hurts’ Heisman campaign, and only one TD in a too-close-for-comfort Big 12 title game wasn’t a great final note to voters, but Hurts will probably be plenty happy with a conference championship and possible playoff bid now.

5. Chuba Hubbard, Oklahoma State

The QBs were at the top of the Heisman talk all season, but it’s worth noting that this has been one heck of a year for tailbacks, too. In any other year, Hubbard is a clear-cut Heisman finalist. Heck, in any other year, Jonathan Taylor would be, too. Or maybe J.K. Dobbins. Or Travis Etienne. Or AJ Dillon. It’s been a heck of a year for the runners, but there’s just too much QB talent ahead of them.

A game of “what if”

Nick Saban went ballistic when officials put one second back on the clock at the end of the first half against Auburn last week, and that second translated into a field goal for the Tigers, and that field goal was the difference in the game.

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