With the College Football Playoff National Championship Game set to kick off tonight, anticipation for the dream LSU vs. Clemson matchup is at an all-time high. Both teams are undefeated, with Clemson not having lost in over two seasons. Still, LSU remains the favorite after a historic run to this point.
This game feels destined to be a close one in the late stages of the game, with the outcome likely hinging on a select few plays. There’s one positional matchup that stands out above the rest in this game that could be the ultimate decider: the Clemson wide receivers against the LSU defensive backs.
Clemson wide receiver Tee Higgins is draft-eligible and is expected to declare for the 2020 NFL Draft after the National Championship Game. At 6’4 and 215 pounds, he has a size advantage over nearly every cornerback he faces. Projecting as a prototypical “X” wide receiver at the next level, Higgins is at home along the boundary and operating outside of the numbers.
Breaking out during Clemson’s national championship run last season as a true sophomore, Higgins now has 25 receiving touchdowns over the past two years. Looking into his game, he’s one of those receivers who can expand his catch radius due to his body control. Higgins has springs, and he’s able to position his frame in the air to win above the rim or through contact. This is especially dangerous because he doesn’t need separation to still be open, and quarterback Trevor Lawrence will give him chances to win contested catches throughout the game.
While separation isn’t necessary for Higgins to finish plays, he’s an underrated route runner. Higgins has shown progression with his stem work this season, limiting how crowded he is at the break-point. With his length and footwork, he’s a force in the intermediate and difficult for cornerbacks to keep quiet for an entire game.
Tee Higgins (bottom of screen) expands CB with his stem for the win back inside pic.twitter.com/mpEdq78Cgk— NFL Clips (@NFLDraftVideos) January 13, 2020
Higgins will be sought after in the top 50 picks of the 2020 NFL Draft, but his counterpart, Justyn Ross, could become an even better prospect. Blessed with similar length as Higgins at 6’4, Ross is equally as impressive at the catchpoint. His work while contested is some of the most advanced in all of college football, evidenced by his dominance in that area as a true freshman last season.
Superhuman pic.twitter.com/CdeVz24cid— Brad Kelly (@CoachBKelly) January 13, 2020
On top of being dangerous down the field because his catch radius, Ross is equally effective after the catch. With a unique elusiveness for a player of his size, he’s able to slip by tacklers or work through contact for extra yardage.
Justyn Ross is so cold pic.twitter.com/M0Ok23ekKe— Brad Kelly (@CoachBKelly) January 13, 2020
In the 2020 NFL Draft, alongside Tee Higgins will be LSU senior cornerback Kristian Fulton, who will be another option for teams in the first round. Fulton is at his best when tasked with press-man coverage, as he’s shifty in his midsection and fluid enough to stick to the hips of boundary wide receivers on in-breaking routes. With a nice combination of size for an NFL cornerback and natural athleticism, Fulton can match receivers vertically with ease.
On the other side of the field from Fulton is true freshman Derek Stingley Jr, whose calling cards are his pure athleticism and ball skills. With 15 passes defended and 6 interceptions, if the ball is within Stingley’s range, he always makes a play on it. While Stingley has had lapses in coverage over the season, he has the range to make up for the separation that he allows.
Derek Stingley Jr.’s ball skills are out of this world pic.twitter.com/3HI5bA098J— Brad Kelly (@CoachBKelly) January 13, 2020
Looking ahead at the matchup between these pairs of wide receivers and cornerbacks, it could ultimately be the difference in the national championship game. If Clemson is going to score with LSU, they will need production through the air. If LSU is going to slow down Trevor Lawrence and company, they will need to stick with their two All-ACC receivers.
Both Clemson wide receivers are able to finish at a high rate despite being contested, creating an intriguing matchup when Derek Stingley will be in coverage. With Stingley’s ball skills, Trevor Lawrence’s accuracy will need to be perfect when throwing against him.
On the other side, Kristian Fulton could be the LSU defensive player with the most riding on his performance. Fulton has had instances where he misjudges the ball, drifting from the catchpoint and allowing receptions over his head. Despite generally favorable work at the line of scrimmage and in coverage, this is a major concern when facing Tee Higgins and Justyn Ross.
Kristian Fulton misjudges deep ball pic.twitter.com/2e2O5bMDnW— NFL Clips (@NFLDraftVideos) December 19, 2019
If there’s an exploitable weakness among these four players, it’s Fulton’s tracking of the ball. On top of that, regardless of who Fulton will be covering, they provide a threat to win vertically. The potential for an explosive play will need to be limited by LSU’s secondary. Luckily, that secondary also boasts safety Grant Delpit.
Delpit provides security with his range on the back-end, and help over top of Higgins and Ross will need to be a part of LSU’s defensive game plan. Expect LSU to favor Grant Delpit to Fulton’s side, likely leaving Derek Stingley on an island in coverage.
LSU true sophomore safety Grant Delpit (6’3 203) - 73 tackles, 5 sacks, 5 INTs - has raaaaaange pic.twitter.com/AVyer5hG26— Brad Kelly (@CoachBKelly) December 3, 2018
While it’s entirely possible, if not likely, that all four of these players eventually end up as first-round draft picks in their respective classes, tonight they do battle over the collegiate national championship. Look for the Clemson wide receivers against LSU defensive backs making the difference one way or the other in the game.