Preview: Top-ranked Tigers Set for CFP Semifinal vs. Oklahoma

by Cody Worsham | Digital Media Reporter
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Preview: Top-ranked Tigers Set for CFP Semifinal vs. Oklahoma

ATLANTA – Top-ranked LSU makes its first appearance in the College Football Playoff on Saturday, as the undefeated Tigers take on fourth-seeded Oklahoma in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl.

Kickoff from Mercedez-Benz Stadium is set for 3 p.m. CST. on ESPN and the LSU Sports Radio Network. ESPN will cover the game on multiple channels as part of the its CFP Megacast, including the LSU Hometown Radio call on the SEC Network.

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The Tigers (13-0, 8-0 SEC) return to the field for the first time since defeating Georgia, 37-10, in the SEC Championship game on Dec. 7, their fifth top-10 win of the season and first SEC title since 2011. It’s LSU’s third all-time matchup with Oklahoma, whom the Tigers knocked off in the 2004 BCS National Championship Game in New Orleans.

Heisman winner Joe Burrow leads the Tiger offense, which ranks third nationally in scoring (47.8 points per game), second in passing offense (386.8 yards per game), and first in total offense (554.3 yards per game).

Burrow, who won the Heisman Trophy by a record margin, is on pace to set a new record for completion percentage (77.9 percent) and passer rating (201.5). He also leads the nation with 48 touchdown passes and ranks second with 4,715 yards.

In front of Burrow is the nation’s best offensive line. Led by center Lloyd Cushenberry III, guards Damien Lewis, Adrian Magee, and Ed Ingram, and tackles Saahdiq Charles, Austin Deculus and Badara Traore, LSU’s offensive line won the Joe Moore Award as the nation’s best unit. Magee, Lewis, and Cushenberry all earned All-SEC honors, while Cushenberry and Lewis each earned All-American honors.

Hornung Award finalist and unanimous first team All-SEC running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire is a game-time decision for LSU after picking up an injury during playoff preparation. The junior has racked up 1,290 yards and 16 touchdowns on the ground this season, and he’s set an LSU record for receptions by a running back, grabbing 50 catches for 399 yards and a score. If he’s unable to play, the Tigers will rely on freshmen Chris Curry, Tyrion Davis-Price and John Emery Jr. to fill in.

“All three of them have different talents,” says head coach Ed Orgeron. “They’ve matured. The game’s have gotten them ready. John’s improved on the things he had to improve on. Tyrion is a big bull. He’s very physical. Chris Curry has learned the offense and can go in there and give us some plays. So I think all three have improved, but they’ll have to play very well, if they play, against a very stiff Oklahoma defense.”

The Tigers’ receiving corps is among the best in the nation, led by Biletnikoff winner and unanimous All-American Ja’Marr Chase (1,498 yards, 18 touchdowns) and All-SEC performer Justin Jefferson (1,207 yards, 14 touchdowns). LSU also features Terrace Marshall Jr. (545 yards, 10 touchdowns) and tight end Thaddeus Moss, who set a school record with 38 receptions and 435 yards at tight end.

Defensively, Oklahoma is much-improved under first year coordinator Alex Grinch. The Sooners are 25th nationally in total defense.

The Sooner offense is led by Heisman finalist Jalen Hurts, who has thrown for 3,634 yards and 32 touchdowns, good for a rating of 200.3, second nationally only to Burrow. He’s also added another 1,255 yards and 18 touchdowns on the ground, leading Oklahoma to second nationally in total offense (554.2 yards per game) and first nationally in yards per play (8.15).

“He runs the ball like a big tailback back there and also throws the ball well and also has come back from a deficit to lead his team to victory,” Orgeron says of Hurts. “I do believe he’s a great leader.”

Hurts’ favorite target is Louisiana native CeeDee Lamb, who has tallied 1,208 yards and 14 touchdowns and was a finalist alongside Chase for the Biletnikoff.

LSU’s defense has been at its best late in the season, giving up just two touchdowns in its last two games. The Tigers are allowing 21.2 points per game, 25th nationally, and 5.04 yards per play, 26th nationally.

Thorpe winner Grant Delpit, a consensus All-American one season after earning unanimous All-American honors, anchors a secondary that ranks 11th nationally in defensive passer efficiency and seventh with 16 interceptions. Freshman Derek Stingley Jr., a consensus All-American, leads the SEC with six interceptions and 21 passes defended, and All-SEC edge rusher K’Lavon Chaisson leads LSU with 11.5 tackles for loss.

It’s LSU’s first trip to the playoff, and the dynamic of a combination playoff game and bowl game adds a new wrinkle to preparation. But Orgeron feels his team is as ready as ever to take its shot at a national title game appearance.

“We’ve come to a playoff game, not a Bowl,” he says. “I do believe we’re going to play loose if it’s any indication of the way they’ve been all week. They’ve been loose all week. They’ve had great practices. I don’t think the pressure of a big-time game is going to get to these guys. They have great leadership. But we’ll see. You never can tell until the game comes.”