Chick-fil-A Bowl preview: Clemson-LSU

Key Matchup

If Clemson has not solved its issues along the offensive line, this will be another long night at the hands of an SEC defense.

The last time offensive coordinator Chad Morris’ record-setting scoring machine took to the national stage, it was single-handedly shut down by South Carolina’s defensive end Jadeveon Clowney (4 1/2 sacks). The Gamecocks rushed Clowney from the right, from the left, from a 3-point stance and standing up. Clemson could not find an answer, and it showed on the scoreboard: Quarterback Tajh Boyd posted a season-worst 183 yards passing and threw two picks.

Now, though South Carolina’s All-American sophomore might be the most talented player in the nation, LSU pass rushers Sam Montgomery and Barkevious Mingo are also top 15-caliber NFL Draft prospects in their own right. The two have combined for 11 sacks and 17 1/2 tackles for loss this season.

If the ACC Tigers have not sorted out a way to protect Boyd — he’s been sacked 26 times this season — expect a second straight loss at the hands of an SEC power.

Player to Watch

Amid the freshman hoopla surrounding Georgia’s Todd Gurley and Alabama’s T.J. Yeldon following the SEC Championship (for good reason), it’s easy to forget that LSU’s Jeremy Hill quickly became the go-to guy in a loaded Tigers backfield.

LSU entered the 2012 season boasting a backfield of Spencer Ware, Kenny Hilliard, Alfred Blue and Michael Ford. Those four runners combined to rush for 2,338 yards and 30 touchdowns for last season’s BCS national title runner-up.

Hill was not even in the picture.

Now, as the redshirt freshman goes, so goes Les Miles’ offense. Hill has averaged 19.5 rushes over the last six games, including 100-yard performances against top-10 opponents South Carolina, Alabama and Texas A&M. He leads the team with 631 yards and 10 scores, including a season-saving three-touchdown performance against Ole Miss.

If Hill and his Tigers can control the ground game, it’s going to be that much more difficult for Clemson’s offense to crack LSU’s 8th-ranked defense.

Telling Stat

9: Clemson’s explosive sophomore Sammy Watkins receives most of the media’s attention, but wideout DeAndre Hopkins was much more productive this season. Hopkins has caught a touchdown pass in nine consecutive games, tying an ACC record. Thus far, he’s amassed 1,214 receiving yards (ninth nationally) and 16 scores.

Final Analysis

In all honesty, there is not a single quality win on Clemson’s resume. That may sound harsh for a 10-2 team in a big-name bowl, but what qualifies as quality?

Auburn? Virginia Tech? NC State? Maybe in some other season, but not this time around. The ACC’s Tigers played two ranked opponents in 2012 (Florida State, South Carolina) and lost to both of them in rather convincing fashion.

LSU fell beneath its high preseason expectations, but it still beat the likes of South Carolina and Texas A&M and took No. 2 Alabama down to the final possession. The defense is still terrifying, and with its pass rush likely putting pressure on Boyd all night and a premier secondary led by safety Eric Reid forcing turnovers (31 this season), LSU holds the edge here.

If Clemson can start clicking on offense, it is one of the more dangerous teams in the country, but it has not happened yet against a top-25 scoring defense. With LSU’s running game and quarterback Zach Mettenberger playing better, LSU should squeeze out a win in this one.

The Pick: LSU 24-21