CLEMSON — Twice this season Clemson has faced elite defenses in South Carolina and Florida State. Twice, Clemson and its prolific up-tempo, no-huddle offense lost.
No. 14 Clemson (10-2) is hoping for a different outcome when it faces No. 9 LSU (10-2) in the Chick-fil-A Bowl on Dec. 31, the highest ranked opponent Clemson has met in a bowl game since defeating No. 6 Tennessee in the 2003 Chick-fil-A Bowl.
On New Year’s Eve under the Georgia Dome roof in Atlanta, the Clemson offense, which has totaled the ninth-most yards in the country, will meet an elite LSU defense that possesses the type of defensive front that has led the Southeastern Conference to six straight national titles. The group has helped LSU to rank eighth in the nation in yards allowed.
LSU has two projected first-round picks on its defensive line in ends Sam Montgomery, a South Carolina native, and Barkevious Mingo.
Clemson coach Dabo Swinney knows LSU defensive coordinator John Chavis well and knows the quality of a unit allowing just 296 yards per game. LSU held South Carolina’s Marcus Lattimore to 35 rushing yards earlier this year.
“They’re as good as it gets,” Swinney said. “That defense is built for championships. That’s how they’ve recruited, that’s how they developed their depth. It’s an outstanding group. Their front four will be good as anyone we’ve seen. We’ll have a great matchup on our hands.”
Clemson’s last meeting against an elite defensive front didn’t go well.
South Carolina’s front four limited Clemson to season lows in plays (59) and yards (328), Clemson averages 518 yards per game.
Clemson single-blocked South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney and Clowney responded by sacking Clemson quarterback Tajh Boyd 4½ times. That strategy might need to be rethought against Montgomery and Mingo, who have the speed, strength and athleticism on the edge to beat Clemson’s tackles on the edge.
Clemson did better against Florida State and its talented end Bjoern Werner, holding FSU to two sacks and totaling 426 yards.
“I like our guys, I like how they’ve developed but this is another one of those matchups where we’ll be tested,” Swinney said. “We’ll have to figure out how to contain some of these pass rushers they’ve got.”
The LSU front is backed by quality defensive backs, who have helped LSU to the nation’s ninth-best pass efficiency defense (101.4) and overcome the loss of star safety Tyrann Mathieu.
LSU cornerback Tharold Simon and safety Craig Loston are elite athletes and will test Clemson receivers DeAndre Hopkins and Sammy Watkins.
LSU coach Les Miles raved about Clemson quarterback Tajh Boyd on Monday.
“He’s as talented a QB prospect as we’ve faced this season,” Miles said. “He has ability to extend ... He’s a very talented QB and the offense really (complements) the things he does well.”
It’s a final opportunity, this season, for the Clemson offense to prove it can beat an elite defense.
“I truly believe this is a BCS-type bowl,” Swinney said. “This is as exciting of a matchup that is out there. We’re playing a national championship-caliber team in a national venue. It is a special opportunity.”