news 3 days ago

Clemson's Trevor Lawrence faces paramount challenge after first career loss

Sporting News — (Bill Bender)

NEW ORLEANS — Clemson coach Dabo Swinney could only hug Trevor Lawrence after the sophomore quarterback fumbled with 3:53 remaining in Monday’s College Football Playoff championship game at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

The turnover sealed Clemson's collective fate, but No. 1 LSU had already quashed No. 3 Clemson’s hopes for consecutive national championships in its eventual 42-25 victory.

Clemson’s 29-game win streak is over. The Tigers (14-1) missed out on a third national championship through five straight Playoff appearances. Lawrence, who was upstaged by Heisman Trophy winner Joe Burrow, lost for the first time in 26 starts. So, what did Swinney say to his star signal-caller?

"I just told him to keep his head up," Swinney said after the game. "I told him I loved him and that, hey, ‘Listen, you've got — this is a great opportunity to lead and to respond.' You know, he's had so much good. We all have."

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A year after leading Clemson to a 44-16 victory against Alabama in the CFP championship as a freshman, Lawrence struggled against LSU (15-0), finishing 18 of 37 for 234 yards and a score on the ground. He didn't throw for any touchdowns. Burrow beat that by finishing 31 of 49 for 463 yards and five passing scores, plus a rushing touchdown.

Now, Swinney and Lawrence will have to bounce back from that, and Sporting News is confidence they will. Clemson ranked No. 1 in our way-too-early top 25 for 2020. The Tigers will be the hands-on favorite to win the ACC for the sixth consecutive season, and Lawrence still has running back Lyn-J Dixon, receiver Justyn Ross and the incoming top recruiting class in the country.

Lawrence borrowed the words of former Texas quarterback Vince Young in summarizing the loss.

"I think the worst thing is you don't get to go back and play with this group," he said. "So for me that's the worst thing, just those seniors, especially the guys up front, some of the wideouts. We're going to be fine. We'll be back."

What that means will be up to Swinney and Lawrence, and it will be interesting to see how this loss affects the perception of Clemson.

For Lawrence, the telling stat was his third-down throws, where he finished 2 of 11 for 20 yards. That’s a stark contrast to last season, when he finished 8 of 11 for 240 yards and two scores on third down in that win over Alabama in the championship.

"I wasn't accurate tonight," Lawrence said. "Didn't put the ball where it needed to be, didn't give my guys a chance enough, and it comes down to that really, giving them a chance, and I just didn't do a good job of doing that."

As a result, Lawrence could face a less-critical version of what Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa felt this season. Tagovailoa won the CFP championship as a freshman and lost the title game as a sophomore. He was expected to be the No. 1 pick in the 2020 NFL Draft before suffering a broken hip (and the advent of Burrow at LSU).

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Lawrence is almost guaranteed to be the No. 1 pick in the 2021 NFL Draft, but Burrow showed how narratives can change this year.

What will the narrative be around Clemson? The perception of playing a weak schedule in the ACC still exists, and Swinney was criticized for overdoing the "underdog card" this season. Lawrence said Clemson accomplished four of five teams goals, and the national championship was the lone miss. He put a positive spin on a group that has put together 69 wins the last five seasons.

"I mean, we won 29 games in a row, and sooner or later you're going to lose one," Swinney said. "This certainly wasn't the one we wanted to lose, but I know how we'll respond. We'll get back to work."

Swinney also is counting on Lawrence to bounce back from that first loss.

"He's not going to lose many," Swinney said. "I'll go ahead and tell you that right now. He ain't going to lose many. He's going to be a hard guy to beat forever because he's special. And he had a tough night tonight. For whatever reason, he just didn't have his best night."

Luckily for Lawrence, he has plenty of nights left to determine his legacy at Clemson.