NEW ORLEANS (AP) — A year ago, Clemson made a pretty good case as the greatest team in college football history.
It didn't take long for another group of felines to take the standard even higher.
Take a bow, LSU.
The top spot on that mythical pedestal belongs to these Tigers now.
With a Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback leading an offense for the ages and a defense that came into its own over the last six weeks, LSU competed a most perfect of seasons with a 42-25 dismantling of Clemson in the national championship game Monday night.
Clemson's 2018 team was the first to go 15-0, a remarkable feat that justifiably led many of its players to say they should be remembered as the best team of them all.
But LSU was even more impressive in its own run through 15 straight opponents, piling up points like a pinball machine and shoring up a defense that appeared to be lacking that championship touch as late as mid-November.
This was the first team ever to beat each of the top four in The Associated Press preseason poll.
The average margin in those games: 21 points.
“In my opinion, this is the best team in college football — ever,” LSU receiver Terrace Marshall Jr. said. "We’ve got the receivers. We’ve got the best quarterback. Got the best offensive line. Got the best defense. Best pass rushers. Best linebackers. Best safeties. Best cornerbacks. Can’t beat it.”
There was never any doubt that Joe Burrow & Co. could outscore just about anybody they faced. But when the guys on the other side of the line finally showed up, that's when LSU ensured its place for perpetuity.
Clemson, winners of 29 straight games and two of the previous three national titles, wasn't going to go down easily. The great ones never do. When the orange-clad Tigers raced out to a 17-7 lead early in the second quarter, it was obvious that LSU was in for a much tougher fight than it got in either the Southeastern Conference championship game or the Peach Bowl semifinal game.
But Burrow kicked it into overdrive, turning to future NFL weapons such as receiver Ja'Marr Chase and running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire.
LSU was up 28-17 by halftime, having struck for three touchdowns in about a nine-minute span. Clemson responded on its first possession of the second half a quick 50-yard touchdown drive and two-point conversion that sliced the lead to 28-25.
The last hurrah of a proud champion, it turned out.
Burrow threw two more touchdown passes, giving him five on the night and an NCAA Division I-record 60 for the season.
“This is best group of guys anybody could ask for,” said Burrow, who was 31 of 49 for 463 yards. “This is a special group of guys. This doesn't come around every year.”
Hard to argue with that.
Chase finished with nine receptions for 221 yards and a pair of scores. Justin Jefferson also reached triple figures receiving, turning his nine catches into 106 yards. Edwards-Helaire rushed for 110 yards, averaging nearly 7 yards per carry, and added another 54 yards on five receptions. Thaddeus Moss, son of NFL Hall of Famer Randy Moss, hauled in a pair of short TD throws.
LSU piled up a staggering 628 yards against one of the country's top defenses, a Clemson team that had not given up more than 23 points all season.
But it was the LSU defense — maligned much of the season as the team's Achilles' heel — that pushed the team across the finish line.
They harassed and harried Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence, who started 10 of 15 for 161 yards but completed only 8 of 22 for 73 yards the rest of the way.
“LSU did a good job,” Lawrence said. “They brought a lot of pressures, they did a good job of mixing up the coverages.”
It was the lowest-rated game of the sophomore's college career, with the final blow delivered by Grant Delpit when Lawrence took off on a run in the closing minutes.
Delpit stuck his helmet into Lawrence's gut, the ball went flying and Derek Stingley scooped up the fumble to seal the victory.
“Tonight was all about LSU,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said. “They played an unbelievable game.”
LSU, which somehow surrendered more than 600 yards to Ole Miss, closed out the season by giving up a single touchdown to Texas A&M, limiting Georgia to just 10 points in the SEC championship game, largely shutting down Jalen Hurts and high-scoring Oklahoma in a Peach Bowl blowout, and choking off defending champion Clemson over the final 45 minutes of the season.
A championship-worthy defense, indeed.
With confetti fluttering all around in the Superdome, someone asked Moss what it meant to be part of the greatest team in LSU history.
He quickly corrected them.
“The greatest team in college football history,” Moss shot back.
In the end, LSU beat seven teams that were ranked in the AP Top 10 at the time of the game — a staggeringly impressive feat.
Maybe the greatest ever.
“Look at the record," Moss said. "Look at who we played and the numbers we put up. It speaks for itself.”
Paul Newberry is a sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at pnewberry(at)ap.org or at www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963 His work can be found at https://apnews.com
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