By Troy Bolin
Sports Director - WXTQ
As Joe Burrow and LSU prepare for next Monday’s national championship game, it’s hard to ignore the eerily similarities between the Tigers 2019 season - and the 2014 Athens Bulldogs run to the state title game. LSU is a perfect (14-0) heading into its showdown with Clemson on the 13th, Athens was also (14-0) before it faced Toledo Central Catholic at The Horseshoe in Columbus. The national championship in New Orleans will be Burrow’s final game in his college career, the state championship between the Bulldogs and Irish also served as the backdrop for Burrow’s last game ever at the high school level.
The LSU offense, led by Burrow, is averaging 48.8 points per game and scored more points in 2019 than any other team in the history of the SEC. Athens averaged 57.4 points per game and scored more points than any other team in the history of Ohio High School football with 861.
In 2019 Burrow has passed for 5,208 yards, which ranks 7th on the all-time list in all of college football. His senior year in high school Burrow threw for 4,437 yards, which also ranks 7th all-time in the state of Ohio. Burrow currently has thrown 55 touchdown passes, which is just 3 behind the all-time leader Colt Brennan, who threw 58 TD passes for Hawaii in 2006. He threw an incredible 63 touchdown passes in 2014 for Athens, which ranks 6th all-time in Ohio. (Benjamin Mauk is the leader with 76).
Both the 2019 Tigers and 2014 Bulldogs earned signature road victories during the regular season that opened the eyes of those outside of their respective fans bases. LSU went into Bryant-Denny stadium and defeated top tanked Alabama, which hadn’t lost at home since Johnny Manziel was still “Johnny Football” and on top of the college football world. Not many believed the Tigers were capable of pulling off such an upset, but Burrow was spectacular passing for 393 yards and 3 touchdowns during a 46-41 win. Heading into the 2014 season not many really gave Athens a chance of going on the road and beating a state power house like Steubenville. But in week 6, the Bulldogs traveled north and knocked off the state ranked Big Red 58-42 in their own stadium, ironically nicknamed ‘Death Valley’. Burrow was sensational in that game as well throwing for 363 yards and 4 touchdowns.
Both the 2019 and 2014 seasons saw records broke left and right. LSU scored more points and more touchdowns in its program history and in the SEC. Athens scored more points and more touchdowns in its team history and in the TVC. Burrow’s 8 TD’s accounted for versus Oklahoma are the most in any Bowl game, ever. His 6 touchdown passes against T.C.C. are the most ever in a state championship game. The 63 points vs the Sooners are the most in CFP history, the Bulldogs 8 touchdowns at the Horseshoe are tied for the most ever in a title game. The 515 total yards by Burrow in the semifinals are the most ever by a player in the CFP, he is just one of three players to ever top 500 total yards in a state championship. The 493 passing yards against Oklahoma are the most ever in the CFP; his 446 in the title game are the 2nd most ever in any Ohio high school state football championship.
Both the 2019 Tigers and 2014 Bulldogs each had 5 big hurdles to clear before reaching their goal of playing for it all. LSU had to get by Florida, Auburn, Alabama, Georgia and Oklahoma, all of which were ranked in the top 5 at some point during the season. Athens had to win at Steubenville, and then beat Granville, Tri-Valley, Columbus DeSales and Akron St Vincent -St Mary. Both teams had more doubters than believers that it could actually be done, especially prior to the start of the season. But with each passing victory, it slowly swayed in favor of the believers.
Personnel similarities are also very glaring. The 2019 Tigers possess four talented receivers who Joe trusts in any given situation with Chase, Marshall, Jefferson and Moss. He had similar weapons at Athens with Ryan Luehrman, Adam Luehrman, Zacciah Saltzmen and Heath Wiseman. LSU has a multi-faceted tailback with Clyde Edwards-Helaire - and Joe of course ha d a great one lined up beside him with the Bulldogs in Trae Williams. After their (10-3) season in 2018, there were a lot of question marks surrounding the offensive line at LSU, but the group ended up being one of the best units in the country this year. Similar questions surrounded the 2014 group paving the way for the Bulldogs, but they too stepped up their game in a big way. The defenses for both teams were huge question marks, especially early on in the season. But both units tightened the screws and were stellar down the stretch. LSU has held high powered offenses to 28 points or fewer over the last month, Athens defense was equally as impressive in wins over DeSales, Tri Valley and ASVSM during its run to the title game.
The post season accolades in 2019 and 2014 almost mirror each other too as both teams and individuals dominated the available awards. Burrow was named SEC player of the year and AP player of the year in all of college football this season. He was also named TVC-Ohio player of the year and DIII AP player of the year in Ohio in 2014. Head Coach Ed Orgeron was named SEC coach of the year, AP coach of the year and Athens head coach Ryan Adams was named TVC-Ohio coach of the year and DIII AP coach of the year in Ohio in ’14. Burrow won the Davey O’Brian award, Maxwell award, Walter Camp player of the year and Jonny Unitas Golden Arm award this year. The 6’4 signal caller was also named the Ohio Gatorade player of the year back in 2014. Prior to the start of the 2019 season Burrow was a long shot to take home the most coveted individual award in college football, The Heisman. Odds makers listed him at 200:1 in August, but on Dec. 14th, he won the prestigious award by receiving the most votes in its storied history. Prior to 2014, nobody had ever won Ohio’s most coveted individual award from the Southeastern region part of the state, but just days before the championship game, Burrow was named Ohio’s Mr. Football – an award given to the best player in the state.
It seems Burrow’s entire career from the time he was a sophomore in high school until now has always been about proving doubters wrong or about redemption. He lost his very first game as a starting varsity quarterback in 2012, but then never lost another regular season game rattling off 29 straight to end his high school career. He was labeled a three star recruit early in the process with schools like Boston College, Indiana and of course Ohio University showing interest, but then played well enough to earn a scholarship with the defending national champions at the time, Ohio State. He was later told he wasn’t good enough to start for the Buckeyes, so he moved on and led a different team to a perfect (14-0) record while earning a plethora of awards along the way, including the Heisman Trophy. In 2018 Burrow felt the sting of defeat losing to Florida, Alabama and Texas A&M – but one year later emphatically avenged those losses and was outstanding in all three games throwing for a combined 1,038 yards and 9 touchdowns with 0 interceptions.
With all the similarities between the 2014 and 2019 seasons for the LSU Tigers and Athens Bulldogs, one thing still stands out and has yet to be determined. The ending. The grand finale. The final chapter, which will be written Jan 13th in New Orleans. Many of those in Southeastern Ohio who followed the Bulldogs all the way to Columbus are surely hoping the two teams separated by seven years don’t share the same fate. Athens entered the State Championship game in ‘14 as somewhat of an underdog, but Burrow and company put on a show for the ages versus the Irish in a game which is still talked about today. The two teams scored more combined points than any other title game in the history of Ohio High school football, but unfortunately the Bulldogs fell short in their quest for the schools only state championship. In a game that featured 10 different lead changes in the 2nd half alone, it was Toledo Central Catholic which scored last on an 8-yard run with just 15 seconds remaining. Burrow had led Athens down the field on the previous possession to help the Bulldogs take a 52-49 lead, but the 2:52 remaining on the clock proved to be a little too much.
The loss on Dec. 4th 2014 was tough to swallow, not only for Burrow, the team, the coaches, but the fans as well as Athens has not won a single playoff game since. For a young man with a track record of proving people wrong - and who relishes in redemption – it seems only fitting Burrow will get another chance of leading his team to the ultimate goal of winning a championship. To think for one second the Athens native, playing alongside some of his best, lifelong friends, has forgotten that heart wrenching loss back in 2014 would be false. Burrow never takes the field without a grey wristband on his non-throwing hand that simply states “brotherhood”. The ‘bleed green in 2014’ wristbands were worn by him and his teammates during their incredible run to the title game. If LSU is able to defeat Clemson on the 13th it will certainly feel things have come full circle – and perhaps a win on the biggest stage will help erase some of those difficult emotions felt back in 2014. Raising the championship trophy high above his head will undoubtedly be about Joe’s current LSU teammates, the fans and the entire state of Louisiana – but represented by a little grey wristband – will be all the folks who supported him from Southeastern Ohio who have been with him every step of the way.
Fun facts regarding the 2019 NCAA championship: LSU has claimed three football titles in its program history, all of which were coincidently played in New Orleans.
Despite its years of success, LSU has just two Heisman Trophy winners, Billy Cannon and Joe Burrow. The last time Cannon took the field for the Tigers, he too led LSU to a championship, in the Big Easy, versus a similar opponent: The Clemson Tigers.
Last season LSU defeated Central Florida in the Fiesta Bowl, which ended the Knights 25-game winning streak. Next Monday, the Tigers will look to end Clemson’s streak of 29 consecutive wins.