LSU, Clemson aim to finish 2012 with a flourish

LSU and Clemson will squeeze in their final game of the 2012 season at the Chick-fil-A Bowl on Monday night just before the calendar turns to 2013.

Both teams began the season with aspirations of winning a conference championship, playing in a BCS bowl game, maybe even playing for the BCS championship.

But both wound up 10-2 and playing off Broadway to end the year. No. 9 LSU lost to No. 2 Alabama by four points and finished a game behind the Crimson Tide in the Southeastern Conference’s West Division. No. 14 Clemson lost a game (by 12 points) and therefore the tiebreaker to Florida State for the Atlantic Coast Conference’s Coastal Division title.

The teams were a few plays away from competing in the New Year in a more prestigious bowl with more at stake.

But here they are in the Georgia Dome.

“We still had a pretty good season — 10-2 — but there were some things we let slip through our fingers,” LSU defensive end Sam Montgomery said. “We still played some pretty good ball. It’s not about how you start but about how you finish.”

A victory likely would move LSU closer to the top five in the final polls and perhaps higher in the preseason polls next year. A Clemson victory would give it just the fourth 11-win season in school history.

Each of the bowl teams ranked ahead of LSU plays in the New Year as the more prominent games arrive, but few are matched in as potentially entertaining of a matchup as this one.

“This is a big-time matchup and probably one of the most intriguing matchups from an outside perspective,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said. “These guys are top 10 in defense. We’re top 10 in offense. So it’s pretty easy to get excited about that.”

Clemson’s offense features ACC Player of the Year Tajh Boyd at quarterback, standout receivers DeAndre Hopkins and Sammy Watkins and a 1,000-yard rusher in Andre Ellington.

“I think we are getting to the point where we are hitting on all cylinders,” Boyd said. “In this game, we are going to have to be on top of our game, and we are going to have to come out and start off on fire.”

LSU might need a few series to get a feel for the speed and athleticism of the Clemson offense. Clemson could face the same situation with LSU’s defense.

“We need a chance to feel (Boyd) out and see what he’s capable of,” defensive end Barkevious Mingo said. “You can look at all the film you want, and you’re still not going to get that look of the speed and how everything is moving.”

Boyd will test an LSU secondary that has given up a season-high number of passing yards in each of its past three games, an average of 319.

LSU’s passing offense had its three highest-yardage performances in its final four games, but the Tigers would like to run effectively and possess the ball for long drives to reduce Boyd’s opportunities.

“They are very precise in what they are doing, and that’s what you have to appreciate and have great respect for,” Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables said of LSU’s offense. “They do it with great intensity, obviously very physical, very intense, physical and aggressive mind-set in how they run the football. They are not trying to trick you. Their form of a trick play is a play-action play and trying to get the receiver in behind you.”

LSU’s Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham Jr. emerged as big-play threats down the stretch while quarterback Zach Mettenberger’s own confidence and confidence in them grew. But it’s LSU’s physicality that concerns Clemson.

“They’re a very physical team,” cornerback Xavier Brewer said. “Watching film, it seems like they get more physical as the game goes on and definitely know how to play with a hard edge the entire game. They will pound it on you but also take shots. The secondary is going to have to be very sound in our technique and not give up big plays.”

Swinney put his team through physical practices the past few weeks to prepare for LSU’s strength and depth.

“We pride ourselves on being a very physical football team,” Swinney said. “We do it a little bit differently than maybe LSU. But you have to prepare your team for what they’re going to see. And this is the team that’s going to line up and doesn’t really matter whether it’s third-and-10, they’ll run the power right at you. You better be prepared for that.”

Tigers tackle Josh Dworaczyk is one of several seniors on both teams who will be playing their final games. The way he looks at it, you only get one chance to make a last impression.

“We always talk about, ‘How do you want to be remembered?’ ” he said. “I never really got the point of it, I guess, until this year, when I realized this is my chance to leave how I want to be remembered.”

LSU center P.J. Lonergan is also playing his last game, and at least a few underclassmen on these teams figure to be headed to the NFL after this game.

“Last game, senior year, you don’t want to lose it,” Lonergan said. “I’ve played in the Chick-fil-A Bowl before (in 2008). It’s a great spot to finish your season.

“The clock strikes 12 some time right after the game, and it’s a great way to start a new year off with a victory.”