CLEMSON, S.C. – In the 20 or so miles between Kennesaw and Cartersville, the hometowns of the opposing quarterbacks in the Dec. 28 Fiesta Bowl, there is a choice to be made.
In that borderland, do you tilt toward the hotshot quarterback from Cobb – Ohio State’s Justin Fields – or the one from Bartow – Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence? There’s a powerful local pull to both sides of this big college football playoff semifinal, an added attraction to what figures to be an already spell-binding game.
Asked this week his opinion on how these neighboring precincts might lean, Lawrence came up with an entirely different option: “Well, there are a lot of Georgia fans there,” he said with a knowing smile. But the Bulldogs, as has been noted at length, have been eliminated from this discussion.
Yes, even minus Jake Fromm, these playoffs are all about quarterback play. The four acknowledged as the best slingers in the land are still standing. The two playing in the desert are further bound by both geography and by the recruiting experts’ penchant for ranking everything that breathes.
Both were members of the 2018 recruiting class, and both came in at either the No. 1 or No. 2 in the nation on most lists – with Lawrence generally the one on top. Both share a private quarterback coach, Ron Veal, as well as a home range. Their parallels, as well as their divergent paths, make up the lead footnote to this semifinal.
Summarizing the ties between the two, Lawrence said earlier this week: “We’d talk every now and then. I’d see him at a bunch of camps. We’d work out together a few times. We had a good relationship. We weren’t super, super close, but he was only 30 minutes down the road. We worked out a few times, I’d see him over the summer.”
Where Fields went initially to Georgia, and then transferred when the Bulldogs stayed with Fromm as the starter, Lawrence went to Clemson and chased off the incumbent. Kelly Bryant would transfer to Missouri.
From a distance, Lawrence has enjoyed watching the blossoming Fields at Ohio State. Whether the experience is as pleasurable up close remains to be seen.
“The year he’s had has been awesome to see,” Lawrence said. “Obviously, him being from Georgia and us being in the same class, his journey to get there has been cool to see. I get to watch him, they play at noon a lot, so we’ll be in the hotel, put the game on. We’ll kind of bounce around but I’ve watched him a good bit.”
And what has Lawrence enjoyed most while witnessing Fields’ ascension up north?
“Everything not going perfect for him, having to bounce back and go to a different school and making something happen there instead of falling behind and thinking of what could have happened,” Lawrence said. “He looked at what was ahead of him and he’s had a great year, obviously.
“The way he’s worked and competed, he has earned everything he’s gotten. That’s been good to watch.”
Lawrence, the topic of today, stands out among the Final Four QBs in that he alone is not one of those cool kids who surfed the transfer portal all the way to the Heisman Trophy stage. LSU’s Joe Burrow (the winner), Oklahoma’s Jalen Hurts and Fields all were in that final Heisman photo. But not the guy who torched Alabama in the championship game that started this year. And yet, if you waterboarded any NFL scout and made him tell you who he would take above all others, he surely would side with the walking Head & Shoulders commercial from Clemson.
It has been a curious season for Lawrence. After he threw for three touchdowns and 347 yards against Bama in the championship game in January, it was more or less assumed he would rule college ball. But the 2019 season began relatively unevenly for him – two interceptions in the season opener against Georgia Tech, eight picks in his first seven games to go with 14 touchdown passes. That was twice the number of interceptions he threw in all of ‘18. The what’s-wrong-with-Trevor murmurs rippled through the media, both social and anti-social.
Much to the amusement of teammates.
“I was kind of confused a little bit by that,” said offensive tackle Tremayne Anchrum, another Clemson player plucked from Georgia (Powder Springs). “What I’ve seen is a sophomore in college who made some mistakes and has gotten steadily better. That’s been the amazing thing to me – this guy, just like anybody, can have some bumps along the way but still plays at a high level, still doesn’t let (the mistakes) dictate how he plays. He just got better from it.”
Lessons learned, Lawrence has gone his past six games without throwing a pick while amassing 20 more touchdown passes.
The whole body of work: 232-of-337 passing (68.8%), 3,172 yards, 34 touchdowns, eight interceptions. He has rushed for 407 yards and another seven TDs.
By contrast, Fields has a ridiculous touchdown-to-interception ratio – 40-to-1. Other numbers are compatible with Lawrence’s: 208-of-308 (67.5%) passing, 2,953 yards. He has run for 471 and 10 TDs.