WHO: No. 2 Clemson (12-1) vs. No. 3 Ohio State (11-1)
WHAT: The 46th Fiesta Bowl and College Football Playoff Semifinal
WHEN: 7 p.m. ET on ESPN
WHERE: University of Phoenix Stadium, Glendale, Arizona
THE SKINNY: A pair of College Football Playoff veterans and two of the elite programs in the sport face off in the desert on New Year’s Eve with eyes on playing more than just one game this postseason.
Clemson enters as ACC champions for the second straight season and looking to finish a task that began 12 months before when they fell just short of the national title at the very same stadium. Leading the way is all-everything quarterback Deshaun Watson, who has struggled a bit with turnovers but has been playing as well as anybody since the team suffered their only loss to Pitt back in early November.
The Heisman finalist is has the benefit of a terrific tailback in Wayne Gallman and gets to throw to one of the deepest groups of receivers in the country. The headliner of those pass catchers is All-American Mike Williams (79 receptions, 10 touchdowns) but the group features plenty of versatility from tight end Jordan Leggett to the underrated Hunter Renfrow. Defensively, the front seven has athletes for days — starting with freshman Dexter Lawrence — backed up by a stingy secondary and the entire unit is coached by the nation’s best assistant coach in Brent Venables.
Looking to get past all that on Saturday night is a talented group of Buckeyes who are looking to make another run at a title in the same fashion that they did two years ago. J.T. Barrett draws all the attention at quarterback and his arm (and maybe more importantly his legs) has been a big reason why the team is even in this position but don’t overlook do-everything star Curtis Samuel on offense either.
Though you would think that an Urban Meyer coached team would be powered by the offense, it’s the OSU defense that has really stepped up in 2016. Unanimous All-American Malik Hooker leads an impressive secondary full of playmakers that have found the end zone almost as many times as their opponents and has plenty of help in the front seven thanks to tackling machines like Raekwon McMillan at linebacker.
It should all make for one compelling — and close — game between two of the nation’s best teams. This is about as even a matchup as they come given the number of elite players and coaches involved and you can bet it will come down to only a handful of key plays. The Tigers have dealt Meyer his only bowl loss while with the Buckeyes and, in the end of this semifinal, they narrowly do again in a thriller.
THE PICK: Clemson 27, Ohio State 20
Already battered by injuries on defense, USC may have avoided what would’ve potentially been a significant loss on that side of the ball.
Uchenna Nwosu suffered a sprained MCL in his knee during USC’s double-overtime win over Texas in Week 3. After being held out in the early part of the week, the linebacker, armed — or kneed as the case may be — with a brace, returned to practice Wednesday.
Afterward, head coach Clay Helton seemed optimistic about Nwosu’s availability for the Week 4 game against Cal, their first road trip of the season.
Nwosu is currently second on the team in tackles with 20, while his seven pass breakups rank second nationally. He’s started the first three games of the season for the Trojans after starting every game in 2016.
That brings us to the end of the positive injury news portion of the program as fellow linebacker Porter Gustin is very unlikely to play against the Golden Bears. Gustin, who leads the Trojans in sacks with three, has been dealing with a surgically-repaired big toe. While it didn’t keep him out of the Texas game as expected, he was sidelined again at practice Wednesday.
Additionally, defensive end Rasheem Green (ankle) and slot cornerback Ajene Harris (knee) are questionable for the road trip to Berkeley after sitting out practice yet again.
In the end, there could be an injury silver lining for Tennessee after all.
In the aftermath of the deflating last-second loss to rival Florida, Tennessee head coach Butch Jones announced that Cortez McDowell would miss the remainder of the 2017 season. The linebacker sustained an injury to his wrist that, at the time, was deemed serious enough to shelve him for the rest of the year.
The key here is “at the time” as, a couple of days later, the prognosis has brightened slightly as Jones allowed Wednesday that McDowell could return at some point this season. Whether it’s late in the regular season or even for a bowl game, the coach at least left the door open for the senior to play again in 2017.
Obviously, any availability would be determined in the coming weeks by the program’s medical staff.
McDowell would be eligible for a medical hardship waiver if he shut it down for the remainder of the season, which would give the fourth-year senior another year of eligibility to use in 2018. At least at this point in time, that’s not the tack that either the player or the football program is taking.
After starting four of 12 games last season, McDowell started the first three games this season prior to his injury.
So there you have it.
Late in the third quarter of Saturday’s 37-7 loss to Mississippi State, Derrius Guice sustained an injury to his left knee. While Ed Orgeron downplayed the severity of the injury in the ensuing days, he allowed during his turn on the SEC coaches teleconference Wednesday that his star running back is “very questionable right now” for the Week 4 game against Syracuse.
Later that night, on the head coach’s radio show, the very questionable morphed into completely out.
Through three games, Guice leads the Tigers with 300 yards rushing and is tied for tops on the team with four rushing touchdowns. His rushing yards are currently fourth in the SEC; last season, his 1,387 yards were tops in the conference.
With Guice unable to go, Darrel Williams (28-159-4) will likely be next in line to shoulder the brunt of the running-game load.
Mason Rudolph is looking at the rest of the season as an opportunity to continue pushing his way into the Heisman discussion and his team deeper into the College Football Playoff picture. His younger brother, on the other hand, is looking at rehab.
Wednesday night, Clemson announced that Logan Rudolph will miss the remainder of the 2017 season because of a shoulder injury. The defensive end sustained the injury during a Tuesday practice, and will undergo surgery at some point in the future to repair the damage. Rudolph dealt with a shoulder issue late in his high school career, and it’s believed this is related to that.
A four-star member of the Tigers’ 2017 recruiting class, Rudolph was rated as the No. 23 weakside defensive end in the country and the No. 4 player at any position in the state of South Carolina. After enrolling early and participating in spring practice, the true freshman played in two games as a backup behind starter Austin Bryant. In that limited action, he was credited with three tackles and one tackle for loss.
Because of how few games he’s played, Rudolph would be eligible for a medical redshirt. That would allow the lineman to extend his eligibility out through the 2021 season if he so desires.
Getting back to the famous name-drop in the lede, Rudolph’s older brother, of course, is the starting quarterback for No. 6 Oklahoma State.