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
As Willie Taggart constructs his first coaching staff at Florida State, he’s added yet another familiar face.
Taggart, FSU announced earlier Thursday, has hired Telly Lockette as the Seminoles’ tight ends coach. Lockette had spent the past three seasons as the running backs coach at Oregon State.
Prior to that, Lockette was a member of Taggart’s coaching staff at USF as running backs coach for two seasons and maintains deep ties to the fertile recruiting soil of South Florida.
“I’ve known Coach Lockette for a long time and am excited he is joining our staff at Florida State,” Taggart said. “He was an important part of my first staff at South Florida and has gained Power 5 experience with his last three seasons in the Pac-12. Coach Lockette is a tremendous recruiter and coach who does a phenomenal job developing student-athletes on and off the field. While we were at South Florida he was the primary recruiter for the Miami area and helped us sign a number of impact players, including Quinton Flowers, Khalid McGee and Deatrick Nichols. His expertise will benefit our current and future Seminoles.”
The job with Taggart at USF was Lockette’s first at any level of college football. The first 10 years of his coaching career were spent at the high school level, including a five-year stint at Miami Central from 2008-12.
Almost without fail, it pays to have your name circulating through the annual churning of the coaching rumor mill.
The latest example is David Gibbs, with the Texas Tech defensive coordinator being rumored as a target for the same job with Herm Edwards at Arizona State over the past few days. Fast-forward to Thursday night, and Tech announced that it has finalized a new two-year contract extension with Gibbs. The coordinator is now signed through the 2019 season.
According to the school, Gibbs’ pay will be bumped from $550,000 per year to $650,000. That number puts Gibbs right in the middle of Big 12 DC pay.
“We are fortunate to have one of the top defensive coordinators in the country in Coach Gibbs,” head coach Kliff Kingsbury said in a release. “Since the conclusion of the regular season, finalizing this new contract to keep Coach Gibbs at Texas Tech has been a priority for myself and [athletic director] Kirby [Hocutt]. We look forward to continuing to build one of the nation’s top defenses in the years to come under Coach Gibbs.”
Long a punchline, the Red Raiders’ defense has steadily improved in the three years under Gibbs. This season, their 27 takeaways led the Big 12 and are the most in a season for the football program since 2008. They’re also currently seventh in the country with four defensive touchdowns.
With Gibbs back, he’ll have 10 returning starters with which to work next season.
“There isn’t a better person to work for than Kliff Kingsbury, and I’m looking forward to continue building this program with him,” Gibbs said. “There is still plenty of work that needs to be done, but I’m excited about the future of our team.”
Sometimes the personnel gods giveth, and sometimes the personnel gods taketh away.
Thursday evening, West Virginia announced that quarterback Will Grier will return to Morgantown for the 2018 season. Not long after, the same football program confirmed that Justin Crawford has decided to eschew playing in the Zaxby’s Heart of Dallas Bowl.
Instead of preparing for Utah in the postseason, the senior running back will instead begin preparations for the 2018 NFL draft.
“Justin has logged a lot of miles and been a key contributor for us the past two seasons,” head coach Dana Holgorsen said. “He made a decision to not play in the bowl game based on what is best for him and his family. He came to West Virginia to further his education and be a featured back in the Big 12 and he accomplished his goals. As he starts his preparation for the NFL Draft, we wish him nothing but the best.”
Crawford has led the Mountaineers in rushing each of the past two seasons. He’s the first WVU player to post back-to-back 1,000-yard rushing seasons since Noel Devine in 2008-09.
After finishing third in the Big 12 this season with 1,061 yards on the ground, he was named second-team all-conference for the second straight season. Following the 2016 season, he earned the league’s Newcomer of the Year honor.
New SMU head coach Sonny Dykes has been busy assembling his staff as he prepares to jump right in the saddle to coach the Mustangs in the Frisco Bowl next week, but he will have one holdover from the previous staff to help call the shots on offense. Graduate assistant GJ Kinne will call the offensive plays for the bowl game, according to Adam Grosbard of The Dallas Morning News.
This would seem to be the most logical choice for Dykes to make in this scenario. Kinne has been working in the SMU system all season long under former head coach Chad Morris, who has moved to Arkansas with a handful of assistants. Having the most experience with the current roster and a better comfort level makes sense to have Kinne take on this responsibility so close to the bowl game. This will be a major promotion for Kinne, the former Tulsa quarterback, even if just for one game.
“I certainly trust G.J. It’s going to be fun to give him an opportunity to be highly involved and it’ll be one of those things he remembers for the rest of his life,” Dykes said of the decision to have Kinne calling the offense from above. “When you’re a GA and you get to call a bowl game, it’s a pretty awesome opportunity.”
Just how smoothly this all goes is anyone’s guess. Fortunately, if things go awry, Kinne and Dykes can always just resort to going back to a chuck-it-deep mentality and see what happens.
SMU faces Louisiana Tech in the Frisco Bowl on Dec. 20.