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