WHO: No. 3 Clemson (13-0) vs. No. 2 Ohio State (13-0)
WHAT: College Football Playoff semifinal at the 49th PlayStation Fiesta Bowl
WHEN: 8 p.m. ET on ESPN
WHERE: State Farm Stadium in Glendale, Ariz.
THE SKINNY: Over at my other job I ranked the 10 best games of the 2010s, and I think we can all agree this one has a chance to force a last-minute addendum. Simply put, it’s hard to arrange a better game on paper than one 13-0 team winning by an average score of 49-13 playing another 13-0 team winning by an average of 47-11, who happens to be the defending national champions. Particularly when these two 13-0 teams have the history that Ohio State and Clemson do.
Ohio State is the historically superior of these two, but Clemson has notched important wins over the Buckeyes in its own quest to the top of college football. In fact, these teams have played all of three times, all Clemson wins, all important turning points for Ohio State. First, of course, was the 1978 Gator Bowl that served as the final straw for Woody Hayes. More recently, Clemson beat Ohio State in the 2014 Orange Bowl, a game that showed Ohio State still had work to do in its chase for the title under Urban Meyer and one that served as a milestone win for Clemson’s rise under Dabo Swinney. Then, there was the 2016 Fiesta Bowl, a game where the Tigers completely flattened the Buckeyes, winning 31-0 while limiting JT Barrett to an anemic 127 yards and two interceptions on 33 passing attempts. Clemson would go on to win its first of two (and counting) national titles under Swinney a week later, while Ohio State set off a series of moves that led them back to where they are.
In the days following that 2016 Fiesta Bowl, Meyer released Tim Beck as his offensive coordinator and hired Ryan Day to revamp his broken downfield passing game. Day quickly demonstrated competence beyond his initial task, becoming Ohio State’s sole offensive coordinator after the 2017 season, the interim head coach ahead of the 2018 campaign and the full-time head coach afterward.
And now they’re here, back in the playoff for the first time, facing the same team in the same spot they were embarrassed by three seasons prior. This time, Ohio State brings a quarterback in Justin Fields averaging 9.6 yards per attempt with an eye-popping 40 touchdowns against one interception. The Heisman finalist also rushed for 471 yards and 10 touchdowns thus far, but he’s admitted this week his bum knee will immobilize him more than he’d like, in which case the Buckeyes will have to lean on their Doak Walker finalist running back JK Dobbins (1,829 yards, 20 touchdowns), their Joe Moore Award finalist offensive line, and a receiving corps featuring five capable threats.
On the other side, Clemson will counter with Trevor Lawrence (20 touchdowns, no interceptions in his last six games), Travis Etienne (1,500 yards on 8.24 a carry, 17 touchdowns) and a receiving corps that might be even more dangerous than Ohio State’s. Clemson doesn’t have a defensive lineman like Ohio State’s other Heisman finalist in Chase Young, but Ohio State doesn’t have a linebacker like Clemson’s Isaiah Simmons. The secondaries rank Nos. 1 and 2 in pass efficiency defense, as both limit opponents to around 50 percent completions at 5.3 yards per attempt, and both have claimed twice as many interceptions as touchdown passes allowed.
Add it all up and you’ve got the most anticipated semifinal game of the Playoff’s six-year history, and picking a winner feels like a true coin-flip. I’ve felt Ohio State is the best team in the country since September, so in my case it’s time to ride that take until the end.
THE PICK: Ohio State 30, Clemson 28