2019 Game Preview: CFP Semifinal – Fiesta Bowl – Ohio State vs Clemson
Ohio State rattled off 27 unanswered points after trailing 21-7 at halftime against Wisconsin in the Big Ten Championship game to clinch their third straight Big Ten title, and finish a regular season undefeated, the first since 2012, and first 13-0 record since 2002. Their first half struggles, and the LSU dominating performance against Georgia must have been enough for the committee to move Ohio State down to the number 2 spot in the final rankings.
Clemson, who are the defending national champions also have a feeling of frustration with some of the disrespect they have received by the committee. After winning 28 straight games they also felt they had an argument for the number 1 seed for the playoff. They also were the only team to not have a representative in New York for the Heisman ceremony, as Ohio State had 2 players go with Justin Fields and Chase Young, who finished 3rd and 4th respectively.
Despite the dominance and success though of Ohio State, who have an impressive resume with playing 3 straight top 15 teams, defeating the number 8 team in the country in the conference championship game, 5 top 25 wins, and 2 of their three non-conference opponents winning their respective conference, a lot of the media has Ohio State viewed as the underdog in this game. The spread opened up initially from Vegas with Ohio State as a 3 point favorite, but the money has shifted to Clemson, who continues to a hold a 2 point advantage.
Historically, Clemson has the upper hand in this series, from the famous Woody Hayes game in 1978, to the last time these teams met, which was in the 2016 playoff on the same field, and the Tigers handed Urban Meyer his worst loss in his career with a 31-0 drubbing. You don’t have to go far on social media to see that that score is a big “chest pounding” argument for the Orange and Purple faithful. These are two different teams though who are playing in this game, and anyone who was in that game for both teams most likely did not contribute to the outcome. The way these two teams match though, this game could really be a coin flip as both have been dominant this season.
This game will follow the LSU-Oklahoma match up, which will be played at the Peach Bowl in Atlanta, GA, so the winner of this game will know who they get to play on January 13th in New Orleans. But to win this game, you cannot overlook your opponent, and both teams will need to play their best game to give themselves a chance to win. This game is arguably the best bowl game of the bowl season with two powerhouse programs, and the story lines that tie these teams together.
Head Coach: Dabo Swinney
2019 Record: 13-0 (ACC Champion)
Location: Clemson, SC
Ohio State Preview: Ryan Day could not have had asked for a better way to start his career as Ohio State’s head coach. Earlier in the preseason, we had written an article about the blueprint that Ryan Day could follow, and mirroring the success of Lincoln Riley and Dabo Swinney, who both had led their teams to this years edition of the College Football Playoff. The Buckeyes rank in the top 5 statistically in both offense and defense, and are challenging to be one of the most dominant teams of all time.
They sent 2 players to the Heisman ceremony. Justin Fields, JK Dobbins, and Jeff Okudah were all finalists for their respective position for those awards, and Chase Young walked away with the Silver Football, Ted Hendricks Award, Nagurski Award, and Bednarik Award. Very rarely is a player as dominant as Chase Young is, and he will have a target on his back this game, which hopefully means other players will have a chance to step up if Chase is triple teamed, which both Michigan and Wisconsin did to neutralize him.
This game feels like the 2015 Sugar Bowl though in a lot of ways. Clemson does not have the same ranking as Alabama did, but they are coming into this game with a lot of confidence that they will be able to take care of business against the Buckeyes. A lot of the national media outside of Columbus is already claiming Clemson will win this game, from close predictions, all the way up to Rex Ryan who thinks Ohio State will lose by 30-40 points. Breaking the 4th wall for a moment, I have never been so anxious for a game, and wanting to make a statement against a team as I feel right now towards Clemson.
I think the team is feeling this disrespect too. JK Dobbins hinted at it in his player interview for the media days that he and the team hears what is being said about the Buckeyes. In a practice on Christmas Eve, the media had access to the first 15 minutes, and a recording from Colin Hass-Hill from Eleven Warriors showed a very fired up Ryan Day, who is mostly reserved, preaching to his team the doubters this team has had. They were not even predicted to win their division this season, let alone make the playoff. Yet here they are, with as good as an argument as anyone else that they deserve a seat at the table. Talent wise, they are as elite as anyone in the country, and they are going against a team with equal talent, but has more playoff experience. This game is decided by who wants to more, and I think the Buckeyes have that chip on their shoulder, and will surprise country,
Justin Fields enters this game with 2953 yards passing, and 40 passing touchdowns to 1 interception. He is the third leading rusher on the team with 471 yards on the ground and 10 touchdowns. His 50 total touchdowns leaves him 4 touchdowns away from tying the record set by Dwayne Haskins last year. He has a chance to break it this game, as he is averaging almost 3 passing touchdowns and 1 rushing touchdown a game. He finished third in the Heisman voting behind winner Joe Burrow and Oklahoma quarterback Jalen Hurts, and is the leading Heisman favorite for 2020.
JK Dobbins, who finished 6th in the Heisman voting, finished the season with 1829 rushing yards and 20 touchdowns. He once more outpaced Jonathan Taylor in the Big Ten Championship game, but Taylor walked away being voted as the Big Ten’s best running back, and Doak Walker award. Dobbins has been playing with a chip on his shoulder all season, trying to prove his is the best running back in America, and he has not backed away from that challenge. He is also close to breaking Eddie George’s single season rushing yards record. Master Teague, who still has 780 yards and 4 touchdowns this season, has been underutilized the last few games, but he will be needed to help rotate with Dobbins, and keep Clemson’s defense honest. Someone who has not had their name called since the beginning of the season is Demario McCall, and reports from practice is that he has been rotating a lot with the slot with KJ Hill.
Speaking of KJ Hill, he broke the sing season receptions record against Wisconsin, and has 51 catches for 569 yards and 11 touchdowns. Chris Olave still paces the receivers with 799 yards on 46 catches and 11 touchdowns. Ben Victor is third with 31 catches for 507 yards and 6 touchdowns. Garrett Wilson will be a key this game as well, who has 385 yards on 26 catches and 6 touchdowns. The receiver unit graded out as one of the best overall units in the country on an efficiency standpoint.
Clemson Preview: When Clemson was being interviewed after being announced they would be the number 3 team in the College Football Playoff, ESPN showed clip of Dabo Swinney addressing the team saying that never before has a defending champion who went undefeated dropped like they have. In the interviews for the Bowl game, defensive coordinator Brent Venables compared Ohio State to “Goliath.” Clemson seems to be heading into this game with a manufactured underdog mentality, maybe to have a sharpened mindset as they prepare for their 5th straight playoff appearance, and challenging for a 4th national championship game appearance.
This comment is not to knock on Clemson, who are the defending national champions, because as history has shown it is hard to repeat as a national champion, with the first time, having that edge and drive, and then the second attempt playing with a target on your back. Just ask 2015 edition of Ohio State, or in their own locker room, their 2017 team. Dabo has developed a winning culture after taking over the team in 2008. He has been a big reason why Clemson has had one of the most successful programs since 2010, and he has won the games that have eliminated the phrase “Clemsoning” from the sports journalism jargon.
In a lot of ways, Clemson is the team that Ohio State was supposed to be. After beating Alabama in the first playoff year, and then beating Oregon to be the first ever champions, they had made a jump back into national prominence. However, after failing to make the playoff the following year, that opened the door to Clemson, who challenged Alabama in the championship game, but fell short in the end. The next year in 2016, Ohio State made the playoff, and despite not winning their conference, earned the 3rd seed, and played Clemson in the Fiesta Bowl. Clemson handled the Buckeyes one dimensional offense, and sent them home with a 31-0 loss. Since that game, Ohio State has not really recovered, missing the playoffs the last 2 years, while Clemson has made it, and won 2 national championships in that span.
This years team is as different from the 2016 edition as Ohio States two teams. Clemson ranking in the top 5 nationally in most categories in both offense and defense, and the toughest opponent they played is 24th ranked Virginia in the ACC Championship game. They almost also lost to North Carolina, which started some of the discussion with how good is Clemson. Since that game though, they have defeated every team by a margin of 42 points. Dabo does a great job of having his teams peak at the right time, and the same is true for this season. Trevor Lawrence has not thrown an interception since that North Carolina game, and with the help of the weapons he has on offense, their talent has outmatched the ACC.
Trevor Lawrence entered this season as the Heisman favorite, but after a sluggish start of the season, he found his name dropping from the Heisman lists until the very end of the season. He still was able to pass for 34 touchdowns on 8 interceptions, and pass for 3172 yards. He has made some plays this year with his legs, amassing 407 yards on the ground with 7 touchdowns as the third leading rusher on the team. He and Fields were the top two quarterbacks coming out of high school in the 2018 season, and this match up will be a good display for both players.
Travis Etienne did not get had a solid year running the ball this year with 1500 yards rushing and 17 touchdowns. He average 8.2 yards a carry. He also did some damage in the pass game with 298 yards receiving and 2 touchdowns. Lyn-J Dixon was the back for the Tigers this year who got a lot of playing time in the second half, and rushed for 619 yards and 6 touchdowns.
Clemson boasts one of the best receiving units in the country, and that unit is led by Tee Higgins, who had 2 catches for 1082 yards and 13 touchdowns. Not too far behind him was Justyn Ross, who has 742 yards on 55 catches and 8 touchdowns. Amari Rodgers got in some action too with 380 yards recieving with 27 catches and 4 touchdowns.
The defense will be as tough as the offense for the Buckeyes, led by Isaiah Simmons, who had 93 tackles and won the Butkus Award. Brent Venables is one of the best coordinators in the country, and is known for his game planning on the defensive side of the ball. He will have a challenge of slowing down the Buckeyes, as no team has been able to do all season.
Buckeye Spotlight: Justin Fields. During the media days, he had mentioned his leg was about 80-85 percent, and he plans on playing with the smaller leg brace. The success of this offense will depend on how Justin Fields plays. If he is not healthy, expect Clemson to stack the box to stop the run and force him to pass on a quick dropback. Fields also could be showing smoke, and could be at 100%, but he will need to play his best game against one of the best defenses in the country.
Tiger Spotlight: Trevor Lawrence. He was the preseason favorite to win the Heisman, but after a slow start, found himself climbing back into that discussion, and has been on of the most consistent passers since the scare against North Carolina. It was hard to live up to the hype after leading the Tigers to a National Championship last season, but Lawrence is still one of the best quarterbacks in the country, and is the lone quarterback in this years playoffs who is not a transfer.
Water Cooler Stat of the Game: 28 vs 19. These two teams have the longest win streaks in the country. Clemson is the defending National Champion, and have not lost since being defeated by Alabama in the 2017 playoff. Ohio State last lost to Purdue in 2018, and have a completely different defense than last year. Another streak in this game is Ryan Day is 16-0 as Ohio States head coach, including the 3 games he served as head coach last year to begin the season.
Prediction: All season Ohio State has been lauded as one of the most complete teams in the country. They have beaten every single one of their opponents by at least 11 points, and despite the Big Ten Championship game, have never trailed significant time this year. Clemson is riding on a 28 game win streak, and almost every analyst who is picking this game has Clemson winning. Ohio State will feed off of that underdog mentality, and come out swinging. 2016 is a distant memory, and this years team will prove why they belong in the title discussion.
Ohio State 42 – Clemson 28
Photo Credit to SI.com