2020 Game Preview: CFP SEMIFINAL – SUGAR BOWL – Ohio State vs CLEMSON

371 Days. That is the time between the Fiesta Bowl from December 28, 2019, when these two teams met last, to January 1, 2021, when these two teams will meet again. Ohio State’s social media team released a phenomenal trailer in preparation for this game and highlighted the final score of that last match up in the Buckeye’s Woody Hayes Athletic Center weigh room. 29-23 still seems as bitter to type as it does to say out loud, and many memories of what could have been come flashing in the minds of Ohio State fans. This game is a 371 day grind for a second chance. This game is a 371 day distance for the chance to turn 0-4 to 1-4. This game is 371 days from erasing and replacing some of those bad memories. This game is 371 days away from competing for a National Championship. 

If you are a reader follow the major networks and sports coverage avenues such as ESPN, or FOX, or through SiriusXM radio, Ohio State has no chance this week against this Clemson Tiger team. This claim isn’t wholly unfounded, based on the performances we saw last from these two teams in their respective Championship Games and the uncertainty of Ohio State’s identity based on lack of games, however it feels like a lazy take. How much of this is a take based on what they want to see in an Alabama vs Clemson match-up. where Alabama holds a 3-2 edge against the Clemson Tigers, and have tied for CFP Championship titles, and how much of it is based on their dislike of the Buckeyes. 

The Buckeyes do not need any more added motivation than what happened from the last match up, but the national media, and Clemson Tigers just cant seem to help themselves from adding even more bulletin board material. Dabo Swinney’s final coaches poll had the Buckeyes ranked 11th because he feels that they didn’t deserve a chance to play for a national title based on games played (even though he said differently in September) and felt that teams who were able to play 9 or more games deserve to be ranked higher. This argument however does not seem to translate for Dabo when it comes to Trevor Lawrence’s Heisman chances after player fewer games than the other finalists. 

This match up will be different than the previous 3 games due to COVID restrictions, and fans allowed in the game. This game usually had the Scarlet and Gray faithful cheering as loud as they can, but the Tigers have found ways to silence the crowd in each of the last 3 match ups. This game will be more reserved with families and wealthy fans who make the travel to New Orleans based on the 3,000 person capacity, and the reason why Alabama chose to play in Texas instead of New Orleans. Ohio State is used to playing in a false noise environment, but Clemson is also talented enough to create their own. Chris Fowler and Kirk Herbstreit will be calling the game, although Herbie will not be in the stadium after testing positive for COVID. 

One thing is for sure though, is that this game looks to be the better matchup of the semi-finals this year, and there are a lot of storylines going into this game, but the outcome will be settled on the field.

Head Coach: Dabo Swinney
2020 Record: 10-1
Location: Clemson, SC
Conference: ACC

Ohio State Preview: Ohio State comes into this game as an underdog, and this may be the best spot for the Buckeyes to be in. Everything narrative wise and storyline wise is in place for the Buckeyes. Revenge, redemption, rewriting history, this is all in play for this team. I wrote this for the game last year, but Clemson is the team Ohio State expected to be after winning the first National Championship in the CFP. The have not won a game in the playoff since then, but have a chance to reset in the same date, and city they won their first playoff game. This game has a a lot fo 2014 vibes and Buckeye fans are hopeful for that same outcome. 

Ohio State’s journey for the playoff is challenged. Any brief time watching the national media, or comments in social media will prove that. The Big Ten made the decision to cancel the season after creating a nice schedule to allow for make up dates, only to come back and create one with no wiggle room. Once the season started, alot of the “established rules” were changed to try and allow games to be played, but they Buckeyes were not able to take advantage of that. They had a n 8 game schedule where 3 games were cancelled due to COVID, including The Game to finish the regular season. The conference changed the 6 game minimum to allow the Buckeyes to compete for the BIG 10 Championship due to the head to head win over Indiana, who was in second place. Their last two games they could play were on reduced rosters due to COVID and contact tracing but they still managed to go 6-0 to win the conference for the 4th straight season, and that was enough for the CFP Committee to put them in. 

Justin Fields finished 7th in the Heisman voting, and he has the opportunity to play 1 or 2 more games for the Buckeyes before leaving for the draft as a top 5 pick. Fields was the only player to complete any passes this season, and passed for 1521 yards along with 15 touchdowns and 5 interceptions. He also added to the run game with 274 yards on 67 carries for 5 touchdowns. The biggest questions going into this game for him will be how is his thumb and will he be able to get the ball out in time without holding on to it for too long. Based on his responses and what Day has said during media meetings, Fields will be good to go Friday, answering the first question, and the second question will be answered on the field.

After having a rough season to start, Trey Sermon leads as the top rusher for this team, thanks to his 331 yard game in the Big Ten Championship. He has 84 carries for 675 yards and 3 touchdowns. Master Teague, who might be hurt for this game is second with 449 yards on 89 carried and 6 touchdowns. Miyan Williams may be the back up running back for this game, who has 7 carries for 43 yards, but the coaching staff has been praising how well he has been doing in practice. 

Garrett Wilson leads the receivers with 621 yards on 38 catches and 5 touchdowns. Chris Olave was out against Northwestern due to COVID, but was spotted back at practice this week, and will play against the Tigers. He is second on the team with 528 yards and 5 touchdowns on 36 catches. These two players will be depended on for Fields to help balance the offense and move the ball. 

Clemson Preview:  Clemson won its 6th straight ACC title, and dominated in their second match up against Notre Dame to erase the loss to the Irish earlier in the season. Dabo Swinney has turned this program around, and Buckeye fans started to see the change in 2013 when they played the Tigers in the Orange Bowl. This is the 6th straight appearance for the Tigers of making the playoff, the only year they didn’t make it was in 2014, and Clemson has made the most of their opportunities by playing for a National Championship in 4 of those tries and winning 2 of them. In 2017, they lost to Alabama in the first round in the Sugar Bowl, and has been the only first round exit they have had so far. 

The path to the playoff for the Tigers was a slightly bumpy, but had the same result of what was expected in the preseason. They started as number 1 in the country to start the year and dominated their first 6 games, included a big win against 7th ranked Miami. After the Syracuse game, Trevor Lawrence tested positive for COVID and had to sit out their next two games against Boston College and Notre Dame. 5 Star DJ Uiagalelei had great stats in those two games, but the Tigers had to come from an 18 point hole to come back and win 34-28. The next week they traveled to Notre Dame and lost in double overtime 47-40, their first ACC loss since 2017. The Tigers then had 3 weeks off due to built in byes and having a game cancelled with Florida State. They finished the season with three straight wins against Pitt, Virginia Tech, and Notre Dame. and didn’t allow more than 17 points in those games. 

Trevor Lawrence is the best player on the Tigers for a reason, and is set to be the number 1 overall pick in the NFL draft. As a starter, he is 30-1, with his only loss against LSU last year in the National Championship. He passed for 2753 yards for 22 touchdowns and 4 interceptions. He added to the run game with 211 yards on 58 carries and 7 touchdowns as the teams second leading rusher. 

Travis Etienne could have went to the NFL last year, but decided to stay one more year, and may have had a down year by his standards, but showcased his diversity as a running back. He rushed for 882 yards on 158 carries, and had 13 touchdowns. He also had 524 receiving yards on 44 catches and 2 touchdowns, as the third leading receiver. Etienne is the leading touchdown record holder for the ACC with 69 leading into this game. 

Armani Rodgers, who does not see this game as a rivalry, led the Tigers in receptions and receiving yards with 69 and 966, to go along with 7 touchdowns. Cornell Powell is the second leading receiver with 45 catches for 743 yards with 5 touchdowns. There is talent in this area, but this is probably the weakest part of the Clemson offense, but will hope to challenge a weak secondary for the Buckeyes.

The defense has allowed only 298 yards a game, holding teams under 100 yards rushing, and 198.6 yards a game passing. They rank 6th in overall defense and have 44 sacks and 13 interceptions.

Buckeye Spotlight: Justin Fields. In the press leading up to this game, Fields said this was the game he was preparing all offseason for, and this is his chance. The social media team released clips of the weight room for the Buckeyes which displayed the final score from last years game, and fans know this game is more personal. It will be how well Fields can throw the ball to balance out the offense for the Buckeyes or else this game could quickly look like the 2016 game. He will need to make some plays with his feet, and watch the middle blitzes that the Clemson defense will throw his way. 

Honorable mentions for this category also belong to Trey Sermon and Shaun Wade. For Wade, the obvious of being thrown out of the game last year when the Buckeyes were up 16-0 and had to watch the second half by himself in the locker room, and now getting another chance to finish what he started. He will most likely be paired with Armani Rodgers.

Trey Sermon will be the bell cow running back, and find himself truly filling in the role of what JK Dobbins did last year. Its a shame the Buckeyes didnt get to see more flashes of him with the season, but Sermon could hopefully have a Elliott level post season that could go down in Buckeye History, which was jump started with the record setting 331 rushing yards against Northwestern.

Tigers Spotlight: Trevor Lawrence. This one is the most obvious as it was Lawrences’ run game last year that was the difference against Ohio State after the Wade ejection, and the Tigers might have to rely on him running the ball again this year. He does not have the same depth at receiver that the Tigers did last season, so the play of the Tiger offense really will be based on the success of Lawrence against this Buckeye defense. 

Water Cooler Stat of the Game:  6. There are two answers for this number. This is Ohio State’s 6th appearance in the Sugar Bowl where they bring a 3-2 record, and the last match up was a memorable one in 2015 where they beat Alabama in lieu to winning the National Championship. 6 is also the amount of playoff appearances for Clemson, who tied Alabama with the most appearances since the inception of the playoff format. 

Prediction:  At this point, nothing more needs to be said between the two teams, and it will all come down to the game plan. Neither team is as good as their last season versions were, both both teams bring so much talent, that this will be a must watch game. Clemson had the benefit of being more battle tested, but they also know what their identity is, and that is a passing offense. They are going to try to attach the Ohio State secondary who are giving up 261.3 yards a game. Ohio State knows its identity too with a balanced attack. They are the only team in the country who has an average of over 250 yards rushing and passing a game. With Trey Sermon coming off a monster game, their best defense will be a good offense that keeps the Clemson offense off the field, and control it with the run game, and I expect the Buckeyes to play to that strength for the game. With Olave and Wilson healthy, this should be a a good game for Fields to show why he is on of the best quarterbacks in the country, and finally get the win on the field against Trevor Lawrence. 

Ohio State 27 – Clemson 24

Photo Credit to Ohio State Football

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