Only two times this year have the Clemson Tigers faced a team with equivalent talent, and each time we were treated to a great game and a Clemson win.
Now the Tigers will face the Ohio State Buckeyes for the third time in school history with a chance to improve to 3-0 against one of the greatest programs in college football. Five or 10 years ago, we might spend this article discussing what the Clemson Tigers must do to overcome a talent deficit, but now we will look at two teams that are are equally talented and geared up for what should be a playoff classic.
First our usual explanation and caveat:
We've divided the offense and the defense into three portions each. For the offense, the starting QB, the starting O-line, and the two-deep for the remaining skill positions (WR, TE, RB) are each weighted to represent one-third of the overall offense rating. Similarly on defense, the two-deep at D-line, linebacker, and in the secondary are each weighted to represent one-third of the overall defense rating, regardless of scheme.
This shouldn’t have to be said, but there are always players who over-perform their original star rating (e.g., Hunter Renfrow, Lamar Jackson) as well as those who underperform their star ratings. As such, this is only one portion of the analysis we will publish on the upcoming game, but we hope it’s an especially informative one.
Now on to the offense:
The Tigers and Buckeyes are near parity across the offense. Ohio State’s slight advantage at the skill positions is merely due to Hunter Renfrow being counted as a two-star. If he was a four-star recruit (he plays like one now) then each team would average 3.90-stars across the offense. That’s loads of talent!
The S&P+ ranks the Clemson offense 11th and the Buckeye offense 12th. Despite these comparable marks, the two offenses are quite different.
The Buckeyes average a whopping 5.54 yards per carry and ran for 3,100 yards on the season - 2nd best among Power Five teams (behind Auburn) and 9th best overall. Their passing offense isn’t as prolific. For the season, Ohio State is ranked 77th with only 2,827 passing yards (12 games).
Clemson averages just 4.49 yards per carry and ended with 2,250 rushing yards, but lights teams up through the air. With 4,324 passing yards, the Tigers rank 7th in the nation in passing yardage (13 games).
The Tigers have been running the ball better towards the end of the season (coinciding with the emergence of Sean Pollard at RT), but their 4.49 YPC mark is well below past national champions. Not once in the Dabo Swinney era has a national champion been crowned that didn’t average at least 5.01 YPC. The 2014 Ohio State national championship averaged 5.75 YPC.
The strengths of each offense align with what their respective offensive lines excel at. Building your offense around the talent you have is what great coaches do, and Meyer and Swinney are certainly among the best.
Ohio State surrendered eight sacks to Michigan. They’ve struggled in pass protection all year. Their adjusted sack rate (adjusted for competition level) ranks just 78th in the nation. On passing downs, their sack rate is 8.5% - mediocre. Simply put, they don’t pass protect well.
Fortunately for the Buckeyes, they run block very well. Ohio State has the best Power Success Rate in all of college football. This metric measures the “percentage of runs on third or fourth down, two yards or less to go, that achieved a first down or touchdown.” At 87.3%, OSU is dominant at converting the must have short yardage plays. It will be absolutely critical that the Tigers take some chances and get the Buckeyes in third and long situations, where they’ve been extremely vulnerable to the sack.
While the Buckeyes struggle in pass blocking and excel in run blocking, the Tigers O-line is the opposite. Clemson is #1 in the nation in passing down sack rate, allowing a sack in just 1.9% of those situations. Their adjusted sack rate is 2nd best in the country. They have one of the best pass blocking offensive lines in the country. Where they struggle is run blocking - short yardage running in particular. Clemson’s Power Success Rate is only 64.4%, good for 86th in the nation and more than 20 percentage points lower than OSU.
We’ll return to this topic in our conclusion, but let’s move on to the defenses:
The Tigers and Buckeyes are dead even on defensive talent recruited. The Tigers boast an advantage on the D-line, while the Buckeyes have the advantage in the secondary. This means the Buckeyes’ dominant rushing attack will be going up against the likes of Carlos Watkins, Christian Wilkins, Dexter Lawrence, Clelin Ferrell, and Scott Pagano (who returned to the two-deep after being left off the previous depth chart due to injury).
What’s particularly frightening about their running game is the way they get the speedy Curtis Samuel to the outside. Clemson has been great at stopping traditional A-gap and B-gap runs, but when Dalvin Cook or Matt Dayes got to the edge, the Tiger defense had some struggles. Take a look at a Samuel getting to the edge and then cutting back to beat Michigan:
And some more extensive highlights:
This will be the key matchup: Ohio State’s excellent rushing attack vs. Clemson’s disruptive defensive front. When Ohio State can stay on schedule and give themselves manageable third downs and short yardage situations, they are elite. If they do that, they’ll win.
Fortunately for Clemson, Broyles Award winner, DC Brent Venables, is a risk taker. While the Tiger defense has given up big point totals on four occasions (UL: 36, FSU: 34, Pitt: 43, VT 35), they rarely get slowly eaten up in the rushing attack. They may fall victim to a big play, but they’ve generally been successful in putting opponents behind the sticks and getting the ball back to Watson and co. I believe that’s what we’ll see in this one; a handful of big plays allowed, but not the sustained grinding drives that Ohio State could strangle us with.
Clemson will pick up critical tackles for loss that put Ohio State in the third and long situations in which they struggle. In a battle of equally talented foes, Clemson will make just enough plays to earn a chance at redemption in the National Championship game.