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Fiesta Bowl Preview: Clemson vs. Ohio State

NCAA Football: Fiesta Bowl Preview The Arizona Republic-USA TODAY Sports

Well here we are again, back where we ended up last year. This is great news, of course, because it means the Tigers are back in the playoffs with another shot at winning a second national title in school history. Clemson again faces a college football blue blood with a coach sporting three rings with a likely rematch with Alabama coming should victory occur.

The program is on the cusp of going from party crasher to the established elite, and a national title is the last remaining step to take for Dabo Swinney. I heard an interesting take on college football a little while back that makes a lot of sense: there are no great programs, just great coaches. The point was that no program is foolproof. How else do you see Texas struggle in the 80s and again now? What about Oklahoma between Switzer and Stoops? Nebraska post Osborne? Miami since 2003? Clemson has the perfect coach for the culture of the school and therefore has a great program. These are the best of times and hopefully hubris or complacency won't come to kill it any time soon. Win or lose Saturday, the team has accomplished tremendous things this season and should be celebrated. This team ended the streaks at Bobby Dodd and Doak Campbell, gave us an all time butt cutting of USCjr, and won back to back ACC titles for the first time since Danny Ford ran things.

Clemson offense vs. Ohio State defense: To me, the biggest question of this game is how the Buckeye defense holds up against the Tiger offense led by the jilted Deshaun Watson. They certainly have the athletic pedigree with four and five star guys all over the place, but who can say they have stopped a Watson led offense since he took over? Clemson has been putting up the kind of numbers we expected coming into the season with multiple 500+ yard games and scoring at least 35 in every game since the NCST game. The drops and turnovers which slowed things early on have been largely cleaned up. OSU has been terrific at generating turnovers and will certainly need to do that in this game to win. It will be very interesting to see how they choose to play their safeties and how they choose to cover Mike Williams. Do they feel they can cover Mike with one guy? No team has really done this with any success, not that many have tried after Auburn failed to contain him in game one. Most teams have shaded or bracketed Williams, leaving holes for Jordan Leggett, Hunter Renfrow, and Artavis Scott to exploit. This has also helped the Tigers get the run game going at a much more efficient rate down the stretch.

My guess is the Buckeyes will hope stud mike linebacker Raekwon McMillan and their front six can contain the run game without help from the safeties in order to give the corners help over the top. The familiar strategy of forcing Clemson to execute multiple plays in hopes of a penalty or turnover derailing things versus what Bud Foster tried in Orlando (heavy blitzing trying to force mistakes). Clemson must be able to run against a six man front, and if it can, the Buckeyes will be in very big trouble. Ohio State hasn't seen an offense like this since maybe Oklahoma, but even then the Tigers are better up front and have more weapons outside than the Sooners. Clemson also has Watson, the ultimate ace.

Clemson defense vs. Ohio State offense: I recall how worried I was about this match up back in 2013. That Buckeye offense was loaded and had the kind of dual threat quarterback which had historically given Clemson fits. However, that game turned out to be a sort of coming out party for the physicality up front we have grown to expect from the Tigers. Even though Ohio State put up points that night, there was no question who was more physical as Clemson crushed Braxton Miller and ended his days as a quarterback. I'm much more confident in this year’s defense coming into this game. I don't feel this Buckeye team is anywhere near as good on this side as it was in 2013 while Clemson is at least as good if not better than 2013. The Buckeyes have been pretty pedestrian against the better defenses they have faced this year, largely because they are more one dimensional. Clemson has to like its chances if it can stop the run game and force Barrett to throw to win. Barrett is streaky as a passer and can certainly make plays when he is in a groove, but he can also be very erratic as evidenced by his 61% completion rate.

Clemson’s defense has only been really hurt when teams have found some balance like Pitt did. The second half issues against Louisville, FSU, and VT all occurred because each team found a way to run the ball. If Clemson loses, it will likely be because Ohio State found a way to run it. The Tigers need a plan for dynamic Curtis Samuel who they will no doubt try to get isolated on Ben Boulware in coverage. He is their game breaker. Having Dorian O’Daniel back for this game is huge, as well as Scott Pagano and Richard Yeargin. Clemson is unlikely to go pure nickel while the run game is in play for OSU. A lot of Clemson’s problems with VT came when O’Daniel was out with the ejection.

Special Teams: Not surprisingly Ohio State’s punter overwhelmingly outclasses Teasdall and averages over 46 yards a punt. We can probably count on one hand how many punts over 46 Teasdall has all year. They are dangerous in the return game as you would expect from a program that recruits on the level they do. Clemson has to continue the excellent kick coverage it has shown this year and hopefully generate a positive in this phase. It was a muffed punt recovery by Robert Smith that turned the tide back to Clemson in 2013. We all know how big the fake punt was against Oklahoma last year.

Overall/Prediction: This is the playoff so you know the margin of error is razor thin. This Clemson team has been pointing to this moment since the final whistle in the championship game last year. The team is as close to full strength as it can be unlike last year when suspensions took Cain out of the mix and injuries hit Mike Williams and Mac Alexander. This team just seems more dialed in than last year’s group which never cleaned up the glaring mental errors in the secondary which finally doomed it against Alabama. Watson is ready to cement his throne atop Clemson football history as the best to ever wear the orange. He will be too much for a game Ohio State team.

Clemson 35 Ohio State 24