Clemson and Ohio State will meet in the Fiesta Bowl semi-final game on December 28th. They previously met in the same situation in 2016, with Clemson blanking them 31-0. This year’s Clemson team may be as good as that 2016 Tiger team, but the Buckeyes are much tougher this time around.
Entering the season, both offenses were expected to be excellent and they’ve lived up to expectations. Here’s how their numbers breakdown:
|Statistic||#2 OSU||#3 Clemson|
|Statistic||#2 OSU||#3 Clemson|
|Scoring Offense Rank||1||4|
|Rushing YPG Rank||5||10|
|Passing YPG Rank||41||20|
|SP+ Offense Rank||4||6|
Both of these teams are devastatingly effective running the ball. Ohio State is 5th in the country in rushing yards per game, behind only the service academies and Kentucky (Kentucky seems random, huh?). The Buckeyes are better both per rush and per game than Boston College, which is the best rushing attack Clemson has faced.
Last year, with the Tigers’ elite D-line, this matchup would have been right in their wheelhouse. This year, the strength of Clemson’s defense has been shutting down the passing game. That bodes well for Ohio State, and it’s the reason this has been the matchup I was hoping Clemson would avoid this postseason. Simply put, Clemson's ability to slow the Buckeyes rushing attack is the most important aspect of this game. What could help Clemson, is the Buckeyes’ relative lack of balance. They’ve run the ball on 63% of their offensive plays. Of course, many of these were in blowouts, but they nevertheless lean on the run game very heavily:
Knowing its coming and being able to stop it are very different things, but it certainly helps. While Clemson’s defensive strength may be stopping the pass, they’re still an elite run-stuffing defense. They’re top 10 in rushing defense, despite it being their relative “weakness.” With three weeks to plan, I would bet on Clemson DC Brent Venables finding a way to slow the great JK Dobbins.
Isaiah Simmons said he talked to Brent Venables at the Nagurski Trophy presentation: "He already got the game plan rolling. He was like, ‘I can’t wait to send you these things.’ It’s going to be a good one."— Matt Connolly (@MattatTheState) December 13, 2019
The Tigers offense doesn’t lean on the run as heavily. That’s part of the reason they average a ridiculous 6.46 yards per carry when they do run it. The threat of Trevor Lawrence and the best WR Corps in the country makes Travis Etienne all the more dangerous. They’ve been even more dominant as of late. Over the past six games, Clemson has only one turnover, after having 13 in their first seven games. They’ve averaged 54 points in those last six games after averaging “only” 40 points in the first seven.
The only real question when Clemson has the ball is how their offensive line holds up against the best pass rush in all of college football. That’s a term usually reserved for Clemson and/or Alabama, but Ohio State has earned that title in 2019. Not only do they rank #2 and #3 in TFL and team sacks, respectively, but they got a pass rusher, Chase Young, invited to the Heisman Ceremony.
|Statistic||#2 OSU||#3 Clemson|
|Statistic||#2 OSU||#3 Clemson|
|Scoring Defense Rank||3||1|
|Rushing YPC Allowed Rank||6||9|
|Rushing YPC Allowed||2.82||2.96|
|Passing YPA Allowed Rank||2||1|
|Passing YPA Allowed||5.35||5.33|
|SP+ Defense Rank||1||3|
Ohio State’s defensive turnaround is extremely impressive. They were mediocre last year, particularly in allowing big passing plays. That’s been cleaned up this year. There could be a caveat though.
Clemson’s whose schedule this season has been rightfully lambasted as weak has faced three teams with top 25 offenses (in terms of total offense): #12 Wake Forest, #14 UNC, and #25 Boston College. Ohio State has not faced one. The best offense the Buckeyes played is #31 Indiana. FAU (#33), and Wisconsin (#37) are the only other top 50 offenses they’ve faced. While total offense is skewed by the defenses they play and their tempo, it is noteworthy nonetheless. Not only has Ohio State not seen an offense like Clemson’s, they haven’t seen anything even close.
Finally, as we always do in these previews, let’s look at the recruited talent in each team’s depth chart before we draw our final conclusions.
Methodology: The starters at QB and on the O-line as well as the two-deep at all other positions (excluding specialists like kickers, long snappers, punt returners, etc.) are included in the calculation for the bar charts below. All players are weighted equally for the offensive and defensive scores. The overall score is a simple average of the offense and defense bars.
If all the Buckeyes’s eye-popping offensive and defensive stats weren’t enough, the chart above showing their raw talent should convince you this isn’t going to be another 31-0 cake walk. Ohio State has loads of talent, they’ve produced on the field, and they’ve done it against Penn State, Michigan, and Wisconsin the last three games. All three are better than anyone Clemson has faced.
On offense, both teams have QBs that were top rated recruits. The offensive lines are comprised of about equally highly-touted recruits, with Jackson Carman, Clemson’s LT from the state of Ohio, being the most highly rated of all of them (Buckeye RG Wyatt Davis is close). At the skill positions, Ohio State has the more highly-touted RB prospects. Etienne, you have to remember, was a bit of a surprise. He was rated at .9171 and his back-up Lyn-J Dixon was .9077. That lags behind JK Dobbins (.9791) and backup Demario McCall (.9767). Nevertheless, I don’t think anyone would argue either team has a significant advantage at RB, as both Dobbins and Etienne are in the elite top tier of college running backs (along with Jonathan Taylor, AJ Dillon, and Chuba Hubard).
Where there seems to be a legitimate gap is at WR and TE. The Tigers boast first team All-ACC Tee Higgins, who has over 1,000 yards. The Buckeyes have no 1,000 yard receivers or All-B1G receivers on the first or second teams. The Tigers also have Justyn Ross, the star of last year’s College Football Playoff. Ohio State’s Chris Olave is very good, but he’s not Higgins or Ross. Conversely at TE/H-Back, the Buckeyes have two players rated far higher than Clemson’s JC Chalk and Luke Price. On average, it’s a whopping .9522 to .8086 (Luke Price is counted as .7500 since a score was not listed by 247 for the former walk-on). That difference comprises the entire difference in the offense bar in the chart above.
On defense, the advantage for Ohio State is more consistent and legitimate. They have some extremely talented DBs, especially CB Jeff Okudah and S Jordan Fuller - both First Team B1G. All of Clemson’s safeties (in the two deep) were rated below .8600 while all but one of Ohio State’s were rated above .9400. The fact that Clemson is #1 in pass defense anyway is a testament to player development. Nevertheless, sometimes against supreme talent, that’s not enough. Ohio State could scheme to take advantage of Clemson’s safeties in space like Virginia did to Tanner Muse (who in fairness, has had an exceptional season). Brent Venables is surely working on the counter-adjustment after seeing it vs. Virginia.
Unlike the 2016 Fiesta Bowl, which was hardly competitive, this looks to be a real battle with one of the best Ohio State teams in a long time. Unfortunately for them, this year’s Clemson team could be as good as last year’s “best ever” group.
As crazy as it sounds, Clemson will likely try to force Heisman-finalist Justin Fields to beat them with his arm. He’s certainly capable, but JK Dobbins has been the the one to come through for them in their biggest games, averaging 176 rushing yards in their four games against ranked opponents (at time of game). If an Ohio State offense that has been 63% run can’t establish the run, I don’t see Fields carrying them against Clemson’s #1 pass defense, even if they can pick on the safeties at times.
That leaves two conceivable paths to victory for the Buckeyes.
1) JK Dobbins does it again. He ran all over Penn State, which has the #1 rush defense (by yards per carry). He did it to Michigan, which has the #10 rush defense, and he did it to Wisconsin twice (#18 rush defense). This is their most probable path to victory. JK Dobbins should probably be in New York over one of the other Buckeyes. He is a superstar with a great story and he’ll be a dangerous weapon that could decide the game. Stopping him may take another Brent Venables masterpiece.
2) Chase Young and Ohio State’s pass rush prove too much for Clemson. Ohio State has been truly outstanding in this regard and they have the best defensive lineman in the country. Virginia (7th in team sacks) is the closest thing the Tigers have seen and they got some pressure on Lawrence, sacking him twice. Clemson scored 62 points though. Clemson has seen their offensive tackles get beat by elite pass rushers before (Zach Allen at BC in 2018 comes to mind), but we haven’t seen the O-line really get beat consistently throughout a game since the 2017 Sugar Bowl. Clemson is 5th in sacks allowed at just one per game (13 sacks allowed all season). Somehow, this is better than Army, who runs a triple-option offense. It’s hard to see them getting completely overwhelmed unless Chase Young has a total out-of-body experience.
Although I worry about the Tiger defense’s ability to stop JK Dobbins and the offense’s ability to slow the pass rush (Travis Etienne isn’t an elite pass blocking RB and the O-line has been false start happy at times), I don’t think any college defense can stop the combination of a white hot Trevor Lawrence throwing to Higgins and Ross. In end, Clemson’s O-line does enough to let them shine and Venables paints another masterpiece holding Dobbins to something reasonable enough to secure a 35-28 victory.