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Fiesta Bowl Preview: #3 Clemson vs. #2 Ohio State

Let the heavyweight battles begin!

ACC Football Championship - Clemson v Virginia Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

The time has finally arrived for Clemson to truly get to face a major challenge for the 2019 football playoffs. I am extremely excited to see what this year’s team truly looks like when matched with a similarly dominant foe. Last year’s team passed the test with flying colors, as we all know, when it ran roughshod over undefeated Notre Dame and undefeated Alabama en route to the national championship. This year’s test seems even more daunting as Ohio State is a better team than that Notre Dame squad was, and it is very likely the winner will have to deal with LSU in their own backyard in the title game. A true competitor wouldn’t want it any other way, and this team is no doubt chomping at the bit to cement its own legacy.

This is probably the deepest CFP group in the history of the playoffs. The “weakest” team of the group is a college football blue blood with the Heisman runner up at quarterback. Clemson has won 27 straight games and yet is only the 3 seed in this field. Winning the title this year would put Dabo Swinney’s program in a realm not even seen by the Pete Carroll Trojans or the Nick Saban Crimson Tide. Spot The BALL!

Clemson defense vs. Ohio State offense: This year’s Clemson defense has surpassed any reasonable expectations, as it has actually put up better numbers overall than last year’s group fronted by four NFL draft picks (3 first rounders). Now this current group faces its biggest test of the season. Ohio State features much of what made its 2013 team a daunting foe: A legit NFL running back, a dual threat QB, and a powerful offensive line. The 2013 Ohio State team averaged over 500 yards a game of offense and over 300 yards rushing. This year’s Ohio State offense is also averaging over 500 yards of offense with a little better passing game. No team has truly been able to contain the Ohio State running game and force Justin Fields to throw to win. That will certainly be Clemson’s plan, but is this year’s team constructed in a way that they can do that? This year’s team is extremely fast and multiple, but not as powerful up front. One thing is for sure, Clemson has to keep J.K. Dobbins under wraps as much as possible. He is what makes the entire Buckeye offense go and has allowed Justin Fields to feast on single coverages created by teams having to commit extra hats to the run game.

Fields is a dangerous runner in his own right, though not on the level of Braxton Miller back in 2013 (who had put up 1,000 yards rushing). Fields is big and strong, but he hasn’t really had to prove himself in situations where he’s needed to make multiple reads. Ohio State has enjoyed an athletic advantage over every opposing defense until now, but the Tigers have the horses to match up outside beyond anything the Buckeyes have faced so far. The Clemson team speed could be enough to allow the Tigers to overwhelm the Ohio State run game with numbers. The battle in the trenches will be fascinating to watch. Ohio State’s offensive staff knows that if they can stay on schedule, they will be able to limit the exotic looks from Venables. Clemson knows that if Ohio State is pushed out of its usual run game comfort, they will be able to attack the Buckeyes in ways they have not seen. The Buckeyes have been vulnerable to blitz packages this season.

The Clemson safeties are going to play huge roles in this game. Muse and Wallace are going to be needed to deal with the zone run schemes, but they will no doubt be targets of the play-action game. Muse was victimized twice against Virginia and will certainly be targeted again. Clemson was hurt by the Tight Ends in play action in the 2013 Orange Bowl.

Clemson has heard a lot about Ohio State defensive end Chase Young. I’m curious as to how this might affect Xavier Thomas. Young is basically doing what we have projected Thomas to do in his emerging career. We haven’t really seen Thomas dominate quite like most felt we would this season. Some of this has been due to teams just not doing a lot of drop back passing against Clemson. Xavier Thomas also missed time with a concussion. This game would be an outstanding time for Thomas to explode with some game changing plays as he has the talent to provide. It is hard to see either team totally shutting the other one down, so which defense can produce the big play or turnover? The Tigers did just enough of that in 2013 to win.

Clemson offense vs. Ohio State defense: The Clemson offense really hasn’t had to carry the team at any point this season. This might be the time it has to happen considering the level of offensive firepower in this year’s playoff field. The good news is that no team features the true balance that Clemson has on this side of the ball. All four teams can run the ball and all four have quarterbacks who have put up obscene statistics. However, only two have passing attacks that can operate without the run game IMHO. Clemson has Travis Etienne, who defenses simply have to stop as job #1, but in doing so open themselves up to Trevor Lawrence and WRU on the outside. Clemson is truly the one team who can run it for 400 or throw it for 400.

Ohio State needs its defensive line, and particularly Chase Young, to dominate. Blitzing the Tigers is a risky proposition, but the little bumps in the road during the Trevor Lawrence era have usually come when a defensive end is able to eat up one of the offensive tackles. We last saw this up at Boston College in 2018. If the Clemson OL is able to hold up the way it did in last year’s playoffs, Trevor Lawrence is simply too good to stop, not to mention Tee Higgins and Justyn Ross can make contested catches against good coverage. Ohio State has excellent corners, so this will be a very high level matchup on the perimeter.

The looming X-factor for Clemson is the return of Braden Galloway from suspension. Galloway offers a threat from the TE position that no other player in the room does. It will be interesting to see what role Galloway plays because there really is very little on tape from him and very little tape all season where Clemson truly attacks with a TE in the passing game. The 2016 game featured Clemson hitting Ohio State with a wheel route to C.J. Fuller, which had not been used since Zac Brooks left in 2013. Could something be in store with #88?

Special Teams: Clemson has had the luxury of not really needing much from this phase during the regular season. B.T. Potter has been able to experience the growing pains as a first year kicker without the consequences for failure that Chandler Catanzaro experienced back in 2010. That luxury is likely over now that the playoffs are here, and every kicking situation will hold a gravity not really felt in 2019. Field position becomes that much more important because of the relative equality of the opposition. Any special teams turnover could be the difference in the game. Look no further than the critical muffed punt from Ohio State back in 2013 when they had seized momentum and threatened to take over the game. Clemson got new life and was able to retake the lead and ultimately win the game.

Overall: This is the kind of heavyweight football that I’ve been craving for Clemson since the destruction of Alabama last year. What’s the point of having a Ferrari when you can’t race it against another supercar? There was a time in the past when you worried about Clemson in a game like this, but those days are gone. As Coach Swinney has said multiple times, “we are built for this,” and everything the program has done from January to now has been for this moment. The Buckeyes are a worthy opponent, but the cream will rise to the top.

Clemson 41-Ohio State 31