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Sugar Bowl Preview: #2 Clemson Battles #3 Ohio State

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Let’s Take it to the Ring!

NCAA Football: ACC Championship-Notre Dame at Clemson Ken Ruinard-USA TODAY Sports

I grew up in the 1980s and watched a good bit of old NWA wrestling (or rasslin’ to be specific). One of my favorites working the microphone was the American Dream Dusty Rhodes, who used to say “Let’s quit talkin’ about it! I got the con-tract! Let’s take it to tha rang!” I feel like we’ve more than reached that point when it comes to playing that team from Columbus. They haven’t surpassed teams like U of SC or UGA on my hate hierarchy scale, but it has become obvious that our Tigers rank just below Michigan on theirs.

The Buckeyes and their fans have been extra salty since seeing probably their best team since the 2014 championship team blow a 16-0 lead in last year’s Fiesta Bowl. They probably didn’t have a great shot at beating that LSU team either, but the finger pointing and excuse making has been at full strength ever since.

Their conference began the year doing them no favors by trying to deep six the fall season, only to see Trevor Lawrence help rally the true power players of CFB, the SEC and ACC, with an assist from the Big 12, to keep the fall season alive. The B1G has tripped over itself time and again since with backtracking and rule changing to try to keep up, and managed to successfully position Ohio State for a playoff bid despite the Buckeyes having only 5 regular season games.

That is where the good news mostly ends, though, because this version of the Buckeyes isn’t on the same level as the one the Tigers faced in Tempe last season.

Clemson offense vs. Ohio State defense: The Tigers will be without its offensive coordinator and play caller Tony Elliot for this game after he tested positive for COVID-19. That is an interesting side story to this game. But one thing is certain about Dabo Swinney: he has a contingency plan for just about everything. Swinney’s organization and almost maniacal attention to detail probably rank a close second to his incredible interpersonal skills as a leader. There has been a plan in place for any of the coaches, including himself, to potentially miss games due to the pandemic since before the first game was played.

This doesn’t mean not having Elliot won’t matter, but it is unlikely that it will shake up the system as much as outside eyes may perceive. Elliot already had a huge hand in formation of the game planning and initial scripting, and Brandon Streeter has been on staff the entire time Elliot (and formerly Jeff Scott) controlled the offense. This might be a bigger factor if not for the presence of Trevor Lawrence, who is entering his third playoff as starting quarterback and has a ton of influence on play calls as the game unfolds.

Clemson’s offensive line played a lot better in the second round against Notre Dame’s strong defense. Ohio State doesn’t have a guy like Chase Young up front this year, but they are still a talented defense due to the strong recruiting Ohio State has put together over the years. This Ohio State defense isn’t nearly as strong against the pass as it was in 2019, though, and Chase Young playing in the NFL now is just part of the reason. Clemson had to play with a beat up Tee Higgins, who missed stretches of the Fiesta Bowl, and a less than 100% Justyn Ross as well, against a top flight corners in Jeff Okudah and Damon Arnette.

The Tigers are healthier this time around with top WR Amari Rodgers and Cornell Powell at full strength heading into this one. Ohio State really only faced one team who could begin to approach the type of attack Clemson brings to the table this fall, Indiana, and the Hoosiers rolled up 491 yards passing and 35 points. Ohio State is stronger against the run to be sure, but this year’s Tigers are built to pass perhaps more than any since the 2003 or 2016 squads.

Northwestern’s passing attack is extremely pedestrian compared to Clemson’s, and even the Wildcats were able to control the ball a good bit of the time in the B1G title game. The Buckeyes were able to make enough critical stops in the red zone to allow their offensive line to finally take over late, but teams like this year’s Northwestern were getting boat raced by last year’s Buckeyes. You have to wonder what the focus was in Columbus from the time their conference declared it wouldn’t play football until the spring up until they got the green light for this fall. Is this team talented enough to beat anyone? Yes, but talent is only part of the equation and the Tigers are much more battle hardened at this point than the Buckeyes.

Ohio State knows it has to handle Travis Etienne first and foremost, and the Tigers have done an excellent job of working around folks doing that since Trevor Lawrence returned from his COVID-19 hiatus against Pittsburgh. Etienne’s presence alone creates play action and quarterback run opportunities even if he isn’t getting many carries or busting big runs. This is Etienne’s last chance to secure a win in his home state while wearing the paw, and you know he will be extra motivated to make an impact with the touches he gets. He certainly was a major force in last year’s thrilling win over the Buckeyes.

This Clemson passing attack may not have a Tee Higgins or Justyn Ross on the outside, but it is much more diverse than the 2019 version. The tight end position is much stronger, Amari Rodgers is fully healthy and has been dynamite from the slot position, Cornell Powell exploded down the stretch of the season so much that he moved into the boundary role, and E.J. Williams has emerged as that taller outside threat who can win 50/50 balls like Higgins and Ross routinely did.

Frank Ladson’s potential return serves more as icing on the cake rather than the much needed commodity it seemed to be back in November. I haven’t seen anything from this Ohio State defense to make me think it can handle the Clemson run game without extra hats in the box, so the Buckeyes are going to have to hope their corners and safeties can hold up in coverage without a lot of help. And, having played Notre Dame twice as well as Pittsburgh, Clemson has faced defenses more comparable to Ohio State than the Buckeyes have faced offenses comparable to Clemson’s. Ohio State will need to create turnovers to really hope to win this game.

Clemson defense vs. Ohio State offense: Like most games, the real story is how Ohio State’s offense can deal with Clemson’s defense. The Tigers have scored over 30 every game this season, and it is unlikely they won’t turn the trick again this time. Ohio State is extremely run dependent, much like Miami and Notre Dame, and has to hope it can establish the run against a much stronger Clemson front 7 than the one they had great initial success against last year. Even without perhaps the best defensive end on the team in Justin Foster, the Tigers now have two bona fide war daddies inside with Bryan Bresee joining Tyler Davis.

Even though Clemson doesn’t have super freak Isaiah Simmons roaming around, this year’s defense isn’t nearly as dependent on one dominant force like that to mask some weaknesses. I haven’t run the numbers, but I’d bet a large sum of money that the stats for the Clemson defense when Tyler Davis, James Skalski, and Mike Jones have been available are Top 1-to-3 in the nation. Notre Dame’s offense was rendered nearly helpless after putting up 33 in regulation and 47 for the game in the first meeting without that trio. Clemson has more depth at corner as well.

Ohio State does benefit from the first half suspension of Nolan Turner. Turner is by far the most assignment-sound defender in the back seven, and history has shown that the Venables defenses are usually more vulnerable to busts at safety than any other position. It is fair to assume the Buckeyes will try to expose Turner’s replacement.

Fortunately for Clemson, 2020 has forced the Tigers to employ more of its depth in critical times and not just when games are in hand. Guys like Joseph Charleston, Malcolm Greene, Ray Thornton, Tyler Venables, and Jalyn Phillips have all played snaps in high stress scenarios. Charleston in particular has improved a ton from the experience and has played his best football down the stretch.

Justin Fields can still be a major X-factor with his athletic ability. Clemson was much more effective keeping Ian Book under wraps in Charlotte and has had several games dealing with quarterback run threats from GT to Virginia to Virginia Tech to Notre Dame twice.

Ohio State would rather pound away with Master Teague and Tre Sermon than run Fields a lot. Clemson will look to make Fields have to play hero ball and make reads from the pocket to win this game. He will need his offensive line to really play well in pass protection, which has not been a strength of the Buckeyes this season. But this Buckeyes team is as run dependent as the 2016 version was with J.T. Barrett at the controls, which happens to be the team Clemson blanked 31-0.

Special Teams: This is always a major area to watch when you have similar talent matched up in a game. Clemson has been largely sound in this phase, though the return game has yet to bust one for a score and a few blocked kicks happened earlier in the season. Clemson has veteran kickers who should be ready for this stage. Ohio State has a small sample size for this year, but their punter Drue Chrisman has put up a solid 45.2 yards-per-punt this season.

Potter should once again render kick returns moot, though it appeared that the Tigers looked to get Notre Dame to return some kicks in Charlotte which led to some Irish drives starting inside the 25. As usual, the Tigers should just look to avoid the disaster play in this phase as Ohio State may be extra aggressive here to bridge some of the gaps most of us see in this matchup.

Overall: Dabo Swinney gets along with most people and coaches out there. There have been a few that I feel don’t fall into that category, and Ryan Day is definitely one of those as far as we can read between the lines. Ohio State is playing the disrespect card, which I can understand, though that is largely laughable when just about any other team in the nation with the same resume this season would have been left out of this playoff. Coastal Carolina had a better resume with top 25 wins to be honest.

The Buckeyes have wanted Clemson ever since Nolan Turner ended their 2019 run with his interception. Well, now they’ve got Clemson. I feel much stronger about this game than I did last year’s, and Brent Venables has been money with his defensive preps for these semifinal games his entire time at Clemson. Clemson has never won a Sugar Bowl, and Ohio State has never beaten Clemson. The Sugar Bowl drought is the streak that ends.

Clemson 41-Ohio State 21